MARILYN MONROE

We stumbled across an old TV interview with Tony Curtis recently, and that prompted us to watch “Some Like it Hot,” the 1959 Billy Wilder film, which neither of us had seen. The premise of this movie is that dance band musicians Jerry and Joe, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, inadvertently witness the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a Chicago garage in 1929 and have to leave town to avoid being killed themselves. They do that by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl band that is on its way to an engagement in Florida. (The Florida scenes, curiously, were filmed at the instantly recognizable Hotel Del Coronado in California.) Both of the fugitives are immediately attracted to the zaftig singing ukulele player, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Marilyn Monroe. Joe (aka Josephine) seizes the advantage with Sugar Kane by posing as the millionaire scion of an oil magnate, and that leads to a steamy encounter aboard a yacht. In that role, Curtis does a hilarious imitation of Cary Grant’s voice. Meanwhile, Jerry (aka Daphne) gets drawn into a relationship with an older sugar daddy, played by Joe E. Brown, in which the gender issue gets a little hazy.

JOE E. BROWN and JACK LEMMON

This film combines violence and overt sexuality with implausible farce. It wouldn’t stir up the pond today, but it was controversial in its own time. Marilyn Monroe’s make-out scene with Tony Curtis – and a couple of very revealing dresses she wore – contributed to the negative reactions the film got in what was clearly a different era than our own. The cast, which also included George Raft and Pat O’Brien deliberately type-cast as fictional mob boss “Spats” Colombo and Chicago police Detective Mulligan, was a talented aggregation and made the odd mix of dark and light themes work very well. The film was shot in black-and-white, which somehow seems appropriate to the ’20s setting, but I read that the decision was driven by the fact that the makeup Lemmon and Curtis wore did not reproduce well in color.

As much as I liked this movie, I was surprised to learn that it has been described in laudatory terms ranging from one of the best comedies ever made to the best comedy ever made, to one of the best pictures ever made. I always look askance at statements like that because of the volume of work – done by a wide variety of artists in a wide variety of times and circumstances – that has to be dismissed to make such an evaluation true. It’s enough to say that “Some Like it Hot” was a very good movie. It won an Oscar and was nominated for seven others, and it won Golden Globe awards for Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and as best picture of the year.

JOE E. BROWN

A lot has been written about the making of this movie, including accounts of how much trouble Marilyn Monroe caused during the production — which must have particularly irked Wilder, who originally planned to use Mitzi Gaynor in that part. Monroe was chronically late and often couldn’t remember her lines and had to read them from cues concealed on the set. She was also pregnant, and appears overweight – even for her – in several scenes.

On the other hand, it was a rare pleasure to watch a performance by Joe E. Brown, who is largely forgotten now but had a keen sense of comedy and was one of the gentlemen of the film industry.

JOE E. BROWN

Although Bob Hope got a lot of attention for the amount of time he devoted to American servicemen and women, Joe E. Brown did his share, too, particularly during World War II. He was a regular figure at the Hollywood Canteen, where he personally interacted with the visiting troops, and he paid his own way to travel more than 200,000 miles into war zones to entertain, often under difficult conditions. He was often known to repeat his whole show for hospitalized soldiers who had been unable to attend the regular performance. He also carried sacks of mail from servicemen and women back to the United States so that it would be delivered through the regular postal service and reach their families more quickly. Brown and Ernie Pyle were the only two civilians awarded the Bronze Star during World War II.

Joe E. Brown was also one of the few public figures who spoke out in favor of admitting refugee Jewish children into the United States while Adolf Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe. In 1939 – flying in the face of both anti-Semitism and isolationism – Brown appealed to a Congressional committee to pass a bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children into the U.S. “We shouldn’t be smug about this,” Brown told the committee, “and say that we are getting along all right so let the rest of the world take care of itself.”

Joe E. Brown testifies before the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, 1939

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Sheet music to "So Long, Oolong"

When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.

The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of  Ruby and Kalman.

HARRY RUBY

Harry Ruby first came to my attention when  I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.

The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”

BARBRA STREISAND

Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.

As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always  wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.

LOU GEHRIG

Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard