This film was made from August to November 1958 and was released in March 1959. Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed it, and Marilyn Monroe starred in it. This film which owes a lot in style and pacing to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, probably marked the high point in each of their careers.
Wilder, who was born in Galicia, now part of Poland, in 1906, had come to America in 1933. By the late 1930s he was a screenwriter who wrote hit films (starting with Garbo’s comic debut in Ninotchka in 1939). His first job as a director came with Double Indemnity in 1944. The view in his films is often cynical (think of Sunset Boulevard in 1950), but some of them such as The Seven Year Itch (1955), or The Apartment (1960) or this movie, rank as some of the best remembered comedies.
After a series of bit parts in movies, Monroe, born in Los Angeles in 1926, came into her own as a star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Everyone who has seen her in a film knows about her sexual chemistry in front of the camera, and nearly everyone knows that she had a troubled emotional history, and died, a probable suicide, in 1962. Roger Ebert, writing about “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, a song she sang in this movie, remarked, “She wears that clinging, see-through dress, gauze covering the upper slopes of her breasts, the neckline scooping to a censor’s eyebrow north of trouble. Wilder places her in the center of a round spotlight that does not simply illuminate her from the waist up, as an ordinary spotlight would, but toys with her like a surrogate neckline, dipping and clinging as Monroe moves her body higher and lower in the light with teasing precision. It is a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous. All the time she seems unaware of the effect, singing the song innocently, as if she thinks it’s the literal truth.”
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play the musicians on the lam from the mob. Curtis’ performance here is maybe the most recalled of his career, along with a more serious role in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). This film marks the start of Lemmon’s memorable career in comedies. Often, he worked with Wilder – for instance, The Apartment previously cited, and his later pairings with Walter Matthau including The Fortune Cookie (1967), and The Front Page (1974).
Both George Raft and Pat O’Brien play characters who take their major styles from the tough guy roles they played at Warner Brothers in the 1930s. Joe E. Brown, who was a comedy star in the early days of talkies, plays the amorous millionaire brilliantly. The location scenes on the beach, billed as Florida in the film, are at the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado Beach, just outside San Diego.
Orry Kelly won an Oscar for his costume design, Wilder was nominated for best director and best screenplay (with his co-author I.A.L. Diamond), Lemmon was nominated for best actor, Charles Lang for best cinematography, and Ted Haworth and Edward Boyle for best set decoration. The film went on the National Film Registry as worthy of preservation in 1989, the first year films were chosen for that honor. In 2000 the American Film Institute named it the funniest American movie of all time. That might overstate it. The New York Times review of March 30, 1959 by A.H. Weiler commented that the film is overlong (a full two hours), and that the sight of men teetering around on high heels wears thin awfully quickly. But even so that reviewer and many others since agreed it was a masterful comedy. I hope you enjoy it tonight.