Following up on Jonathan Rosenbaum's notations on Wilder's films, now is as good a time as any to revisit David Thomson's commentary on Some Like It Hot, delivered at PFA on February 1, 2007, as part of the series "A Thousand Decisions in the Dark",which Thomson organized for the Archive.
As Thomson wrote in his program note for Some Like It Hot: " 'Well, nobody's perfect!' says Joe E. Brown in one of the greatest punch lines of all time. But some people don't even try. Billy Wilder (Berlin and Beverly Hills) was torn between being a hit and hitting people. So in his greatest films there is often that nagging thought—can I bear to look at people, let alone like them? There was a run of films through the early fifties—Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole—where the world was a place for vermin and crazies. That Wilder wasn't really "comic." But at the end of the fifties, he shattered every notion of genre and made a film (about murder and getting girlish) that people like David O. Selznick told him would be impossible. This is the world where genre clichés have replaced reality and the lack of perfection is a cue for anything goes."
his own program note for the film, Steve Seid adds: "If cleavage comedy aroused the fifties, Some Like It Hot brings on the falsies. Director Billy Wilder cross-dresses his comedy, freely mixing slapstick antics with screwball frantic, and a crime caper dragging down a musical farce. On the lam from the Chicago mob, jazz musicians Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon get gigs in an all-gal group, featuring the singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), and head, incognito, for Florida. Tony and Jack, now Josephine and Daphne, find themselves surrounded by jazzy women, but dressed in kind. The gender gags are pitch-perfect as the band heads south, playing along with this most modern of arrangements. Ranked #1 by the American Film Institute's 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs and rated 'C' (Condemned) by the Catholic Legion of Decency."
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Black comedy. One of the quickest ways to lose your reputation for being a jokester and to have the room go silent around you is when you tell a black joke that you think everyone will get and you realize you've gone too far. In a world where it's almost impossible to tell a joke without it being black, maybe that's some reason for the decline in comedy.
Some Like It Hot is known now—and I hope it will repeat its reputation tonight—as being a film that has people bursting out with laughter and then being told by their companions to shut up so they can hear the next line. Because in film—as you can't do in theater—you can't let the laughter pause last as long as it will do naturally. You can see, I think, when you make a comedy, leaving the pause at the right length is a tremendous sign of judgment and taste. Nothing kills any film more than pauses.
Look at our world today, you know how the times have changed and how wrong Selznick was. Could you live in times that are more terrifying and more hilarious at the same time? Ten years before, Wilder had come out of a screening at the Selznick lot from a film called Sunset Blvd. Selznick's father-in-law had gone up to Wilder and the legend says that he spat in Wilder's face and said, "How dare you make a film that bites the hand that has been feeding you?" Sunset Blvd.—one of the first films to say, "This could be a madhouse, this place called Hollywood." Not the wonderful place of A Star Is Born. Not the place where everybody believes in what they're doing but a place where tortured people are living nightmares of lost dreams, where people have compromised too many times. Wilder said, "We'll see what the public thinks." The public took it. Wilder, even though he was an expatriated German, had an extraordinary instinct—a much better instinct it proved than either Mayer or Selznick—for what the American public would like. Which is why he was so devastated at the end of his life when he lost the instinct. It's a funny thing: you can have an instinct about public taste, you can say, "Are they ready for this?" and they are. You can do it twice in a row and you think, "I've got it. I've really got this show business thing." Then you make a third film, a film of which you're the most confident of all, and the public doesn't come to see it. No one can explain it. To this day, the wisdom about films is constantly being proved wrong on a Friday afternoon. That's all it takes. Friday afternoon tells you.
I saw a press screening several months before it opened of Titanic (1997) in Hollywood. Talk about dark humor, gallows humor, going around that screening room. Everybody was saying to everyone they knew in the press, "Remember me. I'm going to need a job in two weeks time." Because this film, which was actually sponsored by two studios, cost so much money. "This film is going to kill two studios." Yet, it made more money than any film ever made before. You just can't tell.
Fanfaren der Liebe (1951) in which two guys who want to work as musicians can't get a job in a male band, dress up as women, and join a girl's band. The film had done no business at all but it had stuck in his head somehow. I wish he were here because I would love to push him on why he remembered it. He had personally bought the rights to it for a remake. Technically, Some Like It Hot is a remake of that German film. But he said straightaway, two guys are not going to dress up as women unless they're under some extraordinary pressure. The fact that they want to play music, I don't believe it. So he said, we've got to have the pressure; the pressure is going to do this.
Wilder worked always with a writing partner. If you look at his films, going back, the first man was a man named Charles Brackett. Wilder dropped Brackett—Brackett never knew why—and he picked up I.A.L. Diamond as the partner at the time of Some Like It Hot. Whenever they were asked who did what, Diamond would say, "Well, I type and Wilder walks around the room." There are brilliant writers in film—and film and theater are the only mediums in which this is true, maybe television—where some people can only do it if they're doing it with someone else. To write a novel, to write a poem, people feel they have to be alone. There was a togetherness in writing for film that I think has to do with a very simple thing. I give you a line and I look at your face and you look at me and you say, "That was a line?" I know I've got to go back. If you laugh, and y'know, there are people who will laugh at the right time who make wonderful writing partners. Wilder was clearly the driving force in the partnership but he could not do it without someone else.