The Seven Year Itch July 15, 2016
The Seven Year Itch is certainly not Marilyn Monroe’s best film, but it does contain one of her finest performances: singlehandedly, she saves an otherwise trite romantic farce from becoming a victim to its own overplotting and sometimes godawful instances of monologue. Based on the stage play of the same name by George Axelrod (who also co-wrote the film), it’s an awkward exercise in marital crisis tropes that has managed to become a classic (in moments) thanks to Monroe’s ageless sexpot persona.
The film’s lead, the insufferable Tom Ewell, portrays Richard Sherman, a middle-aged businessman who, like other well-off 1950s New Yorkers, is sending his wife (Evelyn Keyes) and young son off on vacation for the duration of the summer while he stays home and continues making money. He’s been married for seven years and is relatively happy; trust is so much a part of the union that neither party suspects that any philandering will occur during the three months apart.
But Richard’s prideful sense of monogamy is tested by an unnamed young woman (Monroe) who moves into his apartment building just as he’s shipping his family off on holiday. Blonde, busty, and a little bubbleheaded, The Girl is an aspiring actress that may as well be the male gaze epitomized. Naturally, Richard begins feeling the titular psychological phenomenon. He loves his wife, but a woman as attractive as The Girl presents a challenge he’s mostly been able to avoid. To cheat, or not to cheat: that is the question.
And really, that’s all The Seven Year Itch is about: a middle-aged man’s flirtation with a sexy young woman that may or may not lead to outright unfaithfulness. But the legendary Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), who co-writes and directs, overcompensates in response to the stagey material, as if unable to accept that the film is meant to be simplistic and not ploddingly complex. Wilder, a filmmaker whose impact on Hollywood is inarguably tremendous, was himself dissatisfied with the results of The Seven Year Itch: censors ensured that much of the play’s originally risque dialogue be cut out, and that actual infidelity never came to be.
But the film’s biggest problem has nothing to do with its dialogue nor its more family appropriate plotline — both are steady, and mostly effective. Bringing on more disdain is the movie’s misguided use of monologue. A lot of the drama and a lot of the comedy derives from Richard’s battling with his thoughts, deciding whether to betray his livelihood for promisingly good sex. In the stage play, utilized was the art of the voiceover in order to attest a realistically avid imagination.
Wilder and Axelrod, fatuously, revoke that fitting method and instead force Richard to say everything that pops into his mind. Such wouldn’t be much of an issue if small quips intermittently were a part of the atmosphere. But any scene whereby Richard isn’t accompanied by another character (and there are many), he tends to ramble to himself so enthusiastically and so animatedly that he seems like little else besides an ax murderer without his ax.
And these scenes aren’t merely bad: they hinder The Seven Year Itch from being the witty masterpiece it so easily could have been. A couple of tweaks in the screenplay could have characterized it as such. Richard’s exchanges with other characters, after all, are mostly off-handedly jocular (and sometimes meta), and Ewell is good in sequences when he isn’t going off on tangents. Find Richard alone, though, and the film becomes so awful that I’d prefer to avoid a barraging of negative analogies for the sake of saving writing time and for the sake of keeping you from having to read a hurricane of comparisons, which, no matter how good the writer writing them is, are never much fun to read. We’ll just say that those moments are abhorrent.
The Seven Year Itch is salvaged from the pits of potential forgettability by Marilyn Monroe, who delivers one of her most iconic performances. Of course, the film is the source of the famous shot that involves her standing on a subway grate as her rakish white dress is blown up by passing train. (Oddly enough, we never see the image in its long shot glory; only shown are Monroe’s ankles and her delighted reaction). But her characterization is so much more than cheesecake exhibition; it’s a magnificently controlled excursion into the comedic perfection she so exquisitely honed during her all too brief career.
Many pass her off as a sex symbol without a hint of acting talent, a dumb blonde who’d be nothing without her toothsome appearance. But Monroe’s remarkable synthesis of breathy delivery, susceptibility, unknowing sexuality, and distinctive comic timing was nothing, and is nothing, short of game-changing, hence her enduring fame. Monroe is a genius of comedy, intentionally or not. Her definitive shtick is sapiently put to its best use in The Seven Year Itch; The Girl is an irresistible character, a persuasive, accidental temptress.
So when Monroe leaves the scene, it’s not an exaggeration to proclaim that we miss her when she’s gone. Ewell, much as he tries to keep the material from appearing to be clunky, is not a fun protagonist to be with for the entirety of a feature length. His pairing with Monroe is what makes things interesting. She’s isn’t a goddess of film for nothing. B