All summer long PCA reviews pop culture’s greatest summer films…reminding you that the world’s best films are not in the “New Release” section at your local Blockbuster.
The Seven Year Itch (1955) – Billy Wilder’s 1955 sex-comedy The Seven Year Itch, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, has gone down in pop culture history for its iconic scene featuring Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. However, for decades film fans have been disappointed to discover that the most famous scene depicting Marilyn doesn’t even appear on the film, creating the first in what are many disappointing moments in The Seven Year Itch. However, despite the film’s many flaws, it remains to be one of the essential films in Hollywood history, and one of those movies that you need to see at least once in your lifetime. Furthermore, the film is important in the history of Hollywood for Billy Wilder’s battles with censorship, as well as being the backdrop for some of the key moments in Marilyn Monroe lore.
Paperback editor Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) sends his wife and son to Maine for the summer holidays as he stays home to battle a sweltering heat wave in Manhattan. However, just how hot is it going to get? Already suffering of “The Seven Year Itch,” the point in a marriage when a man approaching middle age begins to chase after “other” women, the heat is turned up five notches when a tantalizing model/actress (Marilyn Monroe) sub-lets the apartment above Sherman. A friendship is quickly formed between Sherman and “the girl”, but as Sherman tries to fend of thoughts of adultery, “the girl’s” naturally flirtatious ways lead him down a path of lust, guilt, desire and paranoia. Will Charles Sherman give it to the seven year itch? As Manhattan tries to stay cool, Sherman’s summer is about to get red hot.
Adapted from George Axelrod’s 1952 hit Broadway production, The Seven Year Itch was sought out by Billy Wilder in an effort to try to push the boundaries of what he could get away with in the ways of portraying sexual subjects on screen. Teaming up with Axelrod, who was brought in to rewrite the production for the screen, Wilder knew he had a hit on his hands. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Hayes Office (the censorship committee of the era) was all over The Seven Year Itch like…well…JFK on Marilyn Monroe. Quickly censoring the majority of Axelrod’s sizzling and sexually filled dialogue which made the Broadway production such a success, the Hayes Office also informed Wilder that he couldn’t depict Charles Sherman actually having an affair with “the girl.” With that being the major plot point of the original Broadway show, which was about a man’s guilt after he cheats on his wife, Wilder and Axelrod were forced to forgo the screen version of The Seven Year Itch with the relationship between Sherman and “the girl” being chaste, to the point of almost being boring. In the end a watered down, weakened version of the original Broadway play was all that Wilder and Axelrod were left with to work with, but they hoped that the screen chemistry between Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell would be enough to bring what was now an essentially a very dull script to be a comedy masterpiece.
Despite the fact that The Seven Year Itch is probably one of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous films, unfortunately it is not her finest acting performance. Marilyn Monroe has always been an actress who’s performance gets weaker when she is given more to do, but despite being able to put the sizzle in each scene she appears in Marilyn seems to be stunned throughout the majority of the film, and for the exception of a few scenes, lacks the charisma that made her a goddess on the silver screen. Perhaps it was the dull wordy script that hindered her, or maybe her history with mental problems that were known to affect her throughout her life. Whatever the case, it was reported that Wilder was forced to shoot up to forty takes of some scenes in an attempt to allow Marilyn to “get it right.” Yet, the ongoing frustration of working with Marilyn wouldn’t hinder Wilder from working with her again a year later in Some Like it Hot, which was not only a superior film to The Seven Year Itch in every way, but Wilder was able to get a spectacular performance out of Marilyn by giving her a much smaller, but important, part.
Originally Wilder wanted Walter Matthau, who at the time was a complete unknown, for the role of Richard Sherman. However, 20th Century Fox did not want to pair “a nobody” up with Marilyn Monroe and wanted leading man Gary Cooper in the role, despite the fact that the character is supposed to be a jerky little “everyman” character. Eventually the studio and the producers agreed to cast Tom Ewell, who had not only originated the part of Sherman on the stage, but had won a Tony Award for his performance. Never a leading man, Ewell was the natural choice, and despite Marilyn’s scene stealing moments, the film is really about his character and Ewell carries the film around on his shoulders. Yet, even Ewell seems to struggle with the screen adaptation, probably from dealing with the troublesome Monroe as well as the neutered version of the script he had been handed. However, Ewell makes due with what he is given and gives the most decent performance in the film.
Of course what really puts The Seven Year Itch on the pop culture radar is the famous scene where Marilyn Monroe stands on the subway grate and her white dress is blown over her head. This is one of the most famous images in pop culture history, and the filming of the scene would make headlines, as well as wreak havoc in Marilyn Monroe’s already tumultuous life. Originally set to be filmed on location at Lexington Ave in New York City, word got out that Wilder and Monroe would be filming the titillating scene, bringing out what was reported to be nearly five thousand on-lookers, which shut down traffic for blocks. For over an hour Marilyn’s dress blew over her head as Wilder did take after take, and photographers snapped picture after picture, while Marilyn mugged for the fans, who cat called and cheered. Also amongst the crowd was Marilyn’s husband, New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, who became increasingly uncomfortable, and eventually furious, with Marilyn’s provocative public performance. Later that night the couple engaged in a heated argument which finished with Joe storming off back to Los Angeles. Days later Marilyn was served with divorce papers and the all American couple’s marriage was finished after only nine months. Ironically, due to the chaos of the spectators, the New York shoot was deemed unusable by Wilder, and the scene was reset back in LA at the Fox studios, where Marilyn did another forty takes of the dress blowing over her head. However, in the end, the scene was forced by the Hayes Office to be reedited so that Marilyn was not able to be shown on the screen except for just above her knees, completely ruining the effect of the scene. Thus, the famous scene does not actually appear in the film as it does in the famous photos, which were primarily taken during the night shoot in New York. Yet, despite the Hayes Office forcing the scene’s edit on the screen, images of the dress blowing over Marilyn’s head was allowed to be used on all promotional materials, including the poster and a fifty foot billboard that was erected in New York. One final irony…when The Seven Year Itch premiered on June 1st, 1955 (incidentally Marilyn Monroe’s 29th birthday), guess who her date was? None other then now ex-husband Joe DiMaggio! WTF?
The Seven Year Itch had the potential to be a true cinema masterpiece. The original stage production was funny and boundary pushing, Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe would prove in their next film that they could be a winning team, and Tom Ewell had already won a major award for his performance as Richard Sherman. However, due to the surrounding drama, hype and, most importantly, the extreme censorship by the Hayes Office, The Seven Year Itch doesn’t deliver up to it’s reputation. Yet, for scholars of 1950’s films it is a film to study as a way to see how film makers dealt with the subject of sexuality in a repressive era, and for Marilyn Monroe fans it is essential viewing as being one of her most iconic films and most famous performances.