Film Flick: The Seven Year Itch

Friday, June 16, 2017

It sometimes happens that a part of a movie- a great line, a costume,  a soundtrack- can outshine the overall product and become ingrained in our cultural conscience. Such is the case with a white, billowing skirt over subway vents. It helps of course that said dress is on Marilyn Monroe; the picture of her pushing down her skirt is instantaneously recognizable. But to only remember that does a disservice to the film that created such an iconic image.

The sweltering summer heat has people fleeing crowded New York City for cooler climates, if they can, or to air conditioning, at the very least. Richard Sherman (a role reprised from the play by Tom Ewell) sends his wife and kid off to the country, but stays to toil at his job. He derides those men who use similar situations as an excuse to go a bit wild. He promises to not smoke or drink.... but soon finds a bigger temptation when he meets his new upstairs neighbor. The Girl, played by Marilyn Monroe, is subletting an apartment for the summer, but, with no air conditioning, it is less than ideal. Sherman invites her into his air conditioned apartment and proceeds to daydream about seducing The Girl. His vivid imagination, which conjures up images of both delightful indulgences and scenarios involving a vengeful wife, are what makes for the base of this film. It is comedic gold, even if his daydreams never seem to become to reality....or do they?

So how did this story become the movie that, as its tagline boasts, tickled and tantalized? The Seven Year Itch began life as a Broadway play. When turning it from a play to a film, the playwright George Axelrod brought his playscript to his first meeting with Billy Wilder to use as a guide. Wilder famously replied, "Fine. We'll use it as a doorstop." And in reality, the film bears less of a resemblance to the play than director and co-writer Billy Wilder would have liked, due to movie censorship.

Wilder called the movie "a nothing picture because the picture should be done today without censorship . . . Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl there's nothing." However, I would argue that the story is funnier for that lack of consummation. The Girl (the Sherman character never learns the name of The Girl, but jokes that she "might be Marilyn Monroe") is so obviously is just interested in cooling off- not heating up. But the daydreams of a mild mannered, middle aged man allows him to imagine becoming a casanova. We get a peek at this ridiculous inner life- as ridiculous as all our inner lives are. Some might argue that the comedy is too stylized, too staged, but I liked it. Tom Ewell carries the show, but his bashful performance makes Sherman likeable even as he dreams of committing adultery. Contrasting against his more stylized performance, Monroe's breathy, natural way of speaking shines all the more.

So, where does the dress fit into all this? Less prominently than one might think! A full body shot of the dress billowing- the image that is so iconic today- is never even used in the film. We only see her legs; the full body shot came from stills used to promote the film. The scene is short, only a conversation as the duo exit an (air conditioned) movie theatre. However, it was to have big repercussions. Not only was it the image used to sell the movie, thus sending that dress on its way to pop culture fame, but it arguably broke up Monroe's marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Huge crowds came to watch the scene filmed; an unsubstantiated but fun myth includes the idea that Wilder set up stands for people to watch from. Interestingly, a very similar scene can be found in the 1901 short What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City, featuring actress Florence Georgie.

So, whether you are just seeking an escape from the summer heat or looking to heat things up with a sexy bit of comedy- The Seven Year Itch is one itch you just have to scratch!

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