Some movies seem to take on a life of their own. Suddenly and often inexplicably, they are lauded as masterpieces, works of art, living statements of the times. Easy Rider (1969) is one such film. I have always thought it was an over-rated ‘nothing’ picture, inhabited by two ‘druggies’ and one non-actor, but for reasons known only to the critics and the publicity people in Hollywood it became an iconic chunk of celluloid. The Seven Year Itch attained a similar unwarranted status, although the reason for that status is far easier to explain. It consists of two words – Marilyn Monroe. With a lot of help from a director named Billy Wilder.
The poster was better than
Frankly, I found The Seven Year Itch to be a complete bore. I still do. The story drags along and is dated. The script is dull beyond belief, and the leading man, Tom Ewell, is about as interesting and riveting as David Letterman on a bad day. Not that Mr. Letterman has ever really had a good day, come to think of it. I have seen Ewell in a few films and he just ain’t got it! Not that he is alone in that regard. Another guy from the same era, Robert Morse, didn’t have it either, yet somebody kept tossing both of them into projects as the male lead! Unfortunately, the studio rejected the unknown Walter Matthau in favor of Ewell because the latter was known to Broadway audiences.
Throughout The Seven Year Itch I kept asking myself – ‘Why would a goddess like Marilyn bother to even talk to this guy?’ Mind you, I had been asking that question for years about another so-called ‘leading man’. I refer to Fred Astaire. Every picture that guy was in, he had all these gorgeous women madly in love with him – Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Ginger Rogers, Vera-Ellen et al. Why? He was spud ugly, skinny, balding and sappy. So he could dance a bit. So what? Mickey Rooney was another one. All those young girls falling in love with an egotistical, vertically challenged loud-mouth, who only ever had one idea in his head over fifteen years – ‘Let’s put on a show!’
Cyd Charisse & Fred the lady-killer
Another ‘great lover’ – Rooney, with
Ann Rutherford, Judy Garland & Lana Turner
But back to The Seven Year Itch. This movie should have been consigned to the trash, yet it is still talked about today. And why? Because shifty little Billy Wilder deliberately promoted Marilyn as a sex object, to the point where his blatant disregard for her happiness and wellbeing cost the lady her marriage to DiMaggio. The now famous subway scene, where MM stands over a grating enjoying the blast of cool air rising from beneath her, was played out for all it was worth in New York City in front of an estimated 5,000 onlookers who whistled and cheered Marilyn every time her skirt ended up around her head.
MM & Billy Wilder
That famous scene
20th Century Fox’s East Coast Co-respondent Bill Kobrin was convinced that it was Wilder’s intention to shoot the scene over and over again as a rather lewd publicity stunt for the onlookers. He even had bleachers set up, according to Kobrin. And all this took place in front of Marilyn’s husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio. And he was anything but happy about it. In fact, it was more or less the final nail in the coffin of their nine-month marriage which ended during the shoot. Wilder must have known that Joe was highly displeased, yet he kept on with it. He must also have known that none of the takes could ever be used in the final print because of the crowd noise. Yet he continued to milk Marilyn’s exposure over and over again. And yet the full-length shot with her dress over her head was never used in the movie, not even after 40 or more retakes in a studio later on! All we see are her legs, never a full-length shot. Even so, that did not stop the publicity people concocting a 52 foot-high poster of MM with her skirt billowing and placing it in front of Loewe’s State Theatre in Times Square. I wonder what happened to that poster.
Loew’s Theatre poster
I suppose, in all fairness, it should be acknowledged that a movie about a married man’s sexual fantasies with a voluptuous younger woman was never going to make it through unscathed by the Hays Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLOD) in 1955. In an era where double-beds and even toilets were not permitted to be shown on the screen, there is little wonder that the plot (and the script) had to resort to tip-toeing around Ewell’s unfulfilled fantasies or face the censor’s wrath. Consequently, The Seven Year Itch was as dull as dishwater in 1955, and it is even duller that dishwater today. Even Wilder himself thought it was rubbish when asked about it in the 1970s. ‘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. But you couldn’t do that in those days, so I was just strait-jacketed. It just didn’t come off one bit, and there’s nothing I can say about it except I wish I hadn’t made it.’ Then again, if the powers that be knew all this back in 1955, then why make the picture in the first place?
Billy Wilder in the 1970s
Despite the Hays Office and the CLOD emasculating the screenplay, (it had run for 1141 performances on Broadway, by the way), the film was banned in its entirety in Ireland as ‘indecent and unfit for general exhibition.’ Evidently, just the thought of a husband committing adultery was enough to send Irish censors (and the Church) into palpitations. In America, columnist Hedda Hopper waxed lyrical about what was left of the original script, dribbling about it being ‘the best I‘ve ever read’. Really?
Marilyn was 29 when she made The Seven Year Itch. If anything, she was at the peak of her beauty, yet another member of the cast, Carolyn Jones, was surprised to find her unsure of herself. ‘We talked at great length’, said Carolyn, who TV fans of the sixties would remember as Morticia in The Addams Family. ‘She was such a sad lady. She was just getting to the stage where she was frightened about losing her looks. It was an all-consuming fear.’ Marilyn’s fears aside, the movie showed a profit, and that was due pretty much entirely to her presence in it. In my opinion, any moment of screen-time that did not feature her was a moment wasted.