A Few Thoughts on The Seven Year Itch (1955)
When I first became enamored of classic Hollywood, there were a handful of actors who were responsible for introducing me to this new wonderful world. At the time, the one who shone the brightest was Marilyn Monroe. My sister first discovered her for a school project and soon both of us were fascinated by this incredible woman. I'll never forget when my sister received a box set of Marilyn's films for her birthday; we devoured those films as quickly as we could and to this day I cherish them. To celebrate Ms. Monroe's June 1st birthday, I thought I'd host my own three-day tribute by looking at three of those films that were so pivotal for me. Forget the tragedies, the romances, and the what-might-have-beens. What I want to focus on is the work, the iconic performances that Marilyn left behind. First was Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; today is Billy Wilder's infamous comedy The Seven Year Itch.
It's weird to think that The Seven Year Itch was my first Billy Wilder film. At the time I saw it, the only classic Hollywood director I really cared to learn about was Hitchcock, so, for me, Itch was much more a Marilyn Monroe movie than a Wilder one. Perhaps it's because of this mindset that I didn't place any expectations on the film. Like everyone else, I knew it contained the infamous subway grate scene, but I basically went into the film knowing nothing about it, its director, and its cast. (Now I watch it and go, "Whoa, Evelyn Keyes! Oscar Homolka! Victor Moore! Donald McBride! Carolyn Jones?!")
These days, Wilder has become my second favorite director, a man whose eye for incredible wit and sparkling romance has swept me off of my feet more times than I can count. Because I've become so familiar with Wilder, I was curious how The Seven Year Itch, a film I hadn't revisited in years, would stack up, especially since I remembered enjoying it but I've heard many others say it's subpar work from the iconoclastic filmmaker.
A smash hit on Broadway, Itch is about Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), a cranky, bored book publisher who sends his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and young son to Maine for the summer while he stays behind in sweltering New York for work. The more time Richard spends alone, though, the more jittery he becomes as he tries to fight such vices as junk food, liquor, smoking... and sex. That last one is made especially hard to ignore when his upstairs neighbors lend their apartment to a buxom blonde, credited only as The Girl (Monroe). As they spend the next few evenings together, platonically I should stress, Richard worries that he is experiencing "the seven year itch," which a psychiatrist client explains is when a lot of men are driven to have extra-marital affairs in the seventh year of marriage.
I must confess, before watching this film again for this piece, I was all fired up to defend it as the great, underrated comedy I remembered it to be. After my latest viewing, however, I'm afraid that won't be happening. To be completely honest, whenever Monroe wasn't on the screen, I lost interest. It all just seemed... lackluster? I'm not sure if that's the right word, but I think my biggest issue with the material is the character of Richard.
When 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to George Axelrod's play, they were thinking about such stars as Gary Cooper and William Holden to play Richard. Axelrod and Wilder were adamant, though, that the whole point of the guy is how ordinary and unattractive (their word) he is. Although he puts up a front of swaggering confidence, he is motivated by insecurity and neuroses. His pairing with the Girl is supposed to feel odd and mismatched. The audience wouldn't feel that if Richard was played by such dreamboats as Cooper and Holden. Walter Matthau made a screen test, but the role eventually went to the man who originated the part on Broadway, Tom Ewell.
I like Ewell's performance. His dry humor works well here and he can handle the more screwball aspects, such as acting like a suave British man during one of his fantasies or imagining that he is getting shot by Helen. Ewell manages to make me believe that Richard genuinely loves his wife, and he flips between the character's moments of relaxation and panic with ease. However, Richard is a bit of a creep. His flirtation with the Girl isn't innocent, although because of the Production Code it was toned down (in the play, they actually sleep together). He leers at her and lies about being married with a son until she sees his wedding ring. Their first kiss is the result of him tricking her.
The film seems to tell us that this is all okay because the Girl isn't shy about her sexuality. She proudly shows Richard a suggestive photo of herself in a two-piece swimsuit. She talks about how she was thrown out of her previous apartment because she couldn't adhere to the building's curfew and rules. While wearing no clothes (as implied by her bare shoulders and the plants blocking the rest of her body), she tells Richard about keeping her underwear in the icebox as a way to cool off in the heat. She was embarrassed to be rescued by a plumber when she got her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet, not because she was naked but because her toenails weren't painted. The film interprets all of this as the heterosexual man's ultimate fantasy. Not only is this drop-dead gorgeous woman happily presenting herself as a sex goddess, she is available to Richard whenever he wishes to see her and she goes along with whatever he wants to do. She accepts whatever he tells her, such as when he insists that she never put sugar in a martini ever again even though she loves the taste.
That being said, I found myself wondering if the Girl is actually a subversive character. The comfort she has with her body and her sexuality is something she has a right to, and all things considered, she is still a "nice girl." The best thing about The Seven Year Itch is the disconnect between her and Richard. While he builds up these wild ideas about seduction and romance, the reality is much different because the Girl isn't who he thinks she is. It never enters his mind that she has her own thoughts, feelings, and desires.
The expectation: when Richard first invites her to his apartment for a drink, he imagines himself in a debonair smoking jacket, expertly playing Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" as the Girl, in a skin-tight evening gown, melts next to him on the piano bench until they embrace passionately.
For her part, the Girl seems unaware that Richard has dishonorable intentions, although it can be tricky to tell because Monroe and the script make things quite vague. Throughout the film, the Girl's primary concern is surviving the summer heat. The infamous subway grate moment exists because of her quest to keep cool. She also keeps returning to Richard's apartment because he has air conditioning and she doesn't. One of the film's most telling scenes is when she is sitting in front of the A/C unit while Richard mixes them some cocktails. As he chatters away about psychoanalysis and how he thinks she is in love with him, the camera occasionally cuts to her quietly devising how she is going to stay cool during the night, totally unaware of what Richard is saying. She finally decides to ask him if she can sleep in his apartment. Worried about what the neighbors would say, he tells her it isn't possible -- but then relents when she discovers a secret hatch that enables her to come and go without anyone ever seeing her. That night, the Girl peacefully sleeps in Richard's nice, cool bed... while he anxiously lays on a couch in the living room.
Although The Seven Year Itch is (no longer) a favorite of mine, I know I'll keep coming back to it because of Monroe. She gives the film its liveliness, its eroticism, and much of its humor. Her presence is just electrifying, proving that while she wasn't the first or the last of the blonde bombshells, she endures thanks to an indefinable star quality. Despite often playing an archetype, I always felt that Monroe took her characters just a little bit beyond that. The Girl isn't a clueless sexpot, but rather a delightful woman with a bubbly personality and no filter. She is more than just the image of a white dress being blown up by the wind. And Monroe was, too.
This is my second of three entries for the Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon. You can read the other lovely posts here!