Joe: Synchopaters – does that mean you play that really fast music – jazz?
Sugar: Yaaah, real hot!
Joe: Oh, well, some like it hot. I personally prefer classical music.
I know, it’s overdone to introduce a movie by where its title shows up in the dialogue, but what’s so great about this exchange is that it is at a critical moment where these two characters, Sugar and Joe, are playing out their constructed fantasies on each other, hoping to get a hit on the line. Joe is almost guaranteed one, as Sugar has already confessed to his alter ego Josephine what she is looking for on this paid gig to Florida. His ploy is to play hard-to-get, even though every part of him (some more than others) is already hungry for Sugar. And pretty much everything in this movie is overdone anyway.
Because you’ve got Tony Curtis with his pretty boy looks, Jack Lemmon with his exaggerated expressions (usually exasperation) and eye twinkle, and Marilyn Monroe, with her … attributes. You’ve also got Billy Wilder in the driver’s seat, writing with I.A.L. Diamond.
In my American Cinema class, this is the one that pretty much everyone hands down likes and is usually surprised they like because “black and white movies are boring” (I urge you to please never say this to my face unless you want me to consider you a moron – nothing polarizes me quicker against you except saying George W. Bush was a good president.). The wit is sharp, the pacing overall is quick, and the characters are loveable, for the most part.
Except Joe. Joe’s an unmitigated asshole. And he seems to know this. Jerry knows but still puts up with Joe, because we need someone with a conscience for Joe to play off of. Sugar ending up with Joe at the end, the “fuzzy end of the lollipop,” is a rather odd (if predictable) resolution. He’s even told her he’s no good, and she has evidence at this point to prove it. All the guy has ever done is lie to her, and he’s done it in two different guises. So, Sugar’s right. She’s not bright at all.
When I started teaching the class, I needed to get my hands on the movies. Some I duped (hi, FBI!), and some I bought. I bought SLIH because I liked it. What was cool was when it arrived and I popped it open, sandwiched in with the already two discs of the Collector’s Edition was a third disk, with the handwritten pen of “Criterion Laserdisc Commentary Tracks.” Aw! Really? For me? The guy should have charged me more. I wrote him a glowing review on Amazon. And it’s so cute, because you can see when he was duping it when he had to change sides. Laserdiscs were cool. People are cool, too.
The Criterion commentary is provided by Howard Suber, who taught film and screenwriting at UCLA for decades. Two things come across in his commentary. One is exercising his theory about comedy (especially this one) being about three stages for its characters: desire, deception, and discovery. He primarily charts Sugar and Joe for this. Both had the initial desire for something specific. Sugar wants a rich millionaire, and Joe wants yet another unattached fling (what Sugar is expressly trying to avoid by finding a rich, sight-impaired bachelor). It would seem Sugar has set her goals higher than Joe, but then again, Joe is trying to bed Marilyn Monroe (because really, even if she’s playing a character, she’s still pretty much a version of herself). The irony here is that Curtis and Monroe were already “acquainted” before working together in this movie, Curtis dating Monroe when she was 19, before she became famous. So in order to work towards gaining this desire, both characters engage in deception. Joe swipes Beanstalk’s clothes and Sugar feeds back Shell Oil Jr., in a brilliant twist, Josephine and Geraldine’s Sheboygan Conservatory of Music (“Good school.”). The way lines are delivered in this movie slays me. Wilder and Diamond are at their very best. Yet they discover at the end that what they really wanted was something different. Sugar wants Joe (again, I don’t know why – the heart is such an oddball organ) and Joe still wants Sugar, just for longer than one night. I don’t necessarily buy Suber’s theory, and when I went hunting online on whether this was something established or just cooked up and served, hoping for takers, I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere other than Suber, so I guess either no one wanted a slice, or perhaps I’m missing something.
The other thing Suber gets across, intentional or otherwise, is that he LOVES Marilyn Monroe. He is very sympathetic towards her and gives a lot of biographical anecdotes along the way. I’m not really sure how I feel about Monroe. Yes, she had a horrible childhood, yes she was physically and emotionally abused, she had more abortions than the population of some small towns, but everyone is always so gooey-sad and bumble-tragic about her. These things happen to women around the world, every day, and to a much worse degree. Elton John doesn’t sing them songs. They don’t get the cover of Time magazine fifty years later (and how morbid is it to have anniversaries on someone’s death?). Because she was pretty? I mean, yeah, she was pretty. And she was a quasi-ok actress (truly, if you spend time researching this film, reading about her botched lines, her temper tantrums, her anxiety attacks, and being drunk and / or drugged up the majority of the time she was on set, then she really was more of a problem than anyone cares to own up to). I think it’s a generational thing. I’m sure the people who fawn all over her now were masturbating to pictures of her or cutting their hair to get that Marilyn look back in the 50s and turned up their noses at Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Or maybe it’s because she died relatively young. But then again, you can throw out Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and they don’t hold nearly the sway today (in fact, they rarely create a blip in pop culture anymore).
This sounds too much like a trash MM-fest. She is intoxicating in SLIH, no matter how impaired. But there are three performances that I really like in the film: Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding the III, George Raft as Spats Colombo, and Al Breneman who plays the bellhop that brings Osgood’s flowers to Geraldine and tries to make time with Josephine. Brown is hilarious with his exhales and “Zowie!”s and expression. When he’s dancing with Lemmon, I never stop giggling. And, he gets the best line of the movie. He was in nearly 70 movies stretching all the way back to 1927. He ran away to join the circus when he was 10 years old. Interesting guy. George Raft is a weird case, because in the class, we first see him as Tony’s sidekick Guino in Scarface (1932), flipping his coin. He never really had a big movie, but he was offered the parts of Rick Blaine in Casablanca and Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (two other films we watch in the class), both of which he turned down. Both movies were HUGE for Humphrey Bogart and Fred MacMurray. His appearance in this movie is film equivalent of Wilder throwing a dog a bone. In the scene where he confronts the gunsel flipping a coin (“Where’d you pick up that cheap trick?”), you get a great smack of comic and tragic. It’s inspired. And, I just like the way Breneman’s character carries himself – totally self-confident without an ounce to back it up. I love how he pulls his bow tie on an elastic band out and lets it pop back into his throat while he whistles and points to his target, winking.