This post is part of the “The Billy Wilder Blogathon”, hosted by my fellow classic film friends, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Thanks for this event to celebrate this great director’s day of birth!!
Considering the title and heading of this blog, it seemed only fitting that my post for The Billy Wilder Blogathon would be about his delightful and hilarious comedy, The Seven Year Itch (1955), since that’s from which they come. Many of the movies that have a soft spot in my heart involve shared moments with my family and this one truly meets that mark. This is also one of my son’s favorite classics. When he was around five or so, he couldn’t remember the title and simply described it as the movie with “the lady and the tomato plant, who kept her undies in the icebox”. At least he knew the movie…
I’d recently read that Mr. Wilder had stated that The Seven Year Itch was one film he wished he hadn’t made. Such a statement left me boggle-eyed since I couldn’t imagine it missing from the classic movie landscape. It’s a gem. However, more research about the background led me to understanding his frustration.
George Axelrod’s hit Broadway play of the same name in 1952 was about a man who has an affair while his wife and son are out of town for the summer. Tom Ewell reprised his role from the play for the film and Marilyn Monroe had taken over Vanessa Brown’s role from the stage. In the screenplay, co-written by Axelrod and Wilder, the affair wasn’t allowed due to censorship of the era, thus causing Wilder’s angst. Even so, it became a hilarious and interesting, albeit libidinous and testosterone-filled, case study about summer bachelorhood in New York of the 1950s.
Many of us are quite familiar with Marilyn’s iconic subway scene in that white halter dress. Considering the fervor it caused in 1955, what surprised me more was to discover a very similar shot was made over another New York sidewalk in 1901. There are so many more iconic moments and I’ll share a few here. I need to, as a reminder to Mr. Wilder in his director’s chair somewhere far away that this movie is still a jewel.
Rachmaninoff’s Second piano concerto
This luscious score was an additional character of the film [it was also the beautiful and haunting melody woven through Brief Encounter (1945)]. It’s the piece Richard decides to play as mood music for his evening with the “tomato from upstairs” and his imagination runs rampant of the things he’d do to her with it playing. He imagines her saying it makes her “goosepimply all over” – but it’s their clumsy rendition of “Chopsticks” that gets them started.
The plumber and the bathtub
This little hysterical moment starring It Happened on Fifth Avenue‘s own Victor Moore as the plumber who got perhaps the best peep show he could have imagined, while the rest of the world saw Marilyn Monroe in the bubble bath. And all she worried about was having no polish on her toe nails!
As a paperback novel publisher, Richard has quite an imagination. It seems to be something his wife, Helen, tells him a lot. On her first night away she fades into the screen through his thoughts, knitting and listening, with delight, to his stories about himself and his supposed dalliances with other women. To her they’re so farfetched she tells him that he’s beginning to “imagine in CinemaScope… with Stereophonic sound”. Her laugh is quickly cued in stereo and she fades away. I adored Evelyn Keyes here. It was the first time I remember seeing her away from Tara.
Later Tom McKenzie, an author and friend of the Shermans, drives Richard insane when he assumes that Tom’s calling out “ending and unending” (words from one of his books) during an imaginative roll in the hay (literally!) with Helen. If she hadn’t told Richard that Tom was up there where she and their son were, Richard may not have given Tom a passing thought. On the other hand, since Richard didn’t mention the girl, Helen had nothing more to think about – until, his odd, gleeful attitude spilled over when she later calls back after he’d taken a peek at the girl’s – shall we say, artful – magazine picture in a photography book he happened to have had. His overdone laugh, borderlining giggles, led her to wonder why he was so happy late at night. A contrast to his belief in her nonchalance about his their relationship.
It’s the MacGuffin. Richard’s son left his paddle at the train station, so Richard had been left worrying about the boy on vacation without it. It winds up being his out and the savior of his marriage. I’ve often imagined there’s a garage band somewhere with that name – like Zuzu’s Petals.
Richard’s interesting relationship with girl
Marilyn’s character had no name. She was just known as “the girl” (or as she told Richard, “the tomato upstairs”). Richard broke the fourth wall in an additional interesting and unusual way by telling Tom McKenzie, when he unexpectedly showed up at Richard’s apartment, that he could have been living it up with a blonde in the kitchen who may well have been Marilyn Monroe!
Marilyn’s character was a sweet, silly, slightly naïve, and very seductive woman. While dipping potato chips in champagne to enjoying a married man’s company and his air-conditioned apartment, she recognized Richard’s silliness too. She found adventure in every facet of life which seemed to rub off on Richard during his midlife stage.
Without the affair, Richard Sherman on film wasn’t as bad as Sherman on stage. By dodging it, the movie was carried by Sherman’s desire to bed the girl – all through him talking it out to the audience. His duplicitous qualities are quite humorous. I still get tickled watching him complain about Mr. Krahulik’s pursuit of the maid with “her big, fat poodle” since “something happens to people in this town in the summer and it’s disgraceful”, and in less than a half-beat later, he’s wondering why the tomato girl hadn’t yet arrived for a drink! When I recently watched the movie for the umpteenth time, I found myself wondering how the relationship progressed in the play.
As Richard’s boss, along with his bawdy laughter, summarized The Picture of Dorian Gray in three words: vice, lust, and corruption, he inadvertently did the same thing about Richard and scores of other men left behind in the city, including himself. Richard Sherman being a cad was an acceptable product of the times and that level of behavior is pretty much what the movie was about. Even though censorship ripped through the heart of the original story, Mr. Wilder allowed Marilyn Monroe to coax in many memorable sensuous moments and boy, did she shine. They still managed to leave us with a sexy and sophisticated piece of work at an unexpected time, so we still win.