(On Cable TV, September 2018) I sometimes do other things while watching movies, but as The Great Race went on, I had to put those other things away and restart the film. There is an astonishing density of gags to its first few minutes (from the title sequence, even) that require undivided attention. While the first act of the film does set up expectations that the second half fails to meet, it does make The Great Race far more interesting than expected. Clearly made with a generous budget, this is a comedy that relies a lot on practical gags, built on a comic foundation that harkens back to silent-movie stereotypes. Making no excuses for its white-versus-black characters, the film features Tony Curtis as an impossibly virtuous hero, facing the comically dastardly antagonist played with gusto by Jack Lemmon in one of his most madcap comic performance. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood has never looked better as the romantic interest (seeing her parade in thigh-high black stockings unarguably works in the film’s favour) and both Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn are able seconds. The film’s visual gags are strong, and so is writer/director Blake Edwards’s willingness to go all-out of his comic set pieces: The legendary pie fight is amusing, but I prefer the Saloon brawl for its sense of mayhem. There is a compelling energy to the film’s first hour, as pleasantly stereotyped characters are introduced, numerous visual gags impress and the film’s sense of fun is firmly established. Alas, that rhythm lags a bit in the last hour, with an extended parody of The Prisoner of Zenda that falls flat more than it succeeds (although it does contain that pie fight sequence). Still, it’s a fun film and the practical nature of the vehicular gags makes for a change of pace from other comedies. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected.
(On DVD, January 2018) Curiously enough, it takes longer than expected for Some Like it Hot to warm up. The first act, in which two Chicago-based musicians witness a mob murder and decide to go on the run by cross-dressing and joining an all-female musical group to Florida, is occasionally a slog. Sure, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are sympathetic enough, and Marilyn Monroe makes a striking entrance, but the film seems far too busy setting up its ridiculous situation to get many laughs. Things get much better once the story lands in a posh Florida resort, as the complications pile up and the film’s true nature starts coming out. By the time Lemmon’s character has to fake being uninterested in Monroe as she slinks all over him, or as Curtis rather likes the attention he’s getting as a woman, the film starts hitting its peak comic moments. It keeps going to a rather simple but effective final line. It helps, from an atmospheric perspective, that the Floridian passages spend quality time looking at a high-end lifestyle in which yachts are treated as mobile homes for the rich—there’s some wish-fulfillment right there. Thematically, the film has a few surprises in store: For a comedy dealing in cross-dressing and attraction based on misrepresented gender, Some Like it Hot has aged surprisingly well—it’s far less prone to gay panic than you’d expect from a movie from the fifties, and still feels almost progressive in the way it approaches same-sex attraction. As a result of its pro-love anti-hate agenda, it can be rewatched without too much trouble even today, while many (most!) movies of its era feel grossly dated. Much of this credit goes to director Billy Wilder as he allows Lemmon, Curtis and Monroe, to become a terrific comic trio and help the film get over its duller moments. The far more interesting last half makes up for an average beginning, and Some Like it Hot is still worth a look today.