WARNING: The following article assumes the reader has seen the movie being discussed. It may likely include key plot points, spoilers, and references to the movie's ending.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Directed by Billy Wilder.
Monroe's Movie, Whether It Wanted to Be or Not
You know the scenario. You've seen the pictures. Marilyn Monroe is in a lovely white dress with a huge, fluffy skirt. She's standing over a subway grate, and when the underground train goes by, it sends the air up through the grate. Monroe's skirt billows upward, revealing her legs. She tries to hold down the skirt with her hands, but all the while she is smiling delightedly at the feel of the strong, cool gust. It is the iconic picture of Monroe, and this is the movie it came from.
And that's the start of the little identity crisis that this rather funny, witty comedy has. Whose movie is this anyway? The film is about an ordinary joe who is left alone for the summer while his wife and kid are vacationing, and the dilemma he faces as he fights the urge to be adulterous with the stunning summer subletter upstairs. The whole movie is about his dilemma and his wild runaway imagination, dreaming up possible future scenarios given his current situation. And yet this show belongs to Marilyn Monroe. Everything about this movie screams Monroe. She dominates the movie. It's her movie.
The Seven Year Itch began as a Broadway play by George Axelrod. It starred the same actor, Tom Ewell, who would play the main character, Richard Sherman, in the movie. In the play, Sherman actually has an affair with the upstairs neighbor, referred to in the script as "The Girl." His guilt triggers humorous follow-ups. The dialogue was also quite racy. All of this was trimmed down for the movie because of the strict Hollywood censor-like code at the time. Direct references to adultery had to be excised. Dialogue was toned down. And the affair? It never actually occurs.
So it's quite a credit to Axelrod and co-screenwriter/director Billy Wilder that the movie turned out as funny as it did. The humor now comes from a should I/shouldn't I conundrum, as Sherman fights his natural urges to spend his time in The Girl's company in order to stay undoubtedly true to his wife, Helen (Evelyn Keyes). It's easier said than done; not only is Helen seen by Mr. Sherman as the sort of suspicious nag that wouldn't trust her husband to do the right things, but she seems to be spending a lot of time with an old acquaintance named Tom MacKenzie (Sonny Tufts) on her vacation. This makes that ol' seven year itch of Sherman's all the more needing of a scratch, and how convenient is it that there's this air-headed bombshell seeking the comfort of his air-conditioned apartment in the searing Manhattan summer? Of course, all of this sends Sherman's imagination flying. The fantasy sequences are hilarious, as Sherman imagines boasting of his sexual prowess to his wife; having a passionate time with The Girl as he plays Rachmoninoff on the piano; being helpless as the story of their actual relationship is spread and blown out of proportion; suffering the consequences upon the wife's return; and so on.
The situation and the fantasy sequences, along with Sherman's constant monologuing of his thoughts (an interesting device that can get a little old), would be enough to provide for a strong comedy about a man's natural desire to chase the young ladies while the wives are away. However, it gets shadowed, and I mean very noticeably shadowed, by The Girl, played by Marilyn Monroe. Her presence fills the screen. She looks great, and her dumb-blonde act is honed to perfection and absolutely endearing. When Sherman tells her about Rachmaninoff, that vacuous look in her eyes is both cute and priceless. Her innocent lines, such as the one about keeping her "undies in the freezer," or when she's delivering her toothpaste pitch, are sexy in that naive sort of way. And everything she wears gives way to suggestive fantasy. Monroe steals the show. When she leaves the scene, and we're back to Sherman's monologues, we're almost frustrated with impatience for the next time she shows up again. That's too bad, because there are plenty of funny moments written for when Sherman is by himself, getting all paranoid. Monroe's presence really adds to the movie, but at the same time it detracts from the story of Sherman's situation. She is the strength and the weakness of the movie. It's interesting to note it, but at the same time you may not care just because you're getting the very essence of classic Monroe in the end no matter what.
If Monroe's being the draw and the distraction of the movie proves to be an irony, one more irony would have to come from that famous scene itself. The subway grate scene, for all the anticipation for it, just comes and goes. No bells, no whistles. It happens twice, and the shots are actually quite tame. You see her dress blow upwards, and you see her legs, but you never see her full body in any of the shots. When you see those pictures of Monroe playfully holding down her dress, you have to recall that you don't ever actually see that in the movie. It's just a shot of her legs cutting to a shot of her upper body and smiling face. It would seem the old censors made sure it couldn't have been anything more than that. That's a little disappointing, given all the hype about that scene (even at the time of its first release, where its first shooting drew huge crowds and a VERY angry onlooking Mr. Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio). But that's ok. I find this movie to be a definitive Marilyn Monroe movie that happened to also have a pretty witty script. All it would have needed was the "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and it would have been all you'd ever need to see to get that perfect dose of Marilyn.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jul. 6, 2001