Notable Comedy Had Its Share of Down Days

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What’s not to like?

“Some Like It Hot,” Saturday’s offering by the Alex Film Society, is as good as comedy gets. Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic has it all--guys in drag, rubber-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown, Tony Curtis’ delectable sendup of Cary Grant, gangsters, chance encounters in upper berths, an almost-all-girl band and Marilyn Monroe at her most fragile and lubricious.

“Wilder Times,” the new biography of Billy Wilder by film historian Kevin Lally, tells the behind-the-scenes story. The unlikely inspiration for the film was a German musical comedy, “Fanfares of Love” (1932). Wilder found a single “platinum nugget” in the dreadful little movie, the idea of “two male musicians latching on to an all-girl band.”

But how to make the audience believe that a couple of straight guys would shave their legs and parade around in wigs and dresses? The masquerade would only work, Wilder argued, if the Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis characters believed their lives depended on it.


So Wilder gave them considerable motivation. The men witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and are being hunted down by its mobster perpetrators. It was Wilder’s longtime writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, who reasoned that the pair would look less odd in their dresses if the film was a period piece and everyone was in costume.

Diamond also contributed the movie’s unforgettable kicker, “Nobody’s perfect!” It’s hard to imagine a better way to close the film, but Wilder and Diamond kept trying until the very end.


Monroe, so wonderful in the movie in spite of her changing girth and haunted eyes, was monstrous to work with. Curtis and Lemmon made bets on how many takes she would need on any given scene. She needed 83 to successfully deliver the line, “It’s me, Sugar,” even when it was written down and hidden inside every drawer and cranny on the set.

However magical she appeared on screen, love scenes with Monroe were grueling work, like “kissing Hitler,” Curtis said.

Lemmon, who made seven films with Wilder, and Curtis were coached in appearing feminine by a drag queen whom Wilder had known in Europe. Consummate professionals, the two actors were made up and ready to shoot at 9 in the morning. Monroe rarely appeared before noon. On the set, she sipped straight vermouth from a thermos throughout the day, driving Wilder, too, to drink more than usual.

The fragile star had had a miscarriage shortly before filming began, and she had another one 12 hours after it wrapped. When Wilder was asked if he would ever work with Monroe again, he responded stonily, “I have discussed this project with my doctor and my psychiatrist, and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again.”


Monroe’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, was indignant, especially in light of the film’s success.

The first public screening of the movie was a disaster. It was shown after “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades. To Wilder’s horror, the audience just sat there, with the exception of a man in the front row who roared throughout.

As Lally reveals, the solitary laugher was comedian Steve Allen. Wilder resisted the devil urge to make drastic changes and cut only one scene.

“Some Like It Hot” was a box-office smash and earned six Oscar nominations, including Lemmon for best actor, Wilder for best director and Wilder-Diamond for best adapted screenplay. “Ben-Hur” won the race, however. “Some Like It Hot’s” only Oscar went to Orry-Kelly for costumes, including the all but see-through number Monroe wears to sing “I’m Through With Love.”

Billy Wilder, who is 90, accepted the Film Society’s invitation to attend the evening screening Saturday, but had to back out because of illness. Tony Curtis said he would try to come, but he will be out of town, working.

Several of the women who appeared as members of Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators will be on hand, as will longtime comedian Dave Barry, who played the band’s manager, Bienstock. Barry, who lives in Beverly Hills and continues to perform, mostly as a comedian, originally auditioned for a small part as a drunk.


“What’s this part?” Barry asked his agent. “It will be four days in a great movie,” the agent promised. At the audition, Wilder watched Barry’s performance, then looked at Diamond and announced, “Bienstock!” Diamond agreed, “Bienstock!”

Barry looked at his agent and asked, “What’s a Bienstock?” “That’s four weeks in the movie!” his agent explained.

Vice president Randy Carter says the film society will screen a crisp new print of the black-and-white film (color would strain credulity, Wilder reasoned). And the screening will give you the opportunity to ponder anew how Wilder, a Galician Jew who fled Germany just ahead of the Nazis, managed to see so deeply into the American psyche and make such wonderful movies, including “Sunset Boulevard,” from what he saw.

One clue: He learned from the best, wherever they were from. Wilder made a close study of director Howard Hawks, for instance. And, for years, Wilder kept a sign in his office that asked, “What would Lubitsch do?”


* WHAT: “Some Like It Hot.”

* WHERE: The Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

* WHEN: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, with special guests in the evening only.

* HOW MUCH: $7.50 evening, $6 matinee and for Alex Film Society members.

* CALL: (818) 243-ALEX.