Monday Glamour Starter --- Marilyn Monroe --- Part One
Let’s suppose I’m a director back in the fifties, and they’ve asked me to helm Some Like It Hot instead of Billy Wilder (yikes!). Here would be my strategy for handling Marilyn: We’d start work, and for the first few days, maybe a week, she’d show. Then troubles start. Ailments real or mostly imagined, Paula Strasberg horning in, MM locked in her dressing room, etc. What’s my next move? Having read several Monroe bios plus Tony Curtis and Mark Vieira’s outstanding new The Making Of Some Like It Hot (above), I’d be armed with twenty-twenty hindsight and a sure plan. First, I do nothing. Let several days pass without calling MM or begging outside her locked sanctum. She’d wonder what was amiss. Then I’d quietly tell everyone to just stay home for a day. UA would lose money, but no more than’s wasted trying to reason with an actress mad as a March hare. Next would come my capper. I’d bring in Mitzi Gaynor, having intended her for the part to start with, then go forward on Some Like It Hot as if she were the final choice. Would Marilyn emerge from the impasse like Judy Garland when Ginger Rogers suddenly turned up to do The Barkeleys Of Broadway? It would all be a bluff of course (my publicist would call it A Bold Stroke for the benefit of Variety subscribers), but here the MM of my imagination relents, is ready to work, apologetic, and properly chastened (in real life, of course, she’d grind me to powder and the Mirisches would pick up my Guild card). Crazy as she was, Monroe was watchful of those who’d undermine her position. Even on Something’s Got To Give, she had spies reporting from the set to her alleged sickbed. I can’t go back and fix what was broken in 1958, but dreaming how I might, inspired by this book, confirms fascination the saga holds for me and serves too as solid endorsement of Mark Vieira’s day-to-day account of Some Like It Hot’s production, enhanced by star Tony Curtis’ vivid recollections. Plus Tony drops a now-that-Arthur Miller’s dead-it-can-be-told bombshell that makes for lively reading. All this for me was like being on the set. Small wonder I’d fantasize at running Billy Wilder’s show and rewriting movie history. You might too after reading this just published marvel of scholarship, on-set intrigues, and hotcha celebrity gossip.
What makes my meandering so foolish is excellence of Some Like It Hot as completed, even if Monroe’s behavior made it seem at times they’d never finish. What if this had gone shut-down ways of Something’s Got To Give? According to Curtis/Vieira’s book, that might have happened. Surely it chilled producer blood to have millions dangling upon the whims of an unstable leading lady. That she was worth it just made the siege more unbearable. I’d think that by the late fifties, budget estimates on Monroe pictures would have been routinely bumped by several hundred thousand to take into account her tardiness, endless retakes, and outright no-shows. What right thinker could have imagined smooth sailing with MM by this point? That she justified enduring such horrors was what made so many lie down on railroad tracks over and over. Directors were forever swearing they’d never work with Monroe again … only to work with her again. Wilder did twice. He’d have probably used MM on Kiss Me, Stupid had she lived. I can see that 1964 disaster playing and profiting like a dream given Monroe’s magic in place of a sullen Kim Novak. I’m no particular fan of Marilyn’s, but I’ve got eyes to see that she was an absolute one-of-a-kind talent. No actress save Judy Garland was so tolerated for conduct that would consign anyone else to unemployment rolls. Producers seemed willing to put up with anything just to get a picture out of personalities like these. How many fell into such a rarified category? I’d propose Garland and Monroe among the women, Marlon Brando perhaps among males. Were there others I’ve overlooked? You don’t have to worship at Marilyn Monroe’s altar to realize no one could do Some Like It Hot so well as her. Imagine Mitzi Gaynor in it, or rather … let’s not. Vieira says they wanted MM for Some Came Running, info new to me. Now it’s going to be hard accepting Shirley MacLaine for knowing how much better that part might have been cast. Wait a minute, maybe I am a Marilyn Monroe fan after all …
Sooner or later you have to ask, just how funny is Some Like It Hot? Tony Curtis likes reminding us that the American Film Institute called it the Number One laugh-getter of all time. I missed SLIH in 1959, but am told it convulsed packed houses. Wilder actually had Jack Lemmon shake maracas during one dialogue scene to bridge between laughs that would otherwise drown out lines. Some Like It Hot probably seemed funnier fifty years ago because it was lots naughtier to patrons then. Conventions were easier outraged in those waning days when at least some of them were left. It’s still unconventional in terms of gender bending. When was the last time leading men wore dresses? Some Like It Hot doesn’t seem to have initiated a trend toward that, although Bing Crosby did assume femme disguise in 1960’s High Time, and that was likely enabled by the Wilder film’s notoriety. Some comedies are great even when you take away the laughs. Some Like It Hot is so well structured and entertaining as to get along without guffaws an initial viewing evokes. It’s fun for me, but was never funny-funny. Guys in skirts are inherently delightful to some people, leave others cold, and make a few uncomfortable. The appeal of this show is way subjective, more so than with most classics. I saw it the first time on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies (never mind UCLA or NYU --- this was my film school). The striking thing then was suspense and danger Wilder achieved right from opening bell (and note we hear just that at the end of the credits). Some Like It Hot was a better gangster picture than most others of that kind played straight. I still consider Wilder’s the most chilling depiction of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He was brilliantly right upping the stakes to life and death for his two leads. It’s what makes 129 minutes go by minus fatigue, that being the sad lot of so many comedies wearing out welcomes in half as much time.
What always thrills me in Some Like It Hot is that moment going into the third act when we’re looking at the floor of the hotel entrance and here comes Raft, identifiable by a close-shot of spats we align with carnage in Act One. Imagine shared intakes of breath among audiences seeing it first-run. Wilder had his firmest grip on a public at that deathless and showmanlike bump. He must have looked back often from a late sixties and seventies decline to wish he had such mojo back. Was it accidental that BW chose 1959 to reacquaint us with so many movie faces we were seeing nightly on the Late Show? Wilder likely knew this was the apex of a country’s awareness of old movies, thanks to television’s pre-48 avalanche. George Raft, Pat O’Brien, and all those character faces were practically living in homes from 1956 when all the old Warner crime and gangster shows fell like pianos into America’s after-hours consciousness. The bucket of Joe E. Brown comedies on TV made his face again familiar, it’s being done monochrome hot-wiring Some Like It Hot viewers to comfort of their living room chairs. What a shame Edward G. Robinson bailed out. Accounts say he refused to work again with George Raft after their dust-up on the set of WB’s Manpower back in 1941, but weren’t they together in A Bullet For Joey just a few years back of Some Like It Hot? Hard to imagine Robinson turning down work during the hard-times (for him) fifties. There must have been some other reason we’ll never know about. Wilder’s period remove to the twenties worked fine because folks felt at home there, thanks to his brilliantly chosen cast. The thirty-year back references were less impenetrable for first-runners who’d at least heard of Valentino and Fairbanks/Pickford from elders. Today such names bandied in Some Like It Hot flatline with nearly everyone watching. The music will never fade, though. Wilder had an ear for standards that worked like charms with his characters. Where’s the book about this director’s tuning brilliance? His selections were proof that Wilder was at heart a romantic. He always knew what themes worked best. I was with a girl once who had no particular interest in movies, but hearing me absent-mindedly hum a song, she immediately chirped up, Hey --- that’s from "Sabrina"!, and sure enough, it was. There were three albums issued for Some Like It Hot by United Artists’ platter branch. That must have been some kind of record (pardon pun), and surely bolstered rentals. Domestic and import reprints are still kicking around on CD. I wish I were listening to one of them now.
More Some Like It Hot imagining here --- this time at a UA marketing meet.
Coming in Part Two on Marilyn Monroe --- Niagara and Something's Got To Give.