The second in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.
“Look at that! Look how she moves. It’s just like Jell-O on springs.” – Jack Lemmon as Jerry
I never understood the allure of Marilyn Monroe. I mean, sure, she was attractive in that curvy, mid-twentieth century way, but prior to this, all I’d seen of her were short clips from a film or two, the uncomfortable footage of her singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy, and of course, Madonna’s “Material Girl” music video. I knew that she died tragically and that some people believe it was because of her romantic involvement with either John or Bobby Kennedy. Or both. But not Teddy. NEVER Teddy. She existed for me only as a cultural touchstone, someone who other actresses or public figures were compared to. What I didn’t realize until researching this film was that in a professional career that lasted just fifteen years, she was in over thirty films, many of them considered classics today. She’s a supporting actress here, which is puzzling considering she’s given top billing on every poster, but she does really well playing a woman who knows that she’s made some mistakes in life but seems determined to change. Chances are, though, she won’t be able to.
The main plot concerns two buddies, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis), club musicians in 1930s Chicago. Director Billy Wilder made an interesting choice to shoot this in black and white, even though color was clearly an option by then. For some reason, it seems more accurate to me for films set in the thirties and forties to be in black and white. I know that the world wasn’t black and white back then, obviously, but I always get the feeling it was when watching non-color movies, Clerks notwithstanding.
Jerry and Joe have the misfortune of witnessing a gangland murder modeled not-so-subtley after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and they go on the run disguised, hilariously, as two women, Geraldine and Josephine. It is the nature of these films that hilarity will ensue, and in this case, it does. I laughed at loud more times than I have at some recent comedies, though the jokes are a little dated and quite on the nose. Once they get hooked up with ukelele-playing singer Sugar Kane, née Kowalczyk (Ms Monroe), things really take off. Both men have the hots for her, and even though Jerry is the more lecherous of the two, it’s Joe who ends up wooing her. He does, though, have to adopt a different disguise, that of a millionaire who’s incapable of love due to a prior emotional trauma, in order to do it. Extra points to anyone who can tell what accent it is Curtis is employing during these scenes. It really is all over the place and quite unidentifiable.
I don’t think this qualifies as a musical, per se, in that there are only two numbers, and they are both set in jazz clubs. That’s one advantage to having the three mains working as musicians; these showcases for Ms Monroe’s wonderful voice don’t seem out of place or forced at all. There aren’t any farmers out singing paeans to their corn, for example. We’re witnessing the life of a singer, so of course she’ll sing. The fact that each song relates VERY closely to her current romantic situation is sheer coincidence. Her version of “I’m Through With Love” is absolutely heartbreaking.
I really enjoyed this film, and despite the warning on the poster that it isn’t suitable for children, it absolutely is. I suppose gangland shootings, cross-dressing men, and women who like to seduce emotional cripples weren’t as mainstream back then as they are today. If you’re looking for something to watch that’ll make you laugh without resorting to scatological humor or language that would make a sailor blush, give this one a shot. You won’t be disappointed.
Up next in the queue, 1933′s Duck Soup, in which our hero learns why Dr Henry Jones, Sr might think leaving his grail diary with a troupe of 1930s comedians is preferable to his archeologist son.
Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.