Drag Queens Prefer Blondes

Guys getting into drag, guys getting engaged to other guys, Marilyn Monroe getting hit right in the butt with a big blast of steam. This sort of thing would raise some eyebrows even today, but it must have seemed really naughty in painfully repressed 1959, when Some Like It Hot was originally released.

At a glance, the film's characters are a truly reprehensible lot. Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane, for instance, is a gold-digging, ditzy lush who enters into a relationship with Tony Curtis with dollar signs in her eyes. Curtis is a penniless musician who cheerfully misleads Monroe into thinking he's a wealthy playboy so he can get his hands on her hot little bod. When actual love blooms between these two, it's the last thing either of them expects. Even sleazier is the courtship between Curtis' pal Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown. Lemmon is an unlovely but enthusiastic cross-dresser who lets his sugar daddy, Ross, believe he's an actual woman. Lemmon begins their affair looking for loot, but before long, an affection has developed between them that has Lemmon cursing his own manhood (“I'm a man! I'm a man! I wish I were dead!”). The more you think about it, the more it sounds like it should be airing on Showtime.

So how did this gender-bending, zestfully subversive little number manage to escape the banning it surely deserved and instead become a treasured comedy classic? Simply put, the zingy one-liners, jolly performances and rollicking plot charmed the disapproving frown right off America's face.

Director Billy Wilder labored mightily for the (deceptively) frothy tone; the shoot was famously difficult, with Monroe behaving like a grade-A nutcase throughout. A scene in which she was required to simply rummage through some drawers and say, “Where is that bourbon? Oh, there it is!” took dozens of takes as Monroe mangled the line as “Where's the bottle?” and “Where's the bonbon?” and many other variations. Wilder tried pasting the line in one of the drawers, but Monroe kept opening the wrong drawer. So Wilder pasted the line in all of the drawers, and Monroe finally got it right. After 19 more takes. This kind of thing went on every day, to the point where Curtis grew to detest working with her so much that he later compared kissing her to kissing Hitler. Monroe was apparently so difficult that the crew was forced to shoot around her in many scenes, and Brown's killer closing line was tacked on in desperation when a scene planned around Monroe proved impossible to pull off.

The film's male leads were also apparently a handful. Curtis was reportedly quite uncomfortable appearing in drag, to the point that he had to be coaxed out of his dressing room. A female impersonator was brought in to give Curtis and Lemmon tips but soon departed, declaring Lemmon impossible to work with.

But the finished film bears no sign of the behind-the-scenes tumult. Monroe's performance is particularly wonderful; the words just seem to tumble from her pouty lips as if she were making them up as she went along. Her scenes with Curtis have real sparkle, even their kiss (especially their kiss). And whether you're a man, woman, child or dog, if your head doesn't spin every time Monroe boop-boop-be-doops, check your pulse.

Some Like It Hot is a film of boundless charm, but even after all these years, it still has the power to shock. Like Monroe herself, it is a delectably sweet-looking confection with a rich, surprisingly tart center.

Some Like It Hot screens at UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus & Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 & 9 p.m. $2.50-$4.50.

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