Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Guest Review: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

By Philip Schweier

Recently while trolling Netflix, I stumbled across a handful of movies to watch the next time I had the opportunity. And since Mrs. Wife went out of town for the weekend, it made sense to start with the Billy Wilder classic, The Seven Year Itch, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. Monroe gets top billing, no doubt because she was the more bankable star, but it’s Ewell’s character who is the focus of the story. Or lack thereof, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie begins with the explanation that since the days of the Indians, women would leave the island of Manhattan in summer, journeying upstream to escape the heat and humidity. This leaves the male of species free to indulge in several weeks of bachelor freedom. Richard Sherman (Ewell) sees his wife Helen, and son Ricky, off at Penn Station, committed to respecting the ideals of matrimony, rather than revert to caveman-like behavior, driven by baser instincts like his fellows.

Sherman is a book editor, and that evening, he sits down to work on a manuscript in which a noted psychiatrist claims that a significant proportion of men have extramarital affairs in the seventh year of marriage. Sherman’s imagination proceeds to run wild, as his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) appears to him in spectral form and he tells her of missed opportunities in which he was irresistible to women, but she ain’t buying it. Even in her ghostly form, she knows his imagination at work when she hears it.

Enter The Girl, played by Marilyn Monroe. She’s sub-let the apartment above, and while Sherman is clearly charmed by her (it’s Marilyn Monroe, fercrissakes!), he remains steadfast in his resolve. But fueled by the analysis of the manuscript, and the constant temptation of his boss (Donald MacBride), it appears it’s only a matter of time before Sherman succumbs to temptation.

In the original play by George Axelrod, Sherman does give in, but in order to be adapted for the screen, much of the sexual content had to be written out. This leads to a much more innocent relationship between the fumbling, over-imaginative Sherman (channeling his inner MacLean Stevenson) and the clueless Girl. As a result, the plot really doesn’t go anywhere.

Convinced his wife may have taken up with a writer, Tom McKenzie (Sonny Tufts), Sherman almost feels justified in his flirtations with The Girl. But when McKenzie arrives to pick up the kayak paddle little Ricky left behind, Sherman is once more convinced of his wife’s fidelity and rushes off to Maine to join her. The End.

But not before giving McKenzie a punch in the nose, one he deserves. Blame Tuft’s pathetic acting; or Wilder’s directing (unlikely); or perhaps Wilder and Axelrod’s scripting the scene without the sexual innuendos of the original play.

The film has become a classic, but less so for its craftsmanship and more for its iconic imagery. This is the film in which Monroe so famously stood over the subway grate, her dress blowing up over her legs. Marilyn is in full bloom here, with her breathy delivery and naïve charm, blissfully unaware of her sex appeal

The original play on which it is based may have had more meat on its bones, but due to standards of the day, what is left is a paper-thin puritan narrative. It’s worth watching if you’ve never seen it, but despite its pedigree, its entertainment value has fallen victim to the 50+ years since it was originally released.

Perhaps if it were remade today, it might follow its source material more closely. But on second thought, that seems impossible. The character of The Girl would have to be either a complete air-head or a conniving seductress. Either way, it seems unlikely she would end up in bed with whatever stammering but charming doofus she’s paired with.

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