How Billy Wilder (and Marilyn) Reinvented ‘Some Like It Hot’

Some Like It Hot is included in Swapnil Dhruv Bose’s list of Six Definitive Billy Wilder Films for Far Out magazine.

“Wilder explained the origin of the project, stating: ‘The genesis of the idea was a very low-budget, very third-class German picture, Fanfare of Love, where two guys who need a job go into blackface to get into a band…they also dress up to go into a female band. But there was not one other thing that came from this terrible picture. We had to find, I thought, the key to why they go into that band and what keeps them there.

‘If the gangsters who are chasing them see them as women, only as women, then…once they are seen as men, they are dead. It’s life and death. They cannot come out into the open. It’s a question of life and death. That triggered everything. So we began to have a picture. But that German film was absolutely terrible, absolutely terrible. Deliriously bad.'”

Actually, Germany’s Fanfaren Der Liebe (1951) was itself a remake of a 1935 French movie, Fanfare d’Amour. Wilder was dismissive of the earlier film which inspired his 1959 comedy classic, but other critics, like The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, argue that the great filmmaker borrowed rather more than he cared to admit.

“Wilder himself was always vague about how much he took from Fanfaren Der Liebe, maintaining he kept the basic, farcical element of cross-dressing musicians, and chucked out everything else. But did he? … Go and see it, and you will find what I found when I saw it this week: it’s a fascinating and even electrifying insight into Wilder’s creative thought processes, into the hidden European roots of Hollywood Americana, and into what my colleague John Patterson unimprovably called the ‘give-and-take, steal-and-fake’ tradition of the movies.

The hugely new thing in Some Like It Hot is obviously the 20s-Chicago-gangster angle, which is not in the German film. It undoubtedly creates dramatic tension and gives the two guys more of a reason for their desperate drag act: their mortal peril, and some previous ogling at women, also clears them of any suggestion of effeminacy. The rest of the film is, however, fascinatingly familiar.

They join the girls’ group through the same financial need – though a tough guy in the street actually says that our wimpish heroes look like a couple of girls – and the band are called primly ‘Cyclamen’: pretty tame compared with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, and the Germans have nothing to match Sweet Sue’s acid wisecrack about all her girls being ‘virtuosos’.

But the night-train journey is here: to Munich, not Florida, and is actually made slightly more complex by Hans changing back into his male garb to have breakfast in the restaurant car, and to flirt with the ensemble’s dark-haired lead singer, Gaby, played by Inge Egger. She is a very sobersided and pretty dull figure compared with Marilyn – almost like a straight female romantic lead from an Abbott and Costello movie. She has no drinking problem and, in fact, coolly sees through their disguise relatively quickly, with almost sisterly bemusement. There’s a sexy blonde in the German band, though, and the camera rather lingers on her – did that plant a seed in Wilder’s mind? Once in Munich, the bandstand and nightclub sets look very familiar.

The gag about an older, unattractive guy finding them sexy is in Fanfaren Der Liebe, too, only there is no Osgood Fielding III figure; rather, the smitten male is the band’s manager, for whom the SLIH equivalent is Beinstock, Sweet Sue’s harassed and only faintly lecherous sidekick … The more obvious and, as Wilder clearly saw it, the more successful choice would be for the lovestruck dope to moon around the ugly comic turn.

For Some Like It Hot fans, watching all this is like going into a parallel universe. It’s a cultural séance: like going back in time and seeing it the way Wilder did, or like having Wilder’s ghost sitting next to you. As you notice the differences and similarities, you can see how his mind must have worked, you can hear him thinking in real time: ‘Yes, not bad … but why not change that … let’s switch that around and keep that … That would work better if we …’

But it has to be said: without the Chicago gangster angle, the story flags once the band have reached the Munich hotel. Just as I was thinking this, while watching the film, one of the bandmembers asks wonderingly about the two weirdly butch new girls. ‘Who are they?’ she says. ‘Are they gangsters’ molls?’ Eureka! There, right there, you can see how and where Billy Wilder got his crucial idea.

Fanfaren Der Liebe is a musical comedy with gaiety and fun, perfectly decent but destined to forever be overshadowed by the greater achievement of Wilder. But what a tremendous experience it is, an unmissable lesson in creativity and film history.”

Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn