July 22, 2013

Billy Wilder Marathon: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch

One of Billy Wilder’s most interesting collaborations was with Marilyn Monroe, who appeared in Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch. Both performances are among the most highly regarded in her career, despite tumultuous experiences on set. Wilder put Monroe through countless takes to get where he needed to be, and she was struggling with real-life issues. None of that tension exists on the screen, and her comic timing rarely misses a beat in the finished product. The Seven Year Itch is about a guy with a big imagination, and Monroe’s The Girl seems like a creation out of a male fantasy. It spurred the idea that she existed on a different plane from reality and was a huge hit. Wilder again proved his ability to get the most from his actors, despite some serious interference from censors. The original play from George Axelrod needed major adjustments to become a movie. Even so, Wilder finds clever ways to subvert the system and delivers some surprising gags for eagle-eyed viewers.

Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch

Describe the plot in three sentences.
Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is spending the summer in his New York City apartment while his wife and son vacation in Maine. When a stunning woman (Monroe) moves into the place upstairs, he struggles to stay faithful and not cross the line. She’s mainly oblivious to his nervous behavior, but they strike up a friendship that sends him into shaky territory.

Wilder’s characters frequently make the wrong choices and risk losing the audience. Are we willing to stick with them to the end?
This question is interesting because it’s more applicable to the choices Sherman makes in the play. Although he fantasies about hooking up with The Girl in the movie, the censors prevented Wilder from presenting it. Adultery wasn’t allowed without serious consequences during that time period, though change was on the horizon. Despite the restrictions, it’s still engaging to watch the methods used by Wilder to make the story work. He throws in plenty of innuendo for keen-eyed viewers. Monroe’s outfits are provocative without showing too much, and comic scenes like opening the champagne bottle have some obvious gags. Tom Ewell seems like an odd match for Monroe, but it works because he’s so different than the typical jerks that her character normally meets. He was 45 during this production, and he seems even older because Sherman is so generic. He tries to woo The Girl by playing Rachmaninoff, and his attempts to be romantic are ridiculous.

The Seven Year Itch, directed by Billy Wilder

What are the primary themes?
The Seven Year Itch is hardly a forward-thinking look at gender relations, but it does revel in making its male lead appear silly. He bumbles to try and hide his connection to The Girl from his neighbors, but he isn’t fooling anyone. The tricky part is thinking about Monroe’s character, which creates a larger-than-life image that no one could match. Is she just the male ideal put on the big screen for gawkers to enjoy? Monroe replaced Vanessa Brown (the star of the stage play) and steals the movie from her talented co-star. Wilder uses her attributes and comic abilities to create plenty of laughs, yet it’s a challenge when you dig into the themes. We’re observing everything from Sherman’s point of view, so we get few indications of how The Girl feels about him. She doesn’t even get a name, which shows the thin identity. The glimpses of his wife (Evelyn Keyes) are mostly fantasies, so our understanding of their relationship is limited. He spends a lot of time in this dream world, so it’s tough to discern the reality for the eccentric guy.

Does this film stay relevant for modern audiences?
Given its more conservative attitude towards sex and slower pace, I expect that this movie may not do much for many viewers. However, Monroe’s presence should make it more interesting. She remains a well-known icon more than 50 years later and has countless fans. Although it’s hardly a modern take on gender relations, this film doesn’t feel nearly as dated as some others from the same time period. The dialogue from Wilder and Axelrod still has enough wit to keep it from becoming too obsolete. The question is whether viewers will care about a goofball like Sherman. He’s technically the lead, so it will be tough to stick it out without some connection to the struggling guy.

The iconic shot of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch

Which moments stand out as highlights?
The iconic moment from this film (and Monroe’s career) is the shot of her standing above the grate, but we see very little. The camera stays on her legs and doesn’t provide the classic image that everyone remembers. Even so, Monroe sells it in the famous white dress. There’s also the many dream sequences, including Sherman’s wife on a hay ride with Sonny Tufts’ possible romantic competitor. That’s the rare case where the images don’t involve gorgeous women falling for the awkward lead. She also shows up in a vision to give him trouble, and it’s clear they work as a couple. Of course, this is Sherman’s mind presenting a version of her that may not resemble the actual Helen.

Wilder began his career as a writer and is known for creating memorable scripts. Does this one deserve that high praise?
The Seven Year Itch feels lighter than Wilder’s more biting screenplays, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a breezy watch that gets the most out of a very simple premise. Monroe has a pretty limited range, but Wilder uses her assets and transforms the play into a showpiece for the blonde icon. I wouldn’t rank this film among his best, but it provides solid entertainment and some laughs. He uses inventive methods to maintain the play’s bawdy tone with less racy dialogue. That isn’t an easy challenge and shows once again how Wilder lifts standard material to a higher level.

Next week, I'll star my look at director's second films with Upstream Color.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting detail about Marilyn:

    She did a film (I regret that I can't remember which), where she had particular trouble with a scene that caused an extraordinary number of takes. Making matters worse, her contribution to the scene was both minor and the closing beat (I believe she had to answer a telephone).

    Take after take was done with Marilyn seemingly having brain cramps and not hitting her mark until finally around take thirty, she nailed it gloriously.

    When the film went to editing, the director noticed something amazing. In every single take, something else in the scene was amiss. It was often minor - sometimes barely noticeable - but every take that Marilyn "screwed up" had something else go wrong before she made her mistake.

    The take she nailed her bit? That was the first take where everything leading up was perfect.

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    1. Ryan, I've read stories about Monroe struggling for a crazy amount of takes to say a line and even needing them to be placed in drawers and other places to help. I hadn't heard that anecdote, though. It seems effortless on screen, though it sounds like she was very difficult and had so many distractions. Cool story!

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  2. OR - it was all an act, and she in fact wasn't that crazy/absentminded/etc...

    Wouldn't that be the craziest Kauffman/Phoenix-esque mindfuck of them all?

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    1. It would be incredible, and I do think some actors thrive on being that type of torrential presence on set. With her, that may be a little stretch...

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  3. Man, one of these days I really need to get to watch a Billy Wilder movie! Great review Dan, looking forward for more on this marathon!

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    1. Thanks Ruth! I'd definitely suggest seeing a bunch of Wilder's films. You can't go wrong with The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot as great starting points, and there are a lot more beyond those.

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