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Recently, as I was watching Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night came to mind. Both spectacles generate much of their comedy from the cross-dressing of their protagonists. Equally, both are initiated by a more serious note: while the play (almost) opens with a shipwreck, Some Like it Hot‘s Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must don dresses because they accidently witness (what looks like) the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.
But with hindsight, the specifics of Joe’s cross-dressing feel closer to those of As You Like It. Joe, dressed as Josephine, discovers that Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) wants to meet a millionaire with a yacht, a railroad car and his own toothpaste. (S)he then dresses as a man, posing as a millionaire, in an attempt to woo the unsuspecting Sugar. In As You Like It, when she flees her uncle Frederick’s court, Rosalind must dress as a boy (Ganymede) to survive. (S)he, then, to help Orlando court Rosalind, pretends to be a woman and allows him to practise. In other words, in the film, a man dresses as a woman, who then dresses as a man; in the play, a woman dresses as a man, who then pretends to be a woman. It’s all less confusing on screen or stage.
It is from such multi-layered cross-dressing that the picture derives its structure as well as its laughs. It begins loosely when the dresses go on and ends when identities are revealed. Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) provides an unexpected reaction to such identity shifting in the famous final exchange: to Jerry’s revelation “I’m a man!”, Osgood calmly acknowledges that “Nobody’s perfect.” The line was coined the night before shooting finished by producer I.A.L. ‘Iz’ Diamond.
The tone of Osgood’s reaction is at once extremely funny and subtly philosophical. Much of the success (and comedy) of the film stems from such (only slightly but nonetheless) muted psychological and aesthetic choices. The main source for the picture was the German farce Fanfaren der Liebe (1951) in which two unemployed musicians are emphatically camp. Joe and Jerry, though, are clearly heterosexual: they need an extremely good reason to masquerade as women and, while being broke is not enough, being chased by mobsters convinces them to shave their legs. The scene on the train, with the two men surrounded by beautiful women, does not reach the pitch of a camp farce but instead becomes comically excruciating. Joe must remind Jerry: “Steady, boy. Just keep telling yourself you’re a girl.”
Wilder overrode arguments against filming in black and white, not only to enhance the 1920s period setting but also to mute the makeup. If rendered in colour, the men’s transformation would slide from amusing to grotesque. Thankfully, it is not: the result is, for the American Film Institute at least, the Best Comedy of All Time.