Some Like It Hot, a classic screwball comedy, centers around two women who are actually men. After witnessing a mob hit, Joe and Jerry, two musicians from Chicago, have to dress in drag in order to escape the same fate as Toothpick Charlie, to escape being "rubbed out." Through the exploitation of classic gender stereotypes and the reversal of sexual identities, this film takes the screwball genre to a new level. It is through this that we realize that a great deal of the humor within Some Like It Hot actually comes from pushing many of the conventions of the screwball genre to new extremes, taking themes common to genre and exploiting them.
One of the most difficult points of establishing the conventions of the screwball comedy in Some Like It Hot comes from the fact that the screwball comedy genre does not have a great many identifying characteristics. It was stated in the reading,
“[The screwball comedy] lacks easily identifiable elements of setting and iconography…the screwball comedy is distinguished essentially by its style and theme” (151).
Unlike the western which is identifiable through its location in the old west, its reliance on the western hero stereotype, and numerous other characteristics, the screwball comedy cannot be identified nearly as easily. They take place in all different settings with all different kinds of characters facing all different kinds of situations. However, the reading continues to state:
“The genre derives its identity from a style of behavior (reflected in certain camerawork and editing techniques) and from narrative patterns that treat sexual confrontation and courtship through the socioeconomic conflicts of Depression America” (151).
Other than the unifying witty dialogue and banter, Some Like It Hot can most clearly be classified as a screwball comedy through thematic elements, as described above. A prevalent conflict within the genre, that of gender roles and stereotypes, is exploited within this film, pushed to an extreme that had never before been attempted.
Men dressing and acting as women. The blatant sexuality questions that came from this shocked audiences across the nation. However, in doing so, this film became a very important commentary on gender roles in everyday lives.
The most obvious appearance of this theme is in Joe and Jerry's evolution from men into "women." By cross-dressing, the men take on the outside appearance of women, beginning to blur the line between the two genders. As they continue on, Jerry and Joe begin to assimilate to the world of women. They are able to walk better in high heels, even run in them. They hang around with the women, accepted into the confidence only granted to "girlfriends." Jerry even ends up going out with a man. Through this, there really is no clear divide between man and woman. The audience is aware that they are both men and yet, is still watching them be women, leading to a collision between the two genders.
In actuality, this seems to be more of a reference to the fact that gender roles can be created through society's reaction to a person's outward appearance. How the two men are supposed to act is dictated and emphasized by factors such as whether or not they are wearing their wigs or if they are in dresses as opposed to pants. Though they are the same people internally, the second their "women costumes" go on, they are seen to be completely different. Outward appearance does not change what is inside, but it does change how you are perceived.
On the other side, women in the film do not act as the stereotypical, meek and passive women as they did in many movies. Rather, these women often acted more like the stereotypical man. They drank and smoked and according to the conductor, swore. The second Daphne and Josephine get onto the train they are met with a girl telling raunchy jokes.
The same is true sexually as well, as revealed by the scene in the boat. Sugar Kane is largely the aggressor. She is the one attempting to seduce him, the one dimming the lights and trying to get him somewhat drunk. Typically, this is a role held by the man. Sexually, she becomes more dominate, Joe lying almost passively beneath her as she kisses him.
This change in roles leads to one of the unifying themes of the film, that being that gender roles do not actually hold true. By flipping the stereotypes, it is established that women can be just as much men as men can and vice versa. There is no gender identity, as so many people tried to pretend there to be. Rather, there people are just people. Whether they are men or women is irrelevant.
From that arises the theme of altered identities which plays a quite obvious and pivotal role within the film. Neither of the two main characters are who they pretend to be. They are both men attempting to convince everyone that they are in fact women. In doing so, they are thrown into the real world of women, shown a side of them never really before seen. They have become "one of the girls" and, as discussed above, are able to further illuminate the conflict between men and women.
In addition to these thematic conventions, the film does end with one very particular convention of the genre: the utopian embrace. At the conclusion of many screwball comedies, the main couple embraces at the end of the film, establishing a balance in their roles and in the society. It acts as a way to unite two completely different ideals, the middle and the upper class, man and woman, forming a strong bond and tying up the central conflict.
This moment occurs as the group escapes on Osgood's boat, the very final scene of the film. At this point, Joe has let Sugar know that he is actually Josephine, blurring the lines between men and women. She rushes to join him in his escape, leaping onto the boat as they drive away. Though Joe attempts to convince her to go back, she kisses him, once again acting as the aggressor. Not only does this moment establish a unity between these two characters, it also establishes a unity between the roles of man and woman.
Still, this is not the final moment of the film. Instead, "Daphne" admits to Osgood that she too is actually a man. This, even more than the actual embrace, makes a statement regarding the roles of gender in society. Jerry states, "I'm a man," to which Osgood replies, "Nobody's perfect," indicating that the switch in gender makes no difference to him at all. As a result, the central discord of the film, the disharmony between the identities of man and woman, are brought to a head. This comment actually functions far more as the utopian embrace than the actual embrace does. It leads to an "idealistic utopian resolution" in which gender really does not matter.
However, some of the typical conventions of the screwball comedy are actually absent in this film. There is a set of characters that is generally present in this genre, the aristocratic father figure one of the most prevalent. In this movie though, there really is no such figure. The majority of characters are young women (whether they actually are or not is negligible), gangsters, or love interests. As a result, the character of the initially disapproving father who makes a turn around at the end of the film is bypassed.
This leads into the idea that this film could potentially be considered a mixed-genre film, picking and choosing conventions from more than one genre in order to more fully explore the depth of the characters and the themes.
After researching, it could be argued that Some Like It Hot reflects elements of the gangster genre. As a whole, the gangster genre is easier to characterize than the screwball comedy. It always centers around gangsters, men living outside the law. It almost always takes place in a city, somewhere in which a dark and effective crime ring can be set up. Policemen, machine guns, underground businesses, are all part of this genre.
Obviously, this bears some resemblance to Some Like It Hot. First, the beginning segment of the film takes place within the city of Chicago, mob capital of the nation. It opens in a speakeasy which at the time, was an incredibly illegal business that made many gangsters a great deal of money. Also, the idea of hiding in plain sight, settling just beneath the law, is carried through in this film. By concealing the speakeasy behind a funeral parlor and by smuggling the alcohol in the coffin, the gangsters were able to plead innocence, ignorance, just as Spats did at the beginning of the film. Al Capone, one of the most famous gangsters in the country, was arrested on charges of tax evasion. Like with the characters in this film, the police could never solidly tie him to anything else despite the fact they knew he was involved. Even further, Al Capone was the prime suspect in the Saint Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, just as Spats is in the movie.
However, this is around where the film moves away from the gangster genre and further into the screwball comedy. The two main characters leave the city, seemingly leaving the mobsters and machine guns and speakeasies behind them. Even when the gangsters return at the end of the film, they are out of their assigned setting, adding to the screwball aspect of the comedy.
Another main deviation from the classic gangster films which establishes Some Like It Hot as a mixed-genre film is the fact that the main characters are not actually gangsters themselves. In most gangster films, the central character has some direct tie to the mafia, a familial connection, indebted through money, or even an immediate part of the crime family. In this film though, the main characters are actually attempting to flee from the mob, are trying to avoid becoming even further embroiled with them than they already are. Though I suppose somewhere out there someone has made an argument for Spats as the hero of this gangster film, this is probably not what is supposed to be taken from the film.
Through all of this, it becomes clear Some Like It Hot really melds together the gangster genre and the screwball comedy, using conventions of both in order to increase both the tension and the humor of the situations at hand. Beneath it all though is a very real commentary on gender roles in society, suggesting a unity between the sexes. It doesn't argue that one is superior to the other, rather, it argues that idealistic gender roles are as crazy as the film itself becomes. As a result, Some Like It Hot has been able to establish itself as one of the most groundbreaking comedies of all time, carrying on the screwball comedy genre and its themes into the future of filmmaking.