The Seven Year Itch
US (1955) Dir. Billy Wilder
Yes, the one with THAT scene of Marilyn Monroe in the white dress standing over the air vent. It’s an iconic moment that has spawned a million imitators (Monroe herself even recreated it sans underwear for a photo shoot a couple of years later) but what about the film itself? Anyone remember what it was about?
It’s a hot summer in New York City and Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is forced to stay and work whilst wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and son Ricky (Butch Bernard) head off on a kayaking trip. Under pressure from work and the heat, Richard must occupy himself to avoid becoming a “summer husband”, a man tempted to live decadently during his wife’s absence.
Temptation shows up in the form of a young model and TV commercial actress staying in the upstairs apartment (Monroe). When a tomato plant falls from her balcony down onto Richard’s below, he invites the woman in for a drink and strike up a friendly rapport though Richard’s imagination makes him wonder if there is more to it. The more time they spend together the more Richard fantasises the woman is out to seduce him.
When a film is known for a particular scene that has become etched into the memories and consciousness of everyone, films fans or not, it is often a disappointment to find that the rest of it is comparatively unremarkable. And coming from a director of great repute like Billy Wilder makes this even harder to take on board, although in lesser hands there is a chance it could have been much worse.
Not that The Seven Year Itch is a bad film, that needs to be dispelled before we go any further, but given its legacy, box office success, and status of its star and director, it is fair to say expectations will automatically be higher. But, this can’t be completely laid at the door of Wilder and company as they were severely handicapped by the austere rules and restrictions of the infamous Hays Code.
Hollywood’s pious censorship board had been in control of what can and can’t be shown on screen since the late 1920s with an iron fist, making it remarkable that so many great films were made under their stringent code of practice. The original Broadway play by George Axelrod, who also wrote the adapted screenplay was far saucier and took the central premise further than the Hays Code would allow it to, essentially forcing Axelrod to rewrite much of his work for the screen.
Obviously, overt sexual frisson and physical depictions of such were absolutely forbidden meaning a change to the original ending, and adultery was never ever to be used as he subject of entertainment or humour. Much of the suggestive and salty dialogue was also deemed inappropriate for good clean moral America, but we shouldn’t count Wilder out, who knew how to play the censors at their own game.
By asking Axelrod to write a load of lines that were very likely to be cut, the more subtle innuendo would escape their attention, and it worked. Yet, there is still something rather sedate about the whole thing which even Monroe’s tantalising presence only hints at what could have been, making this the chastest illicit (non)affair in cinema. Luckily, Wilder has a knack of turning a negative into a positive and gets more mileage out of this than he should have under the circumstances.
Look closely and the story isn’t Monroe’s sex appeal but Richard’s overactive imagination which convinces him such a sexy young filly would be interested in a nondescript older married man like him. He constantly thinks himself into a tizzy over this possibility, influenced by a manuscript he is reading which proffers the spark in a marriage starts to waiver after seven years and the man start looking elsewhere for his kicks.
Throughout the film, Richard has a number of Walter Mitty-esque daydreams imagining himself as a dashing Casanova Monroe and other women find irresistible, but whenever his wife gets in touch (to send his son’s kayak paddle to them), the visions turn to Helen seeking revenge on her cheating husband. This helps deflect the censors’ concerns the film was propagating adultery as an acceptable activity whilst putting an amusing twist on the comeuppance Richard could expect if he was actually unfaithful.
So, thematically Wilder and Axelrod told the story they wanted to within the absurdly narrow parameters of the Hays Code, but in all fairness it often meanders a lot, despite the best effort of Tom Ewell as Richard in a wonderfully febrile turn full of pathos. So, playing to type, Monroe is left her own devices as a ditzy blonde exuding sexuality with effortless allure to provide the necessary sizzle missing from the script.
As tempting as it is to say this was Marilyn being Marilyn, there is actually a subtlety to her performance in the way she is subliminally sexing up the screen, not showing much in the way of flesh or even being overtly seductive, but the signs are there she is a woman who knows she has “it” and knows how to use “it” without making it obvious, and that is not just part of her character’s charm but also an aspect of Monroe’s acting that is underappreciated.
Wilder would later say this was a “nothing film” that needed to be made without the shackles of censorship, regretting having ever made it. We can sympathise with Wilder a little as this could have easily been a Doris Day vehicle, it is that safe, but it wouldn’t have had the same flashes of sexual energy Monroe brought to it despite the personal turmoil she was enduring at the time.
Despite Wilder not being able to fire on all cylinders The Seven Year Itch is fun enough to keep its head above water as a semi-saucy light comedy but really, it is all about Marilyn Monroe and THAT scene.