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  • Writer's pictureEugene "Gino" Balakirov

Sugar & Spice

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

Somewhere in Moscow


The year was 1967. Nearly everyone I knew had heard of Marilyn Monroe but only in name and image. No one had ever seen her in action. But rumors traveled fast when two showings of a narrated movie called Some Like It Hot, the title of which was translated as "in jazz, there are only women" into Russian, was scheduled to play at the Hermitage Garden's Mirror Theater on Pushkin Street — but only for one day. Back in the day, movie tickets to western films were distributed among government officials or prominent political figures, but none were sold at the box office to the general public. Despite my chances of getting into the movie being slim, I went to the theater in hopes of getting my hands on an unclaimed ticket, which would be released for general sale 15 minutes prior to the showing.


When I got to the theater, the line of eager ticket-hunters was unbelievably long. After spending all day waiting and getting closer and closer to that magical box office window, I finally ended up at the front, first in line and just in time to catch the last showing at 9:30 p.m. Many who were in the queue before me had given up and left early, but I got lucky. The cashier at the box office gave me a break and sold me a ticket before the remaining reservations were set to expire. I'll never forget that day for as long as I live.

My personal copy of the film - to enjoy all over again!

The movie theater was, of course, packed. Marilyn, portraying ukulele player Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, was stunning, as were Jack Lemmon in the dual roles of Jerry and Daphne and Tony Curtis as Joe and his counterpart, Josephine. Other well-played characters included mobster “Spats” Colombo, gangster “Toothpick" Charlie, bandleader/conductor Sweet Sue and millionaire Osgood Fielding III. An original plot, along with a combination of great music, humor, love and action, made this movie a blast for me. Since that time, I have watched it repeatedly – it's my absolute favorite!


*Contains spoilers*



 

A Perfect Plot


As an all-female jazz band sets out for the sunny coast of Florida, a bass player goes into labor, and a saxophone player runs away with her boyfriend. Band manager Mr. Bienstock, played by Dave Berry, and Sweet Sue desperately look for replacements. With a train scheduled to depart the next day, they are quickly running out of time.


After hearing about the opportunity through the grapevine, Tony Curtis' Joe declines his friend Jerry’s suggestion to add some padding here and there and to tighten the waist in order to join the band. Desperate for money, the two musicians show up at Chicago's Mozarella’s Funeral Parlor, where bootleggers are selling alcohol, and a tip-off from “Toothpick” Charlie leads to a police raid. As they say, “If you gotta go, that’s the way to do it!”


While the resulting turmoil and chaos allow Jerry and Joe to make their escape and avoid getting arrested, they are both out of a job. At the wrong place at the wrong time, they also end up witnessing a crime scene but manage to run away from the gang. While in hiding, the looming prospect of changing their physical appearance and joining the all-female jazz band becomes more promising. Dressed like women, Joe, now Josephine, and Jerry, now Daphne, board a train that's "Runnin' Wild" for Miami.

Jerry's ability to adapt to his new persona doesn't go so well, and a drinking party with a couple of close encounters in the train almost gets him into trouble. Joe, under the disguise of Josephine, falls in love with Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane and learns all about her unfortunate romantic past. As Sugar reveals her plan of settling down with a millionaire in Florida, the saxophone player begins to scheme of ways of becoming one himself. In a rags-to-riches story, Joe steals a suitcase with a navy cap, a blazer and a scarf, transforming himself into an oil tycoon with a yacht and donning a signature look that has become a staple of the film.


While Joe is busy wooing Sugar, the real millionaire, Osgood, begins flirting with the delightful bass player. Always a good sport, Jerry continues to play the Daphne card to help his friend, but the situation spirals out of control. Before long, Jerry has to be reminded of his real identify by Joe, who encourages him to keep saying, "I'm a man, I'm a man!" Several of the scenes related to the case of mistaken identities and indecent proposals are staged in such an entertaining way, that the movie's viewers are sure to get more laughs than they bargained for!

 

The Plot Thickens


Through a series of serendipitous events, the Chicago mafia ends up staying at the fictional Seminole-Ritz Hotel, where the all-female just happens to be playing, and gang members begin arriving for a high-profile birthday celebration under the umbrella of the 10th Annual Convention of Friends of Italian Opera, led by chairman Little Bonaparte. Once again, the two musicians are scared for their lives. As "Spats" Colombo and his group are gunned down by gangster Johnny Paradise and company, Joe flees for safety with Jerry, leaving behind Josephine and the real-life woman who unexpectedly stole his heart.

Though goodbyes can be bittersweet, it's hard to imagine a better ending than the one Billy Wilder conceived as a vehicle to deliver one of the most memorable and well-written dialogues in the Golden Age of Hollywood. My favorite character exchange, which is an important part of why I love Some Like it Hot so much, goes something like this:


“I called mama," a joyful Osgood tells Daphne. "She was so happy, she cried. She wants you to have her wedding gown. It's white lace."


"Osgood, I can't get married in your mother's dress!" Daphne replies, frantic. "She and I, we are not built the same way."


"We can have it altered."


"Oh, no, you don't!"


A momentary pause takes place as Daphne weighs in on her options.


"Osgood, I'm gonna level with you: we can't get married at all."


"Why not?"


"Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde."


"Doesn't matter."


"I smoke. I smoke all the time!"


"I don't care."


"Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player."


"I forgive you."


Daphne takes a different approach, hoping to tug at Osgood's heartstrings. "I can never have children..."


"We can adopt some."


"Well, you don't understand, Osgood." Daphne has no choice but to reveal her identity and let Jerry take one final stand. "I'm a man!"


"Well, nobody's perfect."


Jerry’s confused and flabbergasted facial expression says it all, serving as yet another testament to Jack Lemmon's great acting skills.

 

Facts in the Making


What makes Some Like it Hot so great is the perfect choice of cast members — all shining stars! With that in mind, it's hard to believe filmmaker Billy Wilder had a hard time finding the right actors for Some Like it Hot, even considering crooner Frank Sinatra for a leading role at some point in the auditioning process. The tryouts didn’t go well at first, and the search continued for a movie that was budgeted at $2 million dollars – until Billy found Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. But even when the leading players were found, the miraculous transformation from conception to execution wasn't always easy, and improvisation was a requirement. Both actors picked out their own ensembles at Western Costume Co. – a stock house and supply store for recycled movie ware that's been around since 1912 – while Billy invented the story's plot on the go and tried to come up with a satisfying ending. The result was a success, and despite distributors asking the director to scrap 10-15 minutes of the film, only 40 seconds of actual footage were lost.

A few years ago, when I took a trip to San Diego with my daughter, I found out that Some Like it Hot was shot in California, not Florida. Instead of the fictional Seminole-Ritz Hotel in Miami, the action took place at the historic Hotel Del Coronado. The hotel itself was well-preserved; while visiting, I got the impression that I had stepped back in time to experience the Prohibition, roaring music of the 1920s and gangsters. I even remembered many of sayings and phrases that had made the movie fun when I first saw it, and I felt like I was once again strolling down memory lane.


It's of little surprise that Billy considered Hotel Del Coronado to be the perfect setting for the movie despite the ongoing appearance of fighter jets making their way through the skies from the U.S. Naval Base and over the beach where filming took place. The noise didn’t matter much, even though it scared Marilyn, as most of the sound was edited in post-production. And Marilyn herself didn't mind. Her appearance in Some Like it Hot was such a draw, that several locals – presumably millionaires – snuck onto the set and settled down on expensive verandas to watch all the action. Can you really blame them?

 

The Legacy Continues


Even though the three stars of Some Like it Hot are no longer with us, they'll always be remembered. Tony Curtis' appeal as a handsome leading man is similar to that of French actor Alain Delon. There is just something about him that's striking and unique, and his iconic performance as Joe and Josephine is one of the most memorable and highly rated. Tony's legacy and involvement in the film industry has also lived on in other ways. From his first wife Janet Leigh, who is most famously remembered for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, to his daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis – whose appearances in thriller Halloween, the exceptionally funny comedy Trading Places and action-packed True Lies are unforgettable in every way – the magic has been kept within the family.


Jack Lemmon impressed me the most with his portrayal of the male and female character combo. A very talented actor who could easily play any role, Jack has collaborated with Billy Wilder on other noteworthy projects, especially Irma La Douce, and is considered to be the most successful tragi-comedian of his age. Besides Some Like It Hot, Jack's standout performance was in The Apartment, another collaboration with the director, where he played – to perfection, I might add – an insurance clerk who rents out his flat to executives for one-night stands and passionate affairs but finds love of his own as a result.


And then, there is Marilyn Monroe. Always charming, playful and exciting, she managed to steal the hearts of many viewers, including the select few who were able to get their hands on a golden movie ticket at a box office in 1960's Russia. She wanted to be loved by just one person but instead received praise from audiences around the world.

In retrospect, Some Like it Hot would not be “hot” enough without Marilyn. In fact, it is hard to imagine that any other Hollywood actress could perform better in the role of Sugar Kane. There were other casting considerations, of course, but Marilyn appeared to be the best choice...and for a very good reason. Besides possessing a musical talent, her glamorous appearance made her attractive to many prominent men, including President John F. Kennedy, whom she famously (and controversially) serenaded for his birthday.

While most movie audiences will remember the legendary Hollywood star as Marilyn Monroe, there are also individuals who prefer to refer to her as Norma Jeane Mortenson, her real name. Since many people were probably unaware of Norma's existence until she tragically passed away in 1962, beloved composer and performer Elton John cleared the air when he wrote “Candle in the Wind” and forever immortalized the icon in all of her reincarnations.

 

The trio's appearance aside, Some Like it Hot is a musical comedy that's a true Hollywood classic from a culturally significant era of American cinematography – and it never gets old! Just like in 1959, when it was first released, it's still fresh, original and absolutely hysterical. They just don't make movies like this anymore! The magic lives on to this day, and it is my hope that the film captures the imaginations of a new generation of moviegoers the way it did mine when I first saw it on the big screen all those decades ago and felt like I was the luckiest person in the world.

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