Even now, almost seventy years since the release of Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch”, there is still something so magnetic about Marilyn Monroe. As soon as she enters frame, its as if the camera pauses for just a moment longer than it would ordinarily would just for the audience to catch its breath. Everything about the characters she played were so uniquely her; the breathiness and timbre of her voice, her costumes, her sensuality (in a time where films were highly censored and regulated), her playfulness and her magnetic charm. She wasn’t supposed to embody the every-woman; she was a movie star in every sense of the word.
The film’s premise is based upon the theory that men tend to stray and engage in affairs after seven years of marriage, and who better to embody such temptation than the foremost sex symbol of the twentieth century! Based off the 1952 play of the same name by George Axelrod, “The Seven Year Itch” opens with a narrator telling us that for centuries, women and children have gone away for the summer while their husbands stay to earn money for the family, but get distracted fooling around. It happened with the Native Americans and it happens now in 1950’s Manhattan, where book editor Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is saying goodbye to his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and brat of a son Ricky (Butch Bernard) as they head off to Connecticut for the summer while he stays in town to work. He heads home and is torn between acting chaste and behaving himself, abstaining from booze, cigarettes and women, and letting loose since he’s such a stud and women are of course hurling themselves at him. This is made all the more difficult when a beautiful young woman (Marilyn Monroe), moves into the apartment upstairs. He invites her down for a drink, and over the course of the next few days Richard grapples with himself as the two grow closer, but she all the while remaining immune to his (supposed) charms.
There are some seriously funny moments throughout this film, most of them stemming from Tom Ewell’s performance as Richard. Ewell reprised his role from the Broadway play, and absolutely embodies the man’s attempted bravado and nerdishness, somehow managing to play Richard’s fantasies about his allure and how women are indelibly attracted to him in a way which is endearing rather than bombastic and arrogant. These scenes are especially funny, as he imagines convincing his wife of how women are driven crazy by him and we see these women literally dragged off him as he sits back and sighs as if it were a curse. Richard talks to himself an awful lot throughout the film, reflective of the fact that this was originally a stage play, and it somehow works fairly well! Ewell is engaging enough that we don’t think it odd that he’s thinking out loud the way he does, and watching him flip flop between temptation and logic is fun. My favourite part of the whole film is probably when he envisions Monroe coming downstairs in a breathtaking evening gown and sitting next to him as he plays Rachmaninoff, utterly entranced. When this occurs in real life, he sits down with the same attempt at being debonair and plays Chopsticks instead.
Monroe herself isn’t necessarily side split-tingly funny, its more that she’s fun and her performance is so endearing that we can’t help but enjoy ourselves. She’s charming and flirty and sweet, and embraces the camera so beautifully well. Its undeniable that she was a skilled comedic actress and definitely has her moments, I think its more that the distinct comic voice was written for Ewell’s character, and that’s alright. Despite her eventual reputation for playing the archetypal “dumb blonde”, Monroe was apparently an incredibly diligent and thorough actor, and it was interesting watching some of the takes in which she seems to light and spontaneous knowing that she probably insisted upon up to twenty separate takes to get it just right. The chemistry between the two leads is interesting, because although Monroe is engaging and beautiful, its fairly obvious that she’s not interested in him in a romantic light. When she does kiss him, its more to remind him that he’s worthy and that his wife is lucky to have a husband like him.
I did find that the second act dragged at times; once the initial comedy of Richard imagining himself as a Cassanova and Monroe’s initial entrance had passed, it was like the story dropped down a gear and struggled with direction. Director Billy Wilder since came out and said that due to censorship of films at the time, he struggled with the story because he wasn’t able to portray the two as having had sex like in the play. While this may have hindered the story to some degree, what the censorship inevitably did was force the writers to rely on innuendo and implication, which resulted in some of the funnier lines of the film. Not unlike the writers of Seinfeld ending up with such legendary phrases as “Are you master of your domain?” to accommodate CBS, the writers for “The Seven Year Itch” too had to come up with clever ways of getting around the Hayes Production code and implying that there were sexy things going on without explicitly saying it.
This was a fun romp of a film, even if it did lose its course a little towards the end. Ewell is often hilarious, and watching Monroe, its obvious why audiences loved her and why she’s still unrivalled today.
By Jock Lehman