There is an inherent challenge to having, for like of a better term, a “filter” in watching films. By “filter,” I am referring to how I watch them with my Catholic sensibilities always at the fore of my thoughts. This is not meant as a complaint. As should be clear if you have read enough of my reviews, I love the Faith. It is also rich and varied enough to take in most any kind of cinematic experience and offer a potential pathway back to Christ, though with some obvious limits. Films that intentionally deals with the demonic seldom have any redeeming qualities to them, and are largely avoided by The Legionnaire. You can take that as a blanket recommendation on our part. On the opposite end of such movies is a film like Some Like It Hot (1959). It is a mix of bad and good elements that make it difficult for a reviewer of my ilk to quantify. Thus, bear with me as I work my way through this one, number twenty-two on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.
Despite its title, Some Like It Hot takes you to Chicago in 1929 in the middle of winter. It is also the midst of the Prohibition Era, and bootleg liquor is being transported by hearse, hidden in coffins, to a speakeasy with a funeral parlor as a front. Unfortunately for its proprietors, led by a gangster going by “Spats” Colombo (George Raft), the police have zeroed in on this elicit establishment. This also turns out to be poor luck for two musicians in the band providing house entertainment, double bass player Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and his friend and saxophone player Joe (Tony Curtis). They believe they finally have steady work until they notice Federal Agent Mulligan (Pat O’Brien) peering at his badge in the crowd. Observing this action, though, does give them the necessary warning they need to get out of the bar before it is raided. Joe then proceeds to convince Jerry to put their earnings on a dog race. Because Joe’s tip turns out to be bogus, they lose all their money. Now broke and without employment, they turn to a talent agency to find them work. There are two jobs they find available. They opt for the second, a gig in downstate Illinois, that requires they borrow a car. Upon arriving at the location to pick up the vehicle, they witness Spats and his men murder the garage attendants for their part in tipping off the police about the speakeasy. In a moment of distraction, Jerry and Joe are able to get away, but now they are wanted men. You might say why not go to the police? As Jerry theorizes, they might not get the chance to testify against Spats. Instead, they decide to take the other job. The problem, though, is that it is with an all-girl band heading to Miami, Florida. Their solution is to dress in drag and pass themselves off as women. Thus, Jerry becomes “Daphne,” and Joe goes by “Josephine.” On their way to board the southbound train, while adjusting to the unfamiliar clothing, they are passed by Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe). With a woman like that strolling by and evidently a future bandmate, suddenly their circumstances seem that much more tolerable to them. Still, Joe handles himself with some decorum, whereas Jerry has to keep reminding himself that he is a girl. He is sorely tested when Sugar sneaks into his sleeping bunk, and hides there for a moment to avoid the hyper-vigilant band leader, Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee). Before long, they are sneaking out all manner of booze, and there is a party brewing in Jerry’s sleeping quarters. Amidst the furtive revelry, at one point, Joe and Sugar find themselves alone in the bathroom. There, Joe learns a bit about Sugar’s background, such as how she is a sucker for a saxophone player. Naturally, this piques his interest, but there is nothing to be done about it in his current guise. Instead, after they have gotten settled into their rooms in Florida, Joe changes into the attire of a wealthy man with a yacht off the coast. Going by the moniker “Shell Oil Junior,” he leads Sugar into believing he is heir to the petroleum fortune, and thus the kind of suitor in which she would be interested. The boat that he claims to be his is actually owned by Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). He has set his eyes on Daphne. Once again, Jerry allows himself to be convinced by Joe into a mad plan, this time going on a date with Osgood in order to provide a cover for Joe and Sugar to sneak on board his ship for the night. Both have an eventful night, with Osgood proposing marriage to Daphne proceeding an evening of dancing. The following day is when all of this begins to unravel, but not because Jerry and Joe voluntarily give up their guises. Instead, there is a national meeting of organized crime at the same hotel, and Spats recognizes the two supposed women. It is now time for Jerry and Joe to make their escape, yet Joe cannot do so without gracefully letting down Sugar. Perhaps that is too nice of a word as he calls her on the phone as Shell Oil Junior and tells her that he must marry a rich Venezuelan oil baroness. As for Jerry, despite knowing that he cannot give Osgood what he wants, he nonetheless convinces the would-be suitor to take Daphne and Josephine away on his boat. On their way out, Joe hears Sugar singing a mournful song about her lost love. Moved by it, he goes on stage and kisses her, revealing his true identity. It is then a mad dash to the docks. Before they all can depart, Sugar manages to catch up. As they speed away to Osgood’s yacht, Jerry tells Osgood that he is not really Daphne but a man, to which Osgood replies that nobody is perfect.
The last line of Some Like It Hot has become a clichéd phrase that people like to use to cover up any manner of wrong doing. Though it might appear so commonplace today as to be hardly worth mentioning, it is from this 1959 film that was apparently get the phrase. Indeed, none of these characters, or this film, are a perfect fit for this Catholic reviewer. If it were, I could draw some easy lessons from it without much effort. Instead, they are difficult to pin down, which is what I was wrestling with in the introductory paragraph. The idea of perfection is not a foreign one to Catholicism or Christianity. It begins with the Bible, which has Jesus saying in Mathew 5:48, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Yet, nobody can be as perfect as God. Jesus gives us these words on the tail end of the Beatitudes, a seminal moment in the beginnings of the Church where God gives us some pretty clear standards by which to live. In this light, since nobody can be like God, why try? It is in the striving, though sometimes I do not like to use that word, that we find some semblance of the desired state. Another way we can experience a sliver of this perfection is by journeying deeper into your relationship with God. The closer you are, the more easily you can access this state of being. Clearly, Osgood does not have this in mind when he is taking Daphne and Josephine away. Nonetheless, saying what he does has a glimmer of the way God looks at us. He wants us to do better, but He also accepts our faults. We may never know true perfection in this lifetime, but seeing others in this manner is a start.
Having said some positive things about Some Like It Hot, I am not sure why people like it so much. If I had to guess, I would say it is because of Marilyn Monroe. Now there is a person who got caught up in the wrong kind of perfection, seeking to be whatever the public wished her to be. She paid for it tragically. This is a shame, too, because she really was talented.