San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Billy Wilder Blogathon – The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch is a 1955 romantic comedy co-written and directed by Billy Wilder and based on a play of the same name. It stars Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, reprising his role from the Broadway play. The film features probably the greatest single image of Marilyn Monroe, and possibly one of the most iconic images in all of filmdom, Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate and having her dress blown up. 


Marilyn Monroe and the world's most fortuitous subway grate
The title is a reference to a real psychological phenomenon, where married couples tend to start to losing interest in each other after about seven years of marriage.  However, from what I've read, it looks like psychologists didn't start using the term, Seven Year Itch, until after the play and film came out.

Spoiler Alert

The film opens 500 years in the past (well, roughly 560, considering the movie is almost 60 years old now). The Narrator explains that the Manhattan Indians are preparing for an age-old Summer custom, sending their wives and children away from the sweltering heat of Manhattan, so that the men can take care of business, setting traps, hunting, and fishing. As the Indian men are all waving goodbye to their wives and children, a beautiful Indian maiden walks by and immediately they all start following her. The Narrator comes back to say that this little vignette has nothing to do with the film at hand, but it does go to show how little has changed in 500 years. 

I probably didn't need to mention this. It really does have no impact on the rest of the story. The only reason I do is that it sets the stage for what is to come.  When you think of a Billy Wilder comedy, you tend to think of films like Sabrina or Some Like It Hot. A funny situation but grounded with real characters. Yes, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon do spend 90% of the movie in drag, but they have good reason for doing so. The situation may be way over the top, but the characters are real. 

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that The Seven Year Itch is much more of a farce. Tom Ewell's character is more like Don Knotts' Mr. Limpett, but instead of fantasizing about being a fish and defeating the Nazis, Ewell fantasizes about being so irresistible to woman that he is constantly jumping through hoops to remain faithful his wife of seven years. Don't get me wrong, The Seven Year Itch is very funny, but it's funny in the way a great joke is funny. It's funny because of the absurdity of the situation, not because it is grounded in a real human experience, which is what you expect from Billy Wilder.

After that brief opening scene, we go the train station where Tom Ewell is putting his wife and son on the train to go to the country for the summer. The station is loaded other husbands  who are doing likewise with their wives and children. There's a lot of confusion, as Ewell tries to deal with listening to his wife's instructions, keeping his son from shooting the porter with a ray gun and unsuccessfully trying to kiss him goodbye (Ewell's son is wearing a Martian space helmet). In the confusion, his wife, kid, and luggage including small kayak make it on the train, but Ewell finds himself standing on the platform with the paddle to the kayak. The conductor won't let him go through to give it back, because he doesn't have a ticket. Throughout the film the paddle becomes sort of a plot device. He is always carrying it, or trying to mail it, or explaining to his wife why he forgot to mail it....

Within a few seconds an attractive woman (the same one who played the Indian girl) walks by and immediately all of the other men (who I'm pretty sure were the same group of guys who played the Indian husbands) start chasing after her. Ewell does so as well, but stops himself after a few steps. The train isn't even out of the station, he says to himself, shaking his head. 

You then go to Ewell's job where he is an editor for a company that publishes pocket-edition paperbacks. The Narrator explains that in the 25-cent book business you can sell anything even the old classics, no matter how dreary they are. The trick to soup up the title a little and get yourself an interesting cover. While all of this is going on, Ewell's secretary holds up a book cover mockup for him to approve. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. A subtitle in big red letters has been added: The Secrets of a Girls Dormitory. The cover art is a painting of four sexy women, and Ewell marks for the artist to lower all the necklines to show more cleavage.

As his secretary leaves, he gawks at her and then stops himself. "Oh, no, not me," he says to himself. He's not going to run wild, drinking, smoking too much, and chasing after girls. He contemplates having dinner at a saloon, but then decides he's better off trying that new health food restaurant.

Next scene, Ewell is finishing his dinner in at the health food restaurant. He pays the bill and tells the waitress to keep the change. The waitress says that they don't allow tipping, but that she would be happy to use it as a donation for their nudist camp fund. She goes on to say how nudism is such a worthy cause and that they need let the people know that they must unmask their poor suffocating bodies. "Clothes are the enemy," she says. Of course, the waitress (played by character actress Doro Merande) is not someone you would want to see with no clothes on. Well, I might, but I'm weird that way. 

Ewell goes home and makes a comment (he talks to himself through the entire film) about how much he likes their little apartment, just his family, the Kaufmans, and the two guys on the top floor, interior decorators or something, presumably a gay reference. Is any of this crucial to the plot? No, not really, but it just shows that almost everything in this movie is about sex, every joke, every line of dialog, every sideways glance.

Soon, there is a buzz at the door and he goes to check and it's none other than Marilyn Monroe. She has just rented the apartment right above his for the summer. So, speaking of sex, I give you Marilyn Monroe. If there ever was a woman who is sex personified, it has to be Marilyn Monroe, and she is absolutely gorgeous in Seven Year Itch. After a brief conversation, Tom Ewell goes out onto his patio to read one of the manuscripts while he waits for his wife to call. The manuscript, a psychology book, talks about repressed urges in middle aged males, and he hopes it will keep him awake until his wife calls. He fantasizes about talking to his wife, and he tells her how irresistible he is to women, with three different vignettes, where he has to fight off the advances of his secretary at work, the nurse (Carolyn Jones from The Addams Family) from when he had his appendix out, and his wife's best friend (in a great parody of From Here To Eternity). Back to the patio, Ewell's imagined wife laughs at the audacity of these fantasies.

Later, his wife really does call, and he ends up taking the phone out onto the patio. After he hangs up there is a crash. A tomato plant had fallen from the upstairs balcony on the lounge chair where he had just been sitting. Ewell screams that it could've killed him, but then he looks up and sees that it was Marilyn Monroe who had accidentally knocked it over. Then he was okay with it. Who wouldn't be? Technically, looking at where the pot landed, I don't think it would have killed him. It just think it would be very painful and made him a whole lot less concerned about how irresistible he was to women. 

He invites her down for a drink. She agrees and says she just needs get dressed in the kitchen. In the heat like this she keeps her undies in the icebox. The implication of course, she's naked and not wearing underwear, and she's going to put on a nicely chilled pair.

Umm, I'll be in my bunk. Did I mention that this whole movie is about sex?

Ewell puts on a Rachmaninoff record and fantasizes about Marilyn in  a slinky animal print dress. Eventually, Marilyn shows up not in a slinky dress, but a not very revealing pantsuit. She notices that he has air conditioning and asks him to turn it on. She explains that she had to move, because she had posed for a picture in U.S. Camera, you know, one of those artistic ones. When The Seven Year Itch was released, Playboy had only been around for less than two years, and I know that at the time photography books and magazines were one of the few places where men could look at naked pictures of women. Implication, she had posed in the nude. 

Later on, we get to see the picture. She's wearing a bathing suit, which in a way is the story of the whole movie. All about sex, but no actual sex. They end up on the piano playing chopsticks and Ewell makes an extremely clumsy attempt to kiss her, and then feels so guilty, he asks her to leave. The next day at work Ewell is wracked with guilt and has more outlandish fantasies about the consequences of his indiscretion. That night he ends up asking her out to a movie, where after leaving the theater the subway grate scene occurs. They end up back at the apartment and Marilyn complains about how hot it is in her apartment. He invites her in to take advantage of the AC. She eventually suggests that she spend the night there. Of course, Ewell counters, what would happen if the neighbors found out? Ultimately they end up connecting the two apartments. Originally, Ewell's apartment had included the upstairs. The landlord boarded up the stairs to make two separate units. So removing a few nails, they could be together without anyone knowing.

Well, one thing leads to another, and.... Nothing happens. Okay, lots of things happen, but none of them involve Tom Ewell sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, just more guilt and fantasies. Eventually, Ewell decides that he needs to be with his wife and kid, so he grabs the paddle and leaves to join them in the country.

End of Spoiler Alert

Now, I have read that Billy Wilder was unhappy with The Seven Year Itch. In the play, Tom Ewell's character does sleep with the Marilyn Monroe character, which the Hollywood censors wouldn't allow in 1955. My first thought was that I kind of agreed with the censors, oddly enough. I mean in old movies, you kind of get used to all sex and no action. But the more I think about it, the more I think Billy Wilder was right. What The Seven Year Itch lacks is Tom Ewell being a real person. True, having him sleep with Marilyn Monroe would make Tom Ewell a philanderer, but it would also make him real. I'm also convinced that Billy Wilder would have handled it with finesse.  A person isn't all bad because he cheats on his wife, and I think Wilder was more than capable of bringing that out.

Don't get me wrong, The Seven Year Itch is a very funny and entertaining movie, but Tom Ewell is a neurotic cartoon of a person. And that keeps it from being nearly as good as some of Wilder's other films. Is it worth watching? Oh yeah. It really is funny. And it's worth watching just for the subway grate scene, not to mention Marilyn Monroe the rest of the movie being every bit a sexy as you'd expect. Still, it doesn't hold up to a bunch of other better Billy Wilder films, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, and Double Indemnity. Should I go on? I could, but I won't. The Seven Year Itch is a very funny movie that would probably come off better if it had been made a director of lesser stature. It's good, but not nearly as good as Billy Wilder's other films. 

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