a piece by Eric Hehr


“Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It’s really crazy!” The Seven Year Itch, 1955.



     Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch has become an icon of Americana, if not for one scene where Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of a New York subway grating. Along with James Dean walking through Time Square, Elvis performing on Ed Sullivan, and Dylan throwing poster cards in an alley, the image of Monroe smiling as her white dress floats up is ingrained within the hues of red, blue, and white pop culture. But outside of this classic scene is a much larger film - a film that captures a nation on the brink of a sexual revolution, a cultural upheaval in consumerism, and the plight’s of commercialism. Through the relationship of pulp novelette executive, Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), and his voluptuous upstairs neighbor - who is referred to only as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) - Wilder’s light hearted comedy examines the civilized American male’s inability to reconcile a liberal- humanist view of the American female with a historical desire to appropriate her sexually in post-war America. An often debated social issue throughout the midcentury, the sexual repression found in America received national endorsement in the form of The Kinsey Reports. Published between 1948 and 1953, these reports demonstrated that sexual practices until then regarded to as perversions were actually quite normal. The report led to a large increase in sexual permissiveness, which had a large influence on George Axelrod, the writer of The Seven Year Itch. Not only does the film display the uprising of unabashed sexuality, it also displays the suppression of such “taboo” subject matter. While The Seven Year Itch comments on the “hush-hush” nature of conventional sexuality in America circa the fifties, it also serves as a vehicle for the suppression of the Hollywood studio system and the strict censorship on adulterated themes. The Seven Year Itch is more than just a mid-fifties fluff piece in which Monroe gets her dress blown up by a passing subway. It is a time capsule of a particular society at a particular stage in cultural evolution; a cinematic artifact that subtly comments on Hollywood and mainstream culture, sexuality and gender roles, and the escalation of a consumer nation driven to seek out happiness through commerce.

     The Seven Year Itch, which was written by George Axelrod and co-written by Billy Wilder, focuses on New York pulp novel editor, Richard Sherman. Sherman listlessly describes himself as “the most married man you will ever know” (The Seven Year Itch). When Richard sends his wife and son to Maine for the summer, he is surprised to instinctively find himself checking out another girl at the train station. He quickly writes this off as a silly, impulsive desire and composes himself: “Oh no, not me, and I’m not going to smoke either” (The Seven Year Itch). However, Sherman’s furtive eyes continue to wander.

     At his office, Sherman attempts to curb his impulses by focusing on his work. The manuscript he is reading defines the phrase “The Seven Year Itch” as the desire of middle aged husbands and summer bachelors (which Sherman is both) to cheat on their wives during the seventh year of marriage. Coincidentally enough, Sherman realizes that he is currently in his seventh year of marriage. The plot thickens when a beautiful actress arrives at Sherman’s apartment building. Sherman discovers that she’s subletting the upstairs apartment for the summer. In the sweltering New York heat, Sherman attempts to eat healthy, quit smoking, lay off drinking, and most of all – stay away from The Girl upstairs. But Sherman cannot resist, and convinces himself that it’s only neighborly to invite The Girl down for a friendly drink and conversation in the confines of his cool, air conditioned apartment.

     Over the next two days, Sherman finds himself wrestling with his conscience, torn between the fictitious scenarios his over-active imagination conjures up and the reality of his responsibilities. The stakes are raised even more when The Girl has an early calletime to the studio, and – to be fresh for work – tries to convince Sherman to let her spend the night in his air conditioned apartment. Presented with a moral dilemma, Sherman gallantly sleeps on the sofa, letting The Girl take the bed. For the first time, The Girl is exposed to Sherman’s gentle nature. She kisses him, telling him that his wife is wrong not to be jealous of him: “If your wife tells you that you got cranberry sauce on your collar, tell her she’s got cherry pits in her head!” (The Seven Year Itch). On an impulse, Richard offers The Girl his apartment and sporadically leaves for Maine, where he plans to reconvene with his wife and son.

     Before The Seven Year Itch was a feature length film, it was a successful Broadway play. One of the earliest stage productions of The Seven Year Itch was attended by Billy Wilder, who immediately called George Axelrod and proposed adapting the play into a film. Axelrod was reluctant to agree to a cinematic adaptation, since The Seven Year Itch was a story about adultery. At the time, The Motion Picture Code did not accept adultery as a subject for humor: “Axelrod couldn’t believe what was happening to his play. On Broadway, the guy has an affair with the girl upstairs, but in the picture, he only gets to imagine how it would be to go to bed with her,” Wilder said, “And just the idea of going to bed with her has to terrify him, or it won’t get past the censors.” The promiscuous play - which was initially considered impossible to film due to the subject nature - was re-written by Wilder and Axelrod. As the drafts began to stack up, the play about adultery became a film about adulterated adultery: “Because of the social taboo’s of the time, everything has to be in the guy’s imagination,” Wilder said, “That means it has to be in the audiences.”


     


     Wilder’s desire to push the conventions of censorship was dismissed by 20th Century Fox, which was an unfamiliar studio to the director. The power of seniority Wilder had at Paramount didn’t cross over to Fox, who dictated the terms of The Seven Year Itch down to its casting. Wilder’s contract with Fox obligated him to cast the studio’s (and America’s) biggest star: Marilyn Monroe. With little to no say so, Wilder felt as though he was simply a contracted director working on a large studio’s vehicle for it’s new star: “Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl, there’s nothing,” Wilder had said, “But you couldn’t show that in those days, so I was straight jacketed. I wish I could have done The Seven Year Itch later, because it was a good property to do without censorship.” Wilder even made an attempt to subtly imply an affair had taken place by filming a scene where Sherman’s maid finds a hairpin in his bed the morning after The Girl spends the night. However, Fox considered even finding a hairpin too sexually explicit, and the scene was cut.

     The production of The Seven Year Itch was a prime example of mainstream Hollywood’s stranglehold on the films it released; sacrificing drama and story in favor of the culture’s perceived dominant ideology. The summer bachelor story - a popular theme in French, Italian, and Spanish films - wasn’t conventional or commercial enough to be pushed out through the studio system. This resulted in an adulterous episode in a married man’s life transforming into a bittersweet fantasy of infidelity taking place in his imagination. In a time where the industry thrived on the Anti-Trust Case, many writers and directors struggled to maintain creative control over their films. The creative suppression that the studio system put on it’s contracted writers and directors is akin to the sexual suppression that American society put on itself during the midcentury – the primeval nature of sexuality stifled by the cookie-cutter age of the nuclear family and suburban domesticity. Even Richard’s fantasies are a series of pre- packaged scenarios, rooted in the idealistic stereotypes of the era. These whimsical daydreams are often satirical scenes from other Hollywood blockbusters of the era. No strand of production is exempt from the cliché and ironic dialogue, and contemporary films of the fifties ranging from From Here to Eternity to The Creature From The Black Lagoon are parodied throughout The Seven Year Itch. In the subtext of the film, you can hear Wilder commenting on the state of a nation seated in a dark theater, absorbing faulty notions of love and life. Simultaneously, Wilder is also poking fun at the studio system that was essentially trying to turn his film into what he is ridiculing.

     The Seven Year Itch also displays the rapid rise of consumerism in the fifties. Much of the screenplay is based on the rhetoric nature of affluent fifties society; it’s dialogue filled to the brim with buzzwords of the era: cinemascope, stereophonic sound, Dazzledent, and Captain Video. Although often mocking and ironic, The Seven Year Itch embraces the consumer culture that America was immersed in during the fifties. In his biography on Wilder, author Richard Armstrong wrote, “Wilder himself marvels at the collision of high and low culture, where potato chips can be dipped in champagne. Such a collision could only take place in America where there’s plenty of everything and everything is game for consumption.” The Seven Year Itch shows a culture that is swamped by an abundance of choices: cars, toothpastes, magazines, sodas, partners, and lifestyles. Even Sherman’s urge to fictionalize his life can be taken as the middle aged American male’s response to a consumer culture set on channeling desire into a tangible consumer product; satisfaction through consumption, happiness through commerce. However, despite all of this, the films driving force in its commentary of fifties culture – whether it be consumerism or sexuality – is epitomized in its leading starlet.



     

     Later in life, Wilder would say “Marilyn Monroe is what most people remember about The Seven Year Itch. She was not the kind of girl you would bring home to your wife.” At the time The Seven Year Itch was in production, Monroe was in the process of becoming the first female superstar of the post-war years. She became a key figure in the public’s eye and was seen everywhere. With the rise of television, Hollywood monopolized Monroe’s seductive appeal as a means to bring audiences back to the theater: “Her image was for Hollywood, fighting new competition from television, which now offered free home entertainment,” said author and reporter, David Halberstam, “Hollywood was responding to the challenge by gradually allowing greater latitude in showing sexual matters on screen. Her sexuality, so overt it might previously have been doomed by the censors, was now not only permissible, it was desirable.” While The Production Code inhibited Monroe from participating in any sexual acts or implying the act of sexuality, it did not inhibited her from acting sexy. If The Seven Year Itch is remembered for anything, it’s remembered for Marilyn Monroe’s naive performance as The Girl.

     While Wilder and Axelrod were imprisoned by the politics of the studio system, Monroe was relishing in her newfound fame. Fox marketed Monroe’s performance as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch as a high commodity; consumable by the public, but also unattainable. Monroe walked a fine line between two juxtaposing archetypes in her performance: the girl next door and the exclusive sex goddess. Richard Armstrong put it best when he wrote, “With breasts like break lights on a Cadillac and a derriere as inviting as a triple cheeseburger, Monroe is the epitome of the American Dream of Abundance Declared, and the system which marketed it.” Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch managed to override every other aspect of the film. Even established Hollywood veterans like Wilder took a backseat to the sizzling allure, and many believe that if The Seven Year Itch is anyone’s film – whether that be the studio, Wilder, or Axelrod – it is Marilyn Monroe’s. Her impression on screen was so explosive that even the film couldn’t help but break the fourth wall, self referencing her star power in one of the first on-screen meta moments: “What blonde in the kitchen?” asks a skeptical Tom MacKensie, to which Sherman replies, “Wouldn’t you like to know! Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”

     The subtle sexuality that drips from Monroe made the The Seven Year Itch Fox’s biggest hit of 1955, and would catapult Monroe into an echelon of fame few actresses have ever experienced. It established the “blonde bombshell” craze of the fifties that would produce many Monroe prototypes (including Jayne Mansfield, who would star alongside Monroe’s Seven Year Itch co-star, Tom Ewell, the following year in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It). Monroe quickly became part of the consumer market, as significant a product as Coca-Cola or Ford.

     Wilder would work with Monroe again in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, a production that would see director and star butting heads and wrestling ego’s throughout. While many critics do not consider The Seven Year Itch to be one of Wilder’s better films (including Wilder himself), it is a landmark film of the era. It’s a Technicolor exploration of midcentury America: sexuality, gender roles, the consumer market, and the dominant ideology of an impressionable post-war nation. Although some argue that the Production Code, censorship, and the hierarchy of the studio system prevented the film from reaching it’s full potential, The Seven Year Itch is nonetheless a shining example of American culture circa 1955.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          - Eric Hehr, Jan. 2019

 

 

 

a piece by Eric Hehr


“Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It’s really crazy!” The Seven Year Itch, 1955.



     Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch has become an icon of Americana, if not for one scene where Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of a New York subway grating. Along with James Dean walking through Time Square, Elvis performing on Ed Sullivan, and Dylan throwing poster cards in an alley, the image of Monroe smiling as her white dress floats up is ingrained within the hues of red, blue, and white pop culture. But outside of this classic scene is a much larger film - a film that captures a nation on the brink of a sexual revolution, a cultural upheaval in consumerism, and the plight’s of commercialism. Through the relationship of pulp novelette executive, Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), and his voluptuous upstairs neighbor - who is referred to only as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) - Wilder’s light hearted comedy examines the civilized American male’s inability to reconcile a liberal- humanist view of the American female with a historical desire to appropriate her sexually in post-war America. An often debated social issue throughout the midcentury, the sexual repression found in America received national endorsement in the form of The Kinsey Reports. Published between 1948 and 1953, these reports demonstrated that sexual practices until then regarded to as perversions were actually quite normal. The report led to a large increase in sexual permissiveness, which had a large influence on George Axelrod, the writer of The Seven Year Itch. Not only does the film display the uprising of unabashed sexuality, it also displays the suppression of such “taboo” subject matter. While The Seven Year Itch comments on the “hush-hush” nature of conventional sexuality in America circa the fifties, it also serves as a vehicle for the suppression of the Hollywood studio system and the strict censorship on adulterated themes. The Seven Year Itch is more than just a mid-fifties fluff piece in which Monroe gets her dress blown up by a passing subway. It is a time capsule of a particular society at a particular stage in cultural evolution; a cinematic artifact that subtly comments on Hollywood and mainstream culture, sexuality and gender roles, and the escalation of a consumer nation driven to seek out happiness through commerce.

     The Seven Year Itch, which was written by George Axelrod and co-written by Billy Wilder, focuses on New York pulp novel editor, Richard Sherman. Sherman listlessly describes himself as “the most married man you will ever know” (The Seven Year Itch). When Richard sends his wife and son to Maine for the summer, he is surprised to instinctively find himself checking out another girl at the train station. He quickly writes this off as a silly, impulsive desire and composes himself: “Oh no, not me, and I’m not going to smoke either” (The Seven Year Itch). However, Sherman’s furtive eyes continue to wander.

     At his office, Sherman attempts to curb his impulses by focusing on his work. The manuscript he is reading defines the phrase “The Seven Year Itch” as the desire of middle aged husbands and summer bachelors (which Sherman is both) to cheat on their wives during the seventh year of marriage. Coincidentally enough, Sherman realizes that he is currently in his seventh year of marriage. The plot thickens when a beautiful actress arrives at Sherman’s apartment building. Sherman discovers that she’s subletting the upstairs apartment for the summer. In the sweltering New York heat, Sherman attempts to eat healthy, quit smoking, lay off drinking, and most of all – stay away from The Girl upstairs. But Sherman cannot resist, and convinces himself that it’s only neighborly to invite The Girl down for a friendly drink and conversation in the confines of his cool, air conditioned apartment.

     Over the next two days, Sherman finds himself wrestling with his conscience, torn between the fictitious scenarios his over-active imagination conjures up and the reality of his responsibilities. The stakes are raised even more when The Girl has an early calletime to the studio, and – to be fresh for work – tries to convince Sherman to let her spend the night in his air conditioned apartment. Presented with a moral dilemma, Sherman gallantly sleeps on the sofa, letting The Girl take the bed. For the first time, The Girl is exposed to Sherman’s gentle nature. She kisses him, telling him that his wife is wrong not to be jealous of him: “If your wife tells you that you got cranberry sauce on your collar, tell her she’s got cherry pits in her head!” (The Seven Year Itch). On an impulse, Richard offers The Girl his apartment and sporadically leaves for Maine, where he plans to reconvene with his wife and son.

     Before The Seven Year Itch was a feature length film, it was a successful Broadway play. One of the earliest stage productions of The Seven Year Itch was attended by Billy Wilder, who immediately called George Axelrod and proposed adapting the play into a film. Axelrod was reluctant to agree to a cinematic adaptation, since The Seven Year Itch was a story about adultery. At the time, The Motion Picture Code did not accept adultery as a subject for humor: “Axelrod couldn’t believe what was happening to his play. On Broadway, the guy has an affair with the girl upstairs, but in the picture, he only gets to imagine how it would be to go to bed with her,” Wilder said, “And just the idea of going to bed with her has to terrify him, or it won’t get past the censors.” The promiscuous play - which was initially considered impossible to film due to the subject nature - was re-written by Wilder and Axelrod. As the drafts began to stack up, the play about adultery became a film about adulterated adultery: “Because of the social taboo’s of the time, everything has to be in the guy’s imagination,” Wilder said, “That means it has to be in the audiences.”


     


     Wilder’s desire to push the conventions of censorship was dismissed by 20th Century Fox, which was an unfamiliar studio to the director. The power of seniority Wilder had at Paramount didn’t cross over to Fox, who dictated the terms of The Seven Year Itch down to its casting. Wilder’s contract with Fox obligated him to cast the studio’s (and America’s) biggest star: Marilyn Monroe. With little to no say so, Wilder felt as though he was simply a contracted director working on a large studio’s vehicle for it’s new star: “Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl, there’s nothing,” Wilder had said, “But you couldn’t show that in those days, so I was straight jacketed. I wish I could have done The Seven Year Itch later, because it was a good property to do without censorship.” Wilder even made an attempt to subtly imply an affair had taken place by filming a scene where Sherman’s maid finds a hairpin in his bed the morning after The Girl spends the night. However, Fox considered even finding a hairpin too sexually explicit, and the scene was cut.

     The production of The Seven Year Itch was a prime example of mainstream Hollywood’s stranglehold on the films it released; sacrificing drama and story in favor of the culture’s perceived dominant ideology. The summer bachelor story - a popular theme in French, Italian, and Spanish films - wasn’t conventional or commercial enough to be pushed out through the studio system. This resulted in an adulterous episode in a married man’s life transforming into a bittersweet fantasy of infidelity taking place in his imagination. In a time where the industry thrived on the Anti-Trust Case, many writers and directors struggled to maintain creative control over their films. The creative suppression that the studio system put on it’s contracted writers and directors is akin to the sexual suppression that American society put on itself during the midcentury – the primeval nature of sexuality stifled by the cookie-cutter age of the nuclear family and suburban domesticity. Even Richard’s fantasies are a series of pre- packaged scenarios, rooted in the idealistic stereotypes of the era. These whimsical daydreams are often satirical scenes from other Hollywood blockbusters of the era. No strand of production is exempt from the cliché and ironic dialogue, and contemporary films of the fifties ranging from From Here to Eternity to The Creature From The Black Lagoon are parodied throughout The Seven Year Itch. In the subtext of the film, you can hear Wilder commenting on the state of a nation seated in a dark theater, absorbing faulty notions of love and life. Simultaneously, Wilder is also poking fun at the studio system that was essentially trying to turn his film into what he is ridiculing.

     The Seven Year Itch also displays the rapid rise of consumerism in the fifties. Much of the screenplay is based on the rhetoric nature of affluent fifties society; it’s dialogue filled to the brim with buzzwords of the era: cinemascope, stereophonic sound, Dazzledent, and Captain Video. Although often mocking and ironic, The Seven Year Itch embraces the consumer culture that America was immersed in during the fifties. In his biography on Wilder, author Richard Armstrong wrote, “Wilder himself marvels at the collision of high and low culture, where potato chips can be dipped in champagne. Such a collision could only take place in America where there’s plenty of everything and everything is game for consumption.” The Seven Year Itch shows a culture that is swamped by an abundance of choices: cars, toothpastes, magazines, sodas, partners, and lifestyles. Even Sherman’s urge to fictionalize his life can be taken as the middle aged American male’s response to a consumer culture set on channeling desire into a tangible consumer product; satisfaction through consumption, happiness through commerce. However, despite all of this, the films driving force in its commentary of fifties culture – whether it be consumerism or sexuality – is epitomized in its leading starlet.



     

     Later in life, Wilder would say “Marilyn Monroe is what most people remember about The Seven Year Itch. She was not the kind of girl you would bring home to your wife.” At the time The Seven Year Itch was in production, Monroe was in the process of becoming the first female superstar of the post-war years. She became a key figure in the public’s eye and was seen everywhere. With the rise of television, Hollywood monopolized Monroe’s seductive appeal as a means to bring audiences back to the theater: “Her image was for Hollywood, fighting new competition from television, which now offered free home entertainment,” said author and reporter, David Halberstam, “Hollywood was responding to the challenge by gradually allowing greater latitude in showing sexual matters on screen. Her sexuality, so overt it might previously have been doomed by the censors, was now not only permissible, it was desirable.” While The Production Code inhibited Monroe from participating in any sexual acts or implying the act of sexuality, it did not inhibited her from acting sexy. If The Seven Year Itch is remembered for anything, it’s remembered for Marilyn Monroe’s naive performance as The Girl.

     While Wilder and Axelrod were imprisoned by the politics of the studio system, Monroe was relishing in her newfound fame. Fox marketed Monroe’s performance as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch as a high commodity; consumable by the public, but also unattainable. Monroe walked a fine line between two juxtaposing archetypes in her performance: the girl next door and the exclusive sex goddess. Richard Armstrong put it best when he wrote, “With breasts like break lights on a Cadillac and a derriere as inviting as a triple cheeseburger, Monroe is the epitome of the American Dream of Abundance Declared, and the system which marketed it.” Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch managed to override every other aspect of the film. Even established Hollywood veterans like Wilder took a backseat to the sizzling allure, and many believe that if The Seven Year Itch is anyone’s film – whether that be the studio, Wilder, or Axelrod – it is Marilyn Monroe’s. Her impression on screen was so explosive that even the film couldn’t help but break the fourth wall, self referencing her star power in one of the first on-screen meta moments: “What blonde in the kitchen?” asks a skeptical Tom MacKensie, to which Sherman replies, “Wouldn’t you like to know! Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”

     The subtle sexuality that drips from Monroe made the The Seven Year Itch Fox’s biggest hit of 1955, and would catapult Monroe into an echelon of fame few actresses have ever experienced. It established the “blonde bombshell” craze of the fifties that would produce many Monroe prototypes (including Jayne Mansfield, who would star alongside Monroe’s Seven Year Itch co-star, Tom Ewell, the following year in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It). Monroe quickly became part of the consumer market, as significant a product as Coca-Cola or Ford.

     Wilder would work with Monroe again in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, a production that would see director and star butting heads and wrestling ego’s throughout. While many critics do not consider The Seven Year Itch to be one of Wilder’s better films (including Wilder himself), it is a landmark film of the era. It’s a Technicolor exploration of midcentury America: sexuality, gender roles, the consumer market, and the dominant ideology of an impressionable post-war nation. Although some argue that the Production Code, censorship, and the hierarchy of the studio system prevented the film from reaching it’s full potential, The Seven Year Itch is nonetheless a shining example of American culture circa 1955.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          - Eric Hehr, Jan. 2019