Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) is a lightning rod in Marilyn Monroe’s movie career – a film that became synonymous with Monroe - the sexpot movie star, as it proved infamously detrimental to her brief marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. George Axelrod’s Broadway play had been moderately successful in titillating live audiences with minor comedic fiascos of a harried married businessman who finds himself utterly torn between fidelity to his commonplace spouse (currently vacationing with their young son in the country) and his obvious sexual attraction toward the luscious new single renting the Manhattan apartment directly above his own. That the film ultimately evolved into a starring vehicle for Monroe proved problematic; the comedy becoming slightly unbalanced.
The play had been all about the husband’s imaginary fantasies; his nocturnal and daydream musings over ‘the girl’ chronically interrupting his own moral conscience with cautionary voice over narrations provided by his vacationing wife in absentia. The film, heavily rewritten by Axelrod and Wilder, drew its inspiration from Monroe’s sultry iconography – already galvanized in the pop culture as a reigning goddess of the movie screen. Hence, the filmic Seven Year Itch became a tale of sweet naivety inadvertently taunting, rather than deliberately teasing, a married man to absolute distraction.
The movie opens with publishing executive Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) seeing his wife, Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and young son, Ricky (Butch Bernard) off from Grand Central Station. The two are going to spend a carefree summer in Maine. But Ricky has left his canoe paddle behind and this eventually becomes the catalyst to remind Richard that his current bachelorhood is temporary at best and no match against the longevity of his marriage.
Back at the apartment, Richard meets up with wily, womanizing Mr. Kruhulik (Robert Strauss), his landlord who tempts him to partake in some wild carousing while their wives are away. Feeling secure – that he would never stoop to such disreputable and slovenly weakness – Richard cordially bows out of Kruhulik’s invitation. Instead, he retires to his apartment to proof a copy of Dr. Brubaker’s (Oscar Homolka) latest book on psychoanalysis that Richard’s firm is thinking of representing. Regrettably, Richard gets the surprise of his life when his new upstairs neighbour – the unnamed ‘girl’ (Marilyn Monroe) buzzes him to let her back into her apartment after forgetting her key. The innocent is oblivious to Richard’s immediate attraction to her.
She befriends Richard without question, tells him all about her modeling career and her inability to understand men who chase after pretty women simply because they can. As a pledge of good faith Richard invites the girl down to his apartment after learning that hers has no air conditioning but soon begins to question his motives. The girl arrives with potato chips and champagne. Richard plays Rachmaninoff’s second concerto, a mood piece for his grand seduction.
However, with absolutely no head for classical music, the girl is instead stimulated by the more simplistic Chopsticks. She takes her place next to Richard on the piano bench and proceeds to match him note for note. Still unaware of the powerful lust she has ignited in her host, the girl becomes bemused when Richard stops playing the piano. He attempts to satisfy his desire by taking her in his arms and kissing her. The two lose their footing and tumble to the floor, the jolt suddenly awakening Richard to his moral duty in Helen’s absence.
“This never happened to me before,” he sheepishly admits.
“Really?” the girl guilelessly replies, “Happens to me all the time.”
Stricken with an immediate nervousness, Richard escorts the girl to his front door with a sincere apology. But he lies awake all night imagining scenarios; some that have him and the girl passionately involved, and others more disconcerting where she uses her stint as ‘The Dazzle-Dent’ toothpaste spokeswoman to reveal to her audience that Richard Sherman is a devious and philandering cad.
To diffuse his anxieties, Richard makes several sincere inquiries to Dr. Brubaker before reluctantly agreeing to see the girl again, only this time in a public place. The two attend a screening of Creature From The Black Lagoon. Afterward, the girl hypothesizes that the monster in that film is severely misunderstood and just wants to be loved like everyone else. Richard finds her empathy refreshingly sweet, and is even more amused a few moments later when a strong updraft from the subway grate causes the girl’s billowy white skirt to dramatically rise above her knees.
Richard returns home to take a phone call from Helen who implores him to mail Ricky’s paddle to Maine. Richard agrees, but is somewhat put off to discover that Helen has been spending quite a bit of her free time with beefy Tom McKenzie (Sunny Tufts); their next door neighbour who just happens to be vacationing in Maine too. Imagining a lusty affair between Helen and Tom, Richard pursues ‘the girl’ – encouraging her to stay in his air conditioned apartment during the interminable heat wave.
Kruhulik returns from a night of boozing and accidentally catches a glimpse of the girl, bare legged and cooling herself in front of the window unit. Concerned that Kruhulik might misconstrue the moment as salacious, Richard attempts to diffuse his landlord’s interest in the girl. But afterward, feeling guilty as ever, Richard decides he must put an end to their largely imagined affair.
The next day, Tom McKenzie arrives to collect Ricky’s paddle. Having blown Tom’s influence over Helen all out of proportion, Richard assaults Tom in his living room before seizing the paddle and dashing down the street – presumably en route to save his marriage by spending the rest of the summer with Helen and Ricky in Maine. The girl, still in her terrycloth bathrobe and curlers, leans out of the Sherman’s front window, clutching Richard’s shoes and waving seductively goodbye.
The Seven Year Itch is delightfully obtuse in its premise; a real fifties time capsule of societal impressions about men/women, relationships, and love vs. lust. The revisions made to the source material – to accommodate Monroe’s presence and the production code - are still a little rough in spots and infrequently interrupt the narrative flow of the piece. But Wilder and Axelrod have done a lot of smoothing out to ensure that the audience won’t mind – much.
The infamous skirt blowing/subway scene – perhaps the most iconic of any in a Monroe movie - as it appears in the finished film is not as it was originally shot in downtown Manhattan. Wilder had to set up roadblocks to keep film fans away. But as Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio looked on, the powerful klieg lights made the actress’s panties translucent, much to DiMaggio’s jealous chagrin. Worse, the scene had to be reshot several times, giving the crowd a real show.
Monroe took it all in stride. But when the censors saw the rough cut they demanded Wilder reshoot the scene from a higher angle, the billowy pleats obscuring all but a fleeting glimpse of Monroe’s ankles and calves. The Seven Year Itch’s poster art would use actual stills taken during the Manhattan shoot to create memorable poster and billboard art. But the actual film footage of the skirt-blowing sequence was reshot on the Fox back lot months later and heavily edited to reflect the sexual stringency of the Hayes Office.
The Seven Year Itch is something of an oddity in Marilyn Monroe’s body of work. She is its star and a magnetic presence while on the screen. But a lot of film’s run time is given to Tom Ewell and rightly so, since it’s really his story of sexual frustration the film makers are trying to tell. Ewell’s Richard Sherman is a sympathetic fop – obviously committed/occasionally self-righteous about marital fidelity, but always with his heart in the right place. His dalliances with ‘the girl’ generate a friction that disturbs the status quo, but ultimately convinces him that he is a happily married man.
As for Monroe; she is a marvel as the bubble-headed would-be vixen who cannot fathom why men frequently throw themselves at her head. It’s often been said that it takes genuine intellect to play someone as dumb as this and I have to agree. Every nuance in Monroe’s performance has been meticulously thought out and cleverly timed to maximize her sexual and comedic appeal. Yet, her performance is hardly mechanical even if it is utterly contrived. Monroe plays the audience, as her ‘girl’ does Richard Sherman – like the taut strings of a Stradivarius in desperate need of a very good pluck. In the final analysis, The Seven Year Itch may not be a remarkable comedy but it will give the casual viewer some very good reasons to scratch.
I’m not loving Fox’s new Blu-ray, even though I have to acknowledge its marginal improvements over previously issued DVDs. It is important to note for the record that early Cinemascope movies were plagued by some quality issues such as heavy grain and problematic dissolves and fade ins/outs – just par for the course of the format and exacerbated by some muddy colour processing by DeLuxe; unstable and susceptible to fading almost from the moment the original elements where put into mothballs.
In the late 1980s Fox did a photochemical restoration to correct the colour issues on this and a few other Monroe titles (most notably How to Marry a Millionaire and Bus Stop) that had greatly deteriorated. The results then were admirable. However, it doesn’t appear that much else has been done in the way of digital restoration since to improve the overall vibrancy of the image. The fading is most obvious in whites that continue to harbour a yellowish tint and flesh tones that are still a tad too ruddy for my tastes.
Also, this new Blu-ray seems just a little too softly focused, particularly in long shots where fine detail doesn’t pop as it should. Medium shots fair slightly better. Film grain is present throughout and lovingly preserved as grain – not digitized grit. Dissolves and fades are grain thick and colour faded, but again, more the fault of early Cinemascope than this 1080p transfer. Still, and overall, I was underwhelmed by the visuals. They’re average to just a shade above and nothing to write home about. The audio is a different matter entirely: crisp in 5.1 DTS and with moderate separation and a very strong ambiance throughout.
Fox loads us up with some solid extras. We get a very comprehensive audio commentary by Arthur Kevin Lally and an isolated score. There’s also a Picture in Picture feature on the Hayes Code, nearly a half hour featurette on Monroe and Wilder, 17min. of Tom Rothmann’s Fox Movie Channel waxing affectionately about the film, and the ancient ‘Backstory’ half hour that glosses over the making of the film, plus vintage newsreel footage shot during the New York premiere. Overall, I have to say it’s nice to see Fox Home Video getting back in the habit of revisiting their vintage catalogue on Blu-ray. Frankly, I was beginning to worry. Here’s hoping we get more vintage Fox titles in hi-def outside of the Monroe movie archives. Any bets on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, How Green Was My Valley, Laura, Hello Dolly!, The King and I, State Fair, Oklahoma! and Carousel? Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)