In the spring of 1958, Billy Wilder (Samuel Wilder, aka “The Viennese Pixie”) ran into Jack Lemmon at Dominick’s, a restaurant at
8715 Beverly Blvd, West Hollywood which, by the way, was the place where lots of people went for “Sunday night suppers. “I have an idea for a picture I would like you to play in,” Wilder said to Lemmon. “Sit down,” said Lemmon. “I haven’t got time now,” Wilder responded, “but I will tell you what it is about. It’s about two men on the lam from gangsters, running for their lives, and they dress up in girls’ clothes and join an all-girl orchestra.”
“If anybody else had said that,” Lemmon said after the picture was released to tepid reviews but great, great box office, “I would have run like a jackrabbit. Go in drag? Since it was Billy Wilder, I said, ‘Fine, I’ll do it if I’m free to do it, and if I’m not free, I’ll get free.”
Wilder and his writing partner, Iz Diamond (Itek Domnici), had been meeting every day in Billy’s office on the Sam Goldwyn lot since at least the beginning of the year, trying to work out the plot of the farce they wanted to make for their producers, the Mirisch brothers. It would be based on a 1951 German film, Fanfaren der Liebe (“Fanfares of Love”), a film that neither Wilder nor Diamond liked all that much. What they didn’t like was the film’s execution. What attracted them, however, was the film’s basic premise: two hungry musicians resort to a series of disguises in order to find work: first they dress as gypsies and join a gypsy band; then they put on blackface for a jazz ensemble; finally, they don dresses, wigs, and makeup and join an all-female orchestra. As Izzy Diamond later recalled, Fanfaren der Liebe was “heavy-handed and Germanic. There was a lot of shaving of chests and trying on of wigs. When one of the musicians is seen sneaking into his room in men’s clothes, the other girls beat up his roommate because ‘she’ has disgraced the honor of the band.”
After ditching two or three incidents from Fanferen der Liebe, Wilder and Diamond had to decide what kind of tone their comedy would take. It wouldn’t be some sort of Teutonic “men in drag,” but rather a lighthearted farce with sexual tension and a lot of dirty jokes – in short, sublime but filthy. They were concerned about motivation in Fanfaren der Liebe: the two musicians were spurred by hunger, but Wilder and Diamond realized that if poverty were their own characters’ sole incentive, they could just take off the dresses once they had enough to eat and move on in men’s clothes to another gig. Diamond and Wilder understood precisely what it would take to force American men even to play at being a woman in the 1950s: the threat of death. Diamond killed the second bird with the same stone by suggesting that they make the comedy a period piece; his theory being that “when everybody’s dress looks eccentric, somebody in drag looks no more peculiar than anyone else.” Thus Americans of the repressed 1950s were disguised in Roaring Twenties, Jazz Age clothing.
“The next morning,” Diamond recalled, “Billy came into the office and said, ‘I was driving home last night thinking about what you said, and I think I have the solution: 1929, Chicago, the St Valentine’s Day massacre.’ That was the breakthrough, and suddenly we had a wealth of material to work with – speakeasies, bootleggers, Florida millionaires. We started writing.”
Some Like it Hot’s casting is the Rashomon of drag comedy. Everybody has a slightly different tale to tell about who’d be wearing skirts for Billy Wilder. According to Tony Curtis, United Artists (which distributed the film for the Mirsch Company) originally pushed the idea of casting Bob Hope and Danny Kaye as the two musicians, with Mitzi Gaynor (Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber, who at age 89, is still performing) in the role of Sugar Kane. Wilder is said to have rejected all three suggestions, choosing instead to sign Curtis (Bernie Schwartz) right off the bat, believing that the dazzlingly handsome actor could play either male role. Wilder first knew Curtis when he was starring in Houdini for Paramount in 1953.
Tony Curtis was fine as far as UA and Walter Mirisch were concerned, but they still felt strongly that there had to be at least one very big star in this film. Their suggestion: Frank Sinatra. As I.A.L. (which stands for “International Algebra League”) Diamond recalled, Billy Wilder made a lunch date with Sinatra, but Sinatra didn’t bother to show up, and that was the end of the matter. According to Diamond, too, there was no need for a big star on the order of Sinatra once Marilyn Monroe signed on and filled the bill herself.
Sinatra was more central at the time. And Monroe’s appearance didn’t obviate the need for “Ol’ Blue Eyes” – at least not in the beadier eyes of either Walter Mirisch or United Artists. In late March, UA’s Arthur Krim was told that the film (still referred to as Fanfares of Love) would start shooting in July and would probably star Sinatra, Curtis, and Monroe. The Mirisches were budgeting Sinatra and Monroe at $200,000 each, plus a quarter of the film’s profits. (Monroe ultimately got 10% of the gross, which turned out to be slightly over $4 million.) Curtis would get $100,000 against 5% of the gross - over $2 million. As for Billy Wilder, he’d be getting $300,000 plus 17.5% of the gross, above two times the cost of the negative. If the film grossed $1 million after the break-even point, Billy’s take went up to 20%. It was a very sweet deal, to say the least.
Another young actor was also approached, and he remembered Sinatra’s importance as well. According to Anthony Perkins, “Billy Wilder stopped by my dressing room [in New York where Perkins was appearing in Look Homeward, Angel] and asked if I’d star in a movie with Frank Sinatra. I told Billy I’d committed myself to Mel Ferrer for Green Mansions, and couldn’t go back on my word.” Sinatra was apparently going to play Joe, while Perkins would have been given the Jerry role. Tony Curtis had similar memories: “It’s you, Marilyn, Sinatra, and Edward G. Robinson and George Raft as the gangsters,” Curtis remembers Wilder telling him.
Wilder and Sinatra were buddies, though the friendship was strained. For instance, Sinatra supposedly screamed at Wilder over Love in the Afternoon.“He was quite adamant about it,” Wilder remembered – “so vehement that he made my wife cry. He said he didn’t like the picture because he thought it was immoral for an elderly man to make love in the afternoon to a young girl.” This must have struck Wilder as peculiar, given Sinatra’s own notorious womanizing. Indeed, in 1966, the then 51-year old Sinatra would marry twenty-one-year-old Mia Farrow. Wilder also reported, years after Sinatra stood him up for lunch, that he never cast Sinatra precisely because of the performer’s unreliability: “I’m afraid he would run after the first take – ‘Bye-bye kid, that’s it. I’m going. I’ve got to see a chick!’ That would drive me crazy.”
Still, Wilder loved the way Sinatra looked and acted on-screen. In any event, Jack Lemmon landed what started out as the Tony Curtis role, and Curtis took over Sinatra’s. As for Monroe, Diamond remembered that while he and Billy were still writing their first draft, Billy got a letter from Monroe telling him how fondly she recalled their work together on The Seven Year Itch, (1955) and hoping they’d be able to work together again. This was amusing, given the tsouris he’d endured with her. But as trying as that film had been for Wilder, he’d always loved her performance. Besides, as Wilder himself put it in 1959, Sugar was “the weakest part, so the trick was to give it the strongest casting.” When Wilder read her a few passages of the script, she agreed to appear in Some Like it Hot. She liked Wilder well enough, and she liked Curtis, too, having been friendly with him when they were both aspiring actors. Curtis even claimed to have had an affair with her in the early 1950s.
The relaxed bonhomie between the stars and director dissipated all too quickly. At a 7:00 p.m. dinner party Harold Mirisch threw to welcome Marilyn Monroe back to Hollywood after an absence of two years, Monroe didn’t show up until nearly 11:30. Then her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, put his arms around both Wilder’s and Diamond’s shoulders and patronizingly began to lecture the two literate screenwriters on the essential differences between comedy and tragedy. They rolled their eyes in irritation. Monroe, watching the interaction, became tense.
Jack Lemmon, who claims to have literally fallen off a couch laughing when he first read the script, didn’t yet realize that he’d been cast in the role of a lifetime by a director who would become one of his closest friends and most devoted employers. Wilder knew what Lemmon didn’t: “Within three to four weeks after the start of production,” Wilder reported, “Diamond and I had decided that this was not to be a one shot thing with Jack. We wanted to work with him again.” Lemmon himself didn’t quite see it. As he later noted, his girlfriend, Felicia Farr (whom he’d just begun dating and would be married to for nearly 40 years), “kept asking me what I thought of Wilder and I told her, ‘I guess he’s okay’ she’s never let me forget that one.” Wilder described his friend with genuine affection – which is to say with a put-down: “Lemmon had to be an actor. I doubt he could have done anything else, except play piano in a whorehouse.”
Wilder understood quickly, and Lemmon eventually, that the two men could forge a rare kind of bond between director and actor. Tony Curtis, meanwhile, was able to lend glamour to the character Wilder and Diamond wrote for him, but his persona was essentially foreign to Billy. He was a pretty boy. Curtis was known for wearing exceptionally tight clothes, some of which he designed himself, all the better to show off his pinup, classic 1950s “veal cake” physique. As Wilder once said, “Tony’s pants look as though someone dipped him in India ink up to his waist.” One day on the set of Some Like It Hot, Curtis raised a fuss over whether or not his name would or would not appear in the large-size type his contract specified. He approached Wilder and launched into a lengthy remonstration. Wilder listened patiently and then slid the knife in: “The trouble with you, Tony, is that you’re only interested in little pants and big billing.”
With his pants off and his flapper skirts and wig on, Curtis was ill at ease when filming began he walked onto the set markedly discomposed. Lemmon, however, clomped on to the set waving happily to the crew and introducing himself with “Hi, I’m Daphne!” “You create a shell and you crawl into it,” is the way he later described it.
The shells he and Curtis created in Some Like It Hot were designed in part by one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent drag artists, Barbette, whom Billy fondly remembered from his own days in Berlin and Paris, and was lured out of semi-retirement (at Wilder’s behest) to teach Lemmon and Curtis how to effectively transform themselves - not into women, but into drag queens. Wilder flew Barbette in from Texas to train Lemmon and Curtis in the art of female impersonation. It wasn’t just a matter of seeing to it that their chests were properly shaved, their eyebrows plucked to the correct degree, their hips padded just so. Barbette’s lessons were those of a performance artist, not a costumer. She taught them, tried to teach them, how to walk: about how you cross your legs in front of each other slightly, which forces your hips to swing out, subtly but noticeably, with each step. Tony Curtis was a perfect student as far as Barbette was concerned. Under her tutelage, Curtis’s Josephine was a model of classic, discreet femininity. Lemmon, however, couldn’t be taught. Daphne was a disaster. Lemmon wouldn’t follow Barbette’s rules.
Throughout the first half of 1958, Wilder and Diamond wrote together on their usual schedule – from 9:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, Wilder having been up for three hours already at the start of his weekday. When filming began in early September, they continued the same schedule and added evening rewrite sessions as well from 8:30 to 11:00 P.M. More than any other film to date, this was a Wilder movie that demanded to be written concurrently with its filming. Drag comedy was dicey, he knew, so he and Diamond saw what worked and what didn’t and developed the screenplay organically on that basis. David O. Selznick told Billy it was impossible from the start: “You want machine guns and dead bodies and gags in the same picture? Forget about it, Billy. You’ll never make it work.” But by growing it slowly and essentially by constructing each piece on its own, he did precisely that.
Along with the sexual drive of this comedy, a certain Judaism emerges in this, the second script Wilder wrote with Diamond; the writers are having fun being themselves. Listen to the booking agent Sig Poliakoff (played by Billy Grey, born Bill Giventer) on the phone trying to round up some “girl musicians”: “Gladys! Are ya there? Gladys!” (He hangs up.) Meshuggeneh! Played a hundred and twelve hours in a marathon dance, how she’s in bed with a nervous collapse!” When Poliakoff tells Joe and Jerry about a gig, he inflects his declarative statement with the eastern European lilt of a question: “At the University of Illinois they’re having (you should pardon the expression) a St. Valentine’s dance?” even Geraldine’s line “We spent three years at the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music” sounds like a Catskills routine (or a Columbia Varsity Show written by a Jewish boy from Brooklyn.)
The final preliminary budget called for a total cost of $2,373,490. When filming began, Monroe was up to $300,000; Curtis and Lemmon each got $100,000. Diamond got $60,000, and Wilder $200,000. Filming began in September 1958 at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood – off the corner of Formosa and Melrose, where the Mirisches rented space, and on location at the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego. United Artists’ Arthur Krim gave the go-ahead but was nonetheless a little worried. This was going to be an expensive picture, and he wanted to protect his company against the big loss he thought Some Like It Hot might incur simply because of its high salaries. Early on, there was also the problem of the film’s title. If they wanted to call it Some Like It Hot, they’d need to get a waiver from MCA – the Music Corporation of America – which owned the rights to a 1939 Paramount film of the same title starring Bob Hope. This turned out to be fairly easy: Wilder was represented by Lou Wasserman, who happened to own MCA.
The script called for a Miami resort Hotel, the Seminole-Ritz, but by the late 1950s, very little was left of the Roaring Twenties Florida, the magnificent old resorts having been pulled down to make room for the rococo gloss of postwar beach development. Instead, they decided to shoot at the Hotel Del Coronado. It was perfect: a grand 1887 hotel with turrets, a big veranda, and a wide white beachfront.
(On a personal note: It so happens that the four Stones - Mom, Dad, my “slightly older sister” Erica and yours truly - were in residence at the Hotel Del Coronado during filming. At that time, it was a purely wooden hotel and had a double-Olympic-size swimming pool filled with saltwater. As I recall, it also had a pinball machine or two in the basement.
As fairly typical “Hollywood Brats,” neither Erica nor myself were all that overwhelmed by the stars who were - at least for the nonce - our neighbors. I do recall walking up to actor Joe E. Brown [who played millionaire playboy Osgood Fielding III] and saying to him “I know who you are . . . you’re the man with the big mouth!” He smiled. but, much to my regret did not open his mouth. I became far more impressed with him after my father informed me that Mr. Brown, in addition to being a longtime actor who specialized in comedic baseball films back in the early to mid-thirties, was also general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. To my 10-year old way of looking at the world, THAT made him royalty! I followed him around like a puppy dog, wondering if perhaps he had an autograph of Roberto Clemente or Bill Mazeroski in his pocket. I never found the nerve to ask . . .)
At the Goldwyn studio, filming continued in fits and starts. Wilder and Diamond were piecing the film together as they went along. Monroe was characteristically late to arrive in the morning, and when she did show up, she had a tendency to mess up even the simplest of lines. Then a minor catastrophe occurred. In the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre scene, in which Spats Columbo (George Raft) rubs out the diminutive Toothpick Charlie (George E. Stone - born Gershon Lichtenstein) and his gang before Joe’s and Jerry’s horrified eyes, Wilder insisted that Raft perform a final indignity upon the bullet-riddled corpse of Toothpick Charlie – namely to kick the toothpick out of Charlie’s mouth. Raft couldn’t bring himself to kick him so close to his jaw. Two takes, three takes, five, ten. . .Wilder was getting frustrated. It was bad enough that Monroe was constantly requiring multiple takes to speak the simplest of lines. Now George Raft was using up film stock as well, and Wilder couldn’t take it any longer. Finally, after all his pleading and cajoling failed, Wilder marched over and demonstrated it himself, missed, and kicked Stone right in the head. The actor had to be rushed to the nearest hospital.
Marilyn Monroe was, of course, a bigger problem than any character actor’s broken jaw could possibly have been. She cost more. Things didn’t start off badly. “I want the world to know that Marilyn’s not only on time, she is three hours early,” Wilder told the press when Some Like It Hot went into production in August. By September, some tension surfaced when Monroe declared that Wilder wanted her to lose weight – eight pounds, to be exact. She refused. “Don’t you want your audience to be able to distinguish me from Tony and Jack?” she claimed to have asked Wilder. “Besides,” she supposedly said, “my husband likes me plump.”
There are many tales about the number of takes it took for Monroe to get a scene – sometimes consisting of no more than three words – to get it right.
Iz Diamond recalled, “One morning a couple of hundred extras waited on the set while reports kept filtering in on Marilyn’s progress – she was in makeup; now she was in hairdressing; finally, at eleven o’clock, she walked on the stage carrying a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man under her arm. Without a word of greeting or apology, she crossed to her dressing room and locked herself in. Billy waited another fifteen minutes, then sent the assistant director to fetch her. The A.D. knocked on her door and called, ‘We’re ready for you, Miss Monroe.’ From inside came the answer: ‘Drop dead.’”
After each scene, Monroe would call out to her secretary, ‘May! Coffee.’ And May Reis would bring her a thermos bottle.” It contained not coffee, but vermouth.”
Every day, Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, would seat herself in a place where Monroe could easily see her. Strasberg earned $1,500 a week to flutter around her neurotic boss, whispering suggestions in her ear and holding a big black umbrella over her head, always urging Monroe to “relax, relax!”
In the early days of doping out the script, Wilder decided he wanted to have lots of old-time actors who had either played famous gangsters costarred in classic gangster films: Pat O’Brien and James Cagney, Paul Muni and George Raft, as well as Edward G. Robinson. Cagney wasn’t available, although he would star in a Wilder film – (One, Two Three) - in 1961. Muni, who had just finished filming The Last Angry Man decided to retire. O’Brien and Raft signed on, and Robinson took home a copy of the script. Wilder wanted him to play “Little Bonaparte. ”It looked like he was set. Then he pulled the rug out from Wilder; he sent Wilder a note saying that under no circumstances would he do the picture. Little Bonaparte would be played instead by Nehemiah Persoff.
Although Robinson didn’t say why, everyone knew what the problem was. It went back seventeen years: a 1941 Warner Bros. picture they’d made together called Manpower, directed by Raoul Walsh. Turns out that while Raft and Robinson were making Manpower, they both got an itch for the film’s leading lady, Marlene Dietrich. Raft and Robinson became rivals. There was tension on the set. One day it blew up, and they came to blows. Unfortunately, it was the same day that the publicist had a Life magazine photographer there. He caught the fistfight. Life ran the picture. There wasn’t a thing that Warners could do about it. Robinson vowed he’d never work with Raft again.
In 1958, Wilder either didn’t know about Robinson’s attitude toward Raft or thought he’d get over it. In order to curry favor, Wilder had even hired Edward G. Robinson, Jr. for the tiny part of gangster Johnny Paradise. When Robinson sr. pulled out, Wilder was furious – and stuck with Robinson, Jr.
Made for $2.9 million, Some Like it Hot earned an amazing $40 million in its first run. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it came away with but one: Best Costume Design - Black and White. Today, it is considered to be one of the greatest comedies of all time. In a poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2017, Some Like It Hot was selected as the best comedy of all time in a poll of 253 film critics from 52 countries.
So who remembers Fanfaren der Liebe?