The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together
Some Like It Hot (B&W, 1959) B
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe
Ages: 7 and up
The Sell: Boys will be girls.
The Plot: The Roaring 20s. Two Chicago jazz musicians (Lemmon and Curtis) run afoul of local gangsters, witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and have to grab the first out-of-town job available -- with an all-girl orchestra. On go the flapper dresses, wigs, and chokers, followed by a lunatic train ride to Florida (played by San Diego). When one of the heroes falls in love with the band's star attraction (Monroe), he poses as a rich twit to woo her, borrowed yacht and all. Then the other guy gets engaged -- to a man. Then the gangsters show up again.
Why it's here: It's an elemental calculus: (Men) + (Women's clothing) = Funny. I have no idea why this is so, but it goes back a ways. Presumably there was a Cro Magnon comedian 10,000 years ago who strapped on a pair of coconuts and the paleolithic equivalent of a housedress and slayed 'em around the campfire one night. The genetic express runs from that to the Monty Python boys and right through this movie.
To children, cross-dressing is even funnier, because it's terrifying. Case in point: Eliza's friend Jerome (not his real name) , who came over to play in the yard one snowy day, got his clothes soaked in a drift, and had to wear my wife's sweatpants while waiting for his jeans to go through the dryer. Sweatpants: about as asexual as it gets, right? Only the poor kid sat at the dining room table in a fetal ball of gender confusion, asking, begging, every 30 seconds, were his pants ready? He couldn't even make eye contact.
This is someone primed for the great hymn to transvestite embarrassment that is Some Like It Hot.
There's a lot to love in this, the comedy many observers feel is the funniest single movie to come out of Hollywood. There's Lemmon at the top of his game as a Nervous Norbert who finds the freedom to be as femme as he wants to be in drag. There's Curtis delivering a pitch-perfect Cary Grant impression once he puts on the yachting cap to win Monroe. ("Nobody talks like that!" snipes Lemmon). There's old Hollywood ghost George Raft as gangster Spats, and rescuscitated vaudeville ham Joe E. Brown as the millionaire with the hots for Lemmon; the latter is especially priceless as he flaps his enormous mouth and gets off the movie's closing gag, a topper that is inarguable and hilarious.
And there's Marilyn. Let this movie be your children's introduction to her, and to the entire concept of the beautiful and the doomed in popular culture. From Monroe they can move on to Judy Garland and James Dean, to Buddy Holly and Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, to all the unlucky and unready whose deaths we seem to need. Marilyn was the first moth to the flame of modern celebrity, and all you have to do is mention that she died young, show your kids "Some Like it Hot," and let her vibrant, uncontainable sadness do the rest.
Pause-button Explanations: You'll have to explain what Prohibition was (and speakeasies and the rise of gangsters) and you'll have to do it early, since the film's first sight gag is a hearse with coffins full of bootleg liquor. If this leads into a discussion of the futility of legislating morality -- well, good luck.
Useless trivia: The actor playing Spats, George Raft, was coming off a long career in gangster roles; the coin-flipping bit is a parody of his own gimmick in the 1932 classic Scarface. Monroe drove her director and co-stars batty with her inability to remember even the simplest lines of dialogue; a fed-up Curtis reportedly claimed that kissing her "was like kissing Hitler" (and later denied he ever said it).
What next: Depends on which direction you want to go. If your kids crave more Marilyn, head to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the only other four-star movie she made. More Jack Lemmon, try The Odd Couple (1968) and The Great Race (1965). If they're jaded enough to handle Billy Wilder's mordantly funny worldview, show them Sabrina (1954) and save The Apartment (1960) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) until they're a little older.