The Seven Year Itch
1 June 1955
Marilyn’s Dumb Blonde Trilogy, Movie No. 3
I could never be attracted to a man who had perfect teeth. A man with perfect teeth always alienated me. I don’t know what it is but it has something to do with the kind of men I have known who had perfect teeth. They weren’t so perfect elsewhere.
Marilyn Monroe, My Story
If it is possible for a movie and a movie star, a character and an actress to be meant one for the other, then The Seven Year Itch is the movie and TheGirl is the character meant for Marilyn and she for them. It’s difficult for me to imagine any other actress as TheGirl. Point of fact, it’s impossible. At the height of her allure and beauty when she made The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn was just twenty-eight years old. During the magical moments when she is on-screen, Marilyn is so radiant and resplendent that anything or anybody near her are rendered invisible. Taking your eyes off of her is all but impossible, an act requiring all the willpower you can summon. While Niagara made Marilyn a Star and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made her a bigger Star, The Seven Year Itch made her the biggest Star, not only across America but across the Planet, the biggest Star across the Milky Way, maybe even the Universe.
Richard Sherman is an average looking fellow, the type of man who melts into his surroundings. His wife, Helen, is more attractive and slightly younger than her husband. She’s thirty-two; he’s thirty-eight. Richard is escorting Helen and their small, space traveling son, their luggage, a kayak and a kayak paddle across a large and crowded train station. A Manhattan custom, Richard will remain on the crowded island during the oppressively hot and humid summer months while his family, after a train ride, will enjoy the cooler temperatures and lower humidity of Northern Maine. Anticipating their brief summertime separation, Richard promises his wife to eat right, to follow his doctors orders, to refrain from smoking and, of course, to refrain from drinking. She promises to telephone him later. He gives his wife a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and attempts to kiss his elusive son. In her haste to get to the train, Helen fails to get the kayak paddle. Richard gets stuck with it.
As he leaves the train station, he encounters a mob of husbands trailing a statuesque brunette. At first, Richard follows the mob but then stops himself. He is not going to engage in that behavior, fall into the debauchery and hedonism of most island husbands during their wives’ absence. He is going to remain faithful to Helen and work, which is where he heads with his kayak paddle.
After stopping briefly at his office and then a small vegetarian diner for supper, he arrives at his small apartment. Richard intends to read Of Man and the Subconscious, a manuscript submitted to Richard’s employer by the renown psychiatrist Dr. Ludwig Brubaker. Richard substitutes a raspberry soda for his usual evening highball; and as he goes to find the doctor’s manuscript, he steps on one of Ricky’s roller skates and falls on his behind. As he searches for the second dangerous skate, his door buzzer buzzes.
Wondering who this unexpected visitor might be, he gets to his feet and opens his apartment door, only to be confronted with the soft silhouette of a woman beyond the front door’s draped glass. He depresses the electric lock release, allowing her to enter. A young blonde woman, a vision, the very embodiment of youth and beauty stands before him, smiling. Her left arm is hooked around a grocery bag containing potato chips and a loaf of bread; and she is carrying a small electric fan in her gloved, right hand. The fan, which rests against her upper right arm, and the grocery bag in her left, frame her rather ample breasts. She apologizes for ringing his bell, for her silliness: she forgot her key. He approaches her and gives her the once over, up and down the length of her shapely body. As she begins to mount the stairs, the fan’s power cord, which trails behind her like a tail, gets caught in the closed door and prevents her from climbing beyond the first landing. Would you mind pressing it again? she asks. My fan’s caught in the door. Richard complies.
Do you live in our building? he asks this unknown blonde visitor. She tells him she has rented the Kaufman’s apartment for the summer while they are visiting Europe. As he watches her climb the stairs, her picturesque derriere and the hint of slip visible below the hem of her skin-tight dress, his neck stiffens and crackles.
Once back inside his apartment, he suggests to himself: Maybe I should’ve asked her in for a drink. After retrieving Brubaker’s thick manuscript, Richard heads outside to the terrace and a chaise lounge to read chapter three: The Repressed Urge in the Middle-Aged Male, Its Roots and Its Consequences. Soon, a near miss by a falling tomato plant and a cast iron pot brings Richard’s new neighbor to her balcony to apologize. He uses her appearance to invite her down to his apartment for a drink and, much to his surprise, she accepts. Soon, his neighbor arrives at his apartment door. She is a blonde vision in pink, so gorgeous that Richard just stares at her for a moment. Hi, it’s me. Don’t you remember? she finally asks the confused and dumbfounded Richard. I’m the tomato from upstairs. Let the internal morality struggle, and the humorous fun, begin.
Billy Wilder attempts, at the beginning of the movie, to historically and genetically ground and thereby excuse the wayward behavior of Manhattan husbands. The opening bit with the Manhattan Indians implies that adultery, euphemistically called hunting and fishing, is actually part of a man’s history, his instinct, his DNA. Accordingly, the absurd situation and environment in which Richard finds himself in the 20th century actually dawned, perhaps in a different existential form, with the dawn of man. Alone on the island with his testosterone, his job is sexing-up dry, classic novels; the waitress in the diner where he eats a silly and bland vegetarian meal, a symbol for Richard’s bland life, preaches to him about nudism and when he leaves the diner, an overhead ceiling fan whacks his kayak paddle, his sex drive and obviously his erection. It’s a warning, it seems, that is echoed later by the blonde’s oscillating fan, a titillating reference to her caught-in-the-door fanny. Even the work with which Richard plans to occupy his mind, subdue and provide the Devil’s playground with a diversion, focuses on the very activity he wants to avoid: adultery.
The basis of Dr. Brubaker’s book is a recognition that adulterous behavior in the middle-aged man should be expected; the book virtually furnishes Richard another excuse for adultery, particularly in the seventh year of a connubial union weakened by time and familiarity: Richard and Helen’s marriage has entered the treacherous seventh year. How absurd can it get? In Richard’s case, a nagging ailment aggravates this absurd situation. The blonde tomato from upstairs is not the cause of Richard’s ailment; she is the prescription. And his imagination reveals the aliment with which he suffers.
Feeling unappreciated, perhaps, slightly bored with his hum drum existence, left behind just so he can dutifully earn money, Richard creates an exciting alternate world where men with bland features and middle class lives are desired by young, beautiful, hot, sexy blondes who must cool their undies in the icebox. Obviously, Richard has a powerful imagination; but its function is more complex, I think, than just the creation of the odd and occassional sexual fantasy.
Of particular importance is the point at which Richard begins to question Helen’s motive for telephoning him. Does she distrust him? Maybe she’s worried he’ll bring girls into their apartment. That she thinks him capable of infidelity annoys him. And yet, when he conjures Helen and begins to inform her of his many possible sexual conquests, even with Helen’s best friend, she laughs and dismisses it all to the point of ridicule. After all, she may find him attractive; but she is familiar with him, accustomed to his techniques. She has accepted what Richard believes is her boredom. Why? Because she is losing her youthful looks; she is growing old. Keep in mind, during this sequence, we are not watching the real Helen dismiss her husband as a simpleton: we are watching his imagination project what he thinks his lovely wife thinks and would probably say to him in that situation.
Obviously, Richard’s sexual relationship with his wife does not provide him with any sort of male ego boost. He fears Helen holds his abilities as a lover in rather low regard and that’s exactly what is troubling him. Perhaps, due to his anxiety, he has even lost his desire to make love to Helen. That is his ailment. His dilemma and his crisis are what to do about it. He could have proven to her long ago that he is a sexy, desirable man but for his tremendous strength of character. Truthfully, Richard needs to prove to himself that he is a desirable man, that he is an exemplary lover. An adulterous affair will not prove anything to Helen except, no doubt, her need to file for divorce.
Not thinking logically, Richard is torn by his need to feel desired, his need for sexual validation by a sexual conquest and his laudable desire to remain faithful. But then, the opportunity to prove his sex appeal and his character arrives when the tomato plant crashes into his life and leads to a visit from his figuratively and literally hot sexy beautiful neighbor. Just before the tomato from upstairs lands in his apartment, Richard engages in one final sexual reverie, the wonderful piano bench seduction.
While Rachmaninoff plays on his phonograph player, Richard’s active imagination shifts into warp drive. Seated beside each other at a baby grand, he is playing the concerto, dressed in a stylish smoking jacket, she in a revealing tigress gown. He’s glad she came. She feels goose pimply all over and orders him don’t stop; don’t ever stop. They embrace and share a passionate kiss as Richard stands nearby, satisfied, observing the sexy reverie. But the door buzzer interrupts his mental seduction and his vision. He opens his apartment door, expecting to reveal his beautiful blonde neighbor, only to reveal a gruff Mr. Kruhulik, the janitor, who has arrived to collect the bedroom rugs as ordered by Helen. Once again, Richard’s ho hum life, represented by bland meals, sidewalk roller skates, raspberry soda and moth eaten rugs, has interrupted his satisfying phantasm.
When the tomato finally enters Richard’s apartment, he proves himself to be a gracious and engaging fellow but fundamentally harmless. His hope that Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto will send TheGirl into sexual hyper drive ends with his failed attempt to steal a kiss; and she admits to having a thing for Eddie Fischer. She is simply more interested in her champagne and potato chips than Richard. When, at her suggestion, he eventually ends up at his upright piano, he plays a two-finger version of Chopsticks, not Rachmaninoff. She joins him for a duet during which she becomes very animated and admits that she can feel the goose pimples, an allusion to the earlier imaginary piano seduction scene. But his clumsy attempt to kiss his visitor sends them tumbling head over heels to the floor. Once they gather themselves and stand, Richard apologizes and admits that nothing like this ever happened to me before in all my life. He is not the sexual animal depicted by his wild imagination and readily admits the truth; and he is so ashamed of his behavior that he asks his visitor to collect her potato chips and leave. She was not bothered by his loss of self control or his attempt to kiss her: she elicits that sort of behavior from men all the time. Besides, she thinks he is very nice.
Soon, Richard evokes an imaginary Helen who, angered by his randy behavior, arrives with a pistol in her hand to extract revenge by murder; but, once again, he admits the truth: his wife would not even be jealous if she arrived unexpectedly and found a blonde in the apartment. This truthful admission troubles the one that is there; so, in response, TheGirl massages Richard’s battered ego one last but very important time with her touching and revealing soliloquy clarifying what pretty girls really want. She, unlike Helen, would be very jealous of Richard and very worried about losing her very nice man. As TheGirl heads into the kitchen, right on cue, a handsome dude in a fancy vest and Richard’s imagined sexual rival for Helen, Tom MacKenzie, arrives so Richard can demonstrate his masculinity and deliver a manly punch. The ultimate proof of his virility, he vanquishes his sexual rival and in so doing assumes the titles of Richard the Masculine and Richard the Sexy. Then Mr. Kruhulik arrives to remove Tom’s unconscious body and in so doing equates Tom with moth-eaten rugs. Practically every one of Richard’s visions throughout the movie serve to massage his wounded ego, even those during which he visualizes his new neighbor maliciously, albeit humorously, exposing that he is a perfectly dreadful married man, a monster, just like the creature from the black lagoon.
So in the end, with his masculinity, and his erection, healed and bandaged with tape and newspaper, represented by the kayak paddle, he heads for Maine and his wife, where we knew all along he would wind up. He leaves without his shoes; but once again, the blonde effects his rescue: she tosses them to him. That’s only appropriate since she has, in a manner of speaking, restored Richard’s footing. And, too, on a very Freudian note, the renown psychiatrist opined that articles of clothing into which parts of the body can be slipped suggest copulation. Is it just too farfetched to suggest that the tomato has not only restored Richard’s footing but also his desire to make love with Helen? Yea, that’s probably too farfetched.
Trivialized by most of the critics who have reviewed The Seven Year Itch, Richard’s unnamed upstairs neighbor is often presented as a shallow and unaware cardboard cutout, a sublime image without a connection to reality or any sort of past. Mr. Kruhulik, refers to her as a “living doll”, suggesting that she is not real, despite the adjective “living”. I disagree. Allow me to offer an accounting for the living doll.
She’s a mountain girl. Denver, Colorado, is her home town; and she does not like the Manhattan heat: in her opinion, she wasn’t built for it. She drinks like a fish, or claims to, which is doubtful because she thinks Martini’s come is tall glasses and contain sugar. Sarah Bernhardt is an actress she knows about along with how deceptive advertising works. She knows about criminal negligence, that she can be sued and possibly held liable for such negligence. She cleverly differentiates between people and boys when she informs Richard that both keep swiping her copies of US Camera. To her, it seems, boys are not really people. We can probably guess why. She’s aware enough to realize that her risque and controversial art picture in US Camera, a direct reference to Marilyn’s 1953 appearance in Playboy Magazine, precipitated her eviction from her former residence but also precipitated her freedom to stay out all night, if she so desires. This shallow and unaware blonde can find the proverbial silver lining in the dark cloud and although she spent her 22nd birthday alone taking a bubble bath, she wasn’t at all bothered or saddened by being alone. She got her big toe caught in the tub’s fill spout and had to endure a perfectly strange plumber seeing her naked toenails, not her nakedness. No big deal. She is a happy and cheerful, well adjusted young lady whose only fault may be her cute naïveté?
On the other hand, I question just how naive she actually is. She takes control of the whole situation with Richard when she tells him she doesn’t mind that he’s married because, with a married man, things can’t possibly get drastic. She effectively disarms him while she adroitly spares his feelings by telling him that drastic simply means a marriage proposal; but we know what she really means. I suggest unless this particular girl is ready, or maybe even the instigator, things can’t and won’t ever get drastic. Remember, Richard’s attempt to kiss the girl on the piano bench is an event that happens to her all the time. Some note how easily Richard tricks TheGirl into kissing him after they leave the movie theater, she stands over the subway grate and he questions the truthfulness of Dazzledent’s kissing sweet advertising claim. No real deception by Richard, I contend: she actually likes him. After all, she thinks he is very nice.
The Girl’s attitude about getting drastic with Richard appears to change during the movie. When they exit the theater, she expresses her pity for the lagoon creature and Richard expresses incredulity. She opines that the creature wasn’t really all bad … just craved a little affection, you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted. Can we conclude that her expression of sympathy for and understanding of the creature’s needs is also how she feels about her date, who has, after all, been adroitly conflated with the hideous creature from the black lagoon. Also, when TheGirl descends, like an angel from Heaven, through the trap door at the top of Richard’s elegant stair to nowhere, holding her tooth brushing gear in one hand and a small hammer in the other, she informs Richard that they can safely do this all summer without alerting anyone. Her sensual shoulder twist and her coy expression implies that she just might have more on her mind than a casual friendship or merely sleeping in Richard’s air-conditioned apartment. Richard does not seem to notice her cute demeanor; but surely he does because her suggestion would be the ultimate ego boost, short of actually sleeping with TheGirl, when coupled with her statement that she would be very jealous if they were married. Of course, the suggestive and romantic scene might be the final attempt by Billy Wilder and George Axelrod to imply that Richard and TheGirl eventually do wind up horizontal when he returns from visiting Helen in Maine.
Some reviewers contend that the entire movie, from beginning to end, is one long, involved dream sequence, a Finnegans Wake for Walter Mitty. For Movies, Silently and their “Funny-Lady-Blog-A-Thon”, Travis Wagner opined:
While it is never expressly stated, one can assume that the film is a large scale fantasy on the part of the main character and that his fantasy is merely a projection … the dream sequences within the already established dream would make the film a sort of meta-fantasy, wherein, Richard has one projection of his own life that is not suited to his liking and simply adds another layer to make it more fantastical or indicative of his personal desires.
Travis suggests the appearance, near the end of the movie, of Tom MacKenzie, Richard’s imagined rival for Helen’s affections, is an example of this another layer. Perhaps; but I believe that the movie presents real events and fantasy events and a distinction is drawn between the two in the manner of their cinematic presentation. The fantasy events also serve a basic cinematic function, namely to get the movie out of the small, cramped and claustrophobic environment of Richard’s tiny apartment. Also, the fantasies allowed Wilder to include sexy encounters with Richard and sexy women that otherwise might have been bowdlerized by the censors if those encounters were presented as real.
A considerable amount of unjust criticism has been heaped on the performances of both Tom Ewell and Marilyn: Ewell is dull and Marilyn is, well, both dumb and stupid. One critic even commented that in the capable hands of a more perceptive actress, the perceptions of the living doll would be more apparent and another complained about Ewell’s boring, phoned-in soliloquies. Marilyn has been criticized for saying isn’t it delicious and I think that’s just elegant too often, as if how frequently she delivered those lines were her choice; and in perhaps the goofiest complaint of all, one reviewer dismissed TheGirl as completely moronic because she apparently did not recognize her sexual effect on Richard and questioned why she would jump, like a tramp, onto that subway grating in the middle of Manhattan. Incredible.
Tom Ewell portrayed Richard Sherman on the stage more than 950 times. Even though the Richard in the movie is not the same as the Richard in George Axelrod’s play, Tom Ewell undoubtedly understood the character. Besides, regardless of who played Richard, alongside Marilyn, that man was going to all but disappear and seem dull. But isn’t Richard’s dullness a significant plot device, an important point counter-point, contrasting the ultimately commonplace man with the ultimately unique, goddess-like woman?
Marilyn’s goddess-like qualities notwithstanding, she also delivered a great performance. In my opinion, it ranks as one of the best in the history of cinematic comedy. Unaffected, immediate and committed to her character, her line delivery is flawless and natural as is her inflection, gesture, body language and facial expressions. But, alas, I have only found one reviewer who shares my opinion. Travis Wagner wrote for Cinemalacrum on the 29th of June in 2013:
… it may not have been realized at the time, it is certainly the case now, and easily stands as Monroe’s funniest performance … one of the single greatest strokes of comedy genius to ever grace the screen … it speaks volumes to the brilliant performer that Marilyn Monroe was, while also allowing her to play with notions of her own place as a sexual icon, as well as the larger idea of male fantasy and expectations of the ‘ideal conquest’.
Travis interprets her portrayal of TheGirl as an intentional comic deconstruction of her idealized goddess image, half-fantasy, half-absurdity and all perfection. He adds:
Simply put, what Monroe does in The Seven Year Itch is reject everything that the cult of celebrity had created for her, through blowing it all out of proportion, because while the cultural image of Monroe is easily the famous publicity still of her in a white dress catching a draft from a passing subway car, that was merely an instant in this film … it is not reflective of her in the slightest.
I neither agree nor disagree with Travis’ contention that Marilyn’s performance represents a rejection of her image as a creation of the cult of celebrity. Although the cult of celebrity and the Hollywood celebrity making machine each played a part in creating the legend of Marilyn Monroe, both then and now, certainly the woman inside the legend knew and realized that she had created the persona she embraced and by which she also felt entrapped. By late 1954, Norma Jeane wanted to put the dumb blonde persona behind her, say good-bye as it were, not necessarily to the created Marilyn Monroe but to her rigid type-casting. She wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress; and she planned for TheGirl to be the last iteration of a character she invariably played brilliantly. It is certainly plausible to contend that Norma Jeane had already planned her rebellion and flight from Hollywood; and therefore she was deliberately playing with her celebrity image in The Seven Year Itch. Whether dialectic, existential or solipsistic, and by what degree, is certainly open to debate; but I agree with Travis’ contention that Norma Jeane, and Marilyn, displayed their collective comic genius as TheGirl.
No conversation about or review of The Seven Year Itch would be complete without mentioning how the movie impacted the end of Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio, the White Halter Dress Billowing Scene that hastened the end of her marriage to Mr. 56; and also, any review must note the blonde-in-the-kitchen, in-movie reference to Marilyn Monroe, both the real and the created.
Marilyn and Joe eloped in 1954 and got hitched to each other on January the 14th in San Francisco’s Court House. By Halloween of that year, they were divorced. Problems that began early in the relationship crystallized as Marilyn stood over the sub-way grating and her white dress billowed over her head. Onlookers ogled and cheered much to the chagrin of Joe who was visibly distraught when he left the movie set. Apparently the newlyweds, relatively speaking, met later in their hotel suite and argued vehemently. It’s generally believed that Joe was physically abusive. Some say Marilyn testified to that fact. Some testified to the existence of bruises on her body. Marilyn could not and would not tolerate Joe’s physical abuse. Even though the now famous dress billowing scene catapulted Marilyn to a stratospheric fame, it also cost her a marriage. Ironically, the Yankee Clipper, as her date, no longer her husband, escorted Marilyn (and TheGirl) to the premiere of The Seven Year Itch on June the 1st in 1955, a celebration of Marilyn’s 29th birthday.
Billy Wilder enjoyed including in-movie references in his movies. One of Richard’s fantasies references a famous beach kissing scene from the famous war movie, From Here to Eternity. Not uncommon in Hollywood, references or homages to cinema and actor’s careers often appear in movies; but Richard Sherman’s suggestion that the sexy blonde-in-the-kitchen just might be the real life Marilyn Monroe is altogether different. It’s doubtful that a reference to any other actress appearing in any other role would have had the same impact. Richard’s suggestion all but galvanized the conflation of Marilyn with, quite simply, TheGirl, and by association, Marilyn with the quintessential idealized dumb blonde, just like her role as Lorelei Lee, in the minds of many persons, conflated Marilyn with gold-diggers, despite the fact that Marilyn was the very antithesis of a gold-digger.
Even though she had begun to fight her type-casting by Darryl Zanuck, it is certainly ironic that one of her most famous and most successful roles rendered her escape from the sex goddess idealization all but impossible. Certainly Billy Wilder and George Axelrod did not intend that: they simply recognized that Marilyn was, in truth, the ideal fantasy girl, the ideal male conquest, TheGirl. In that regard, many contemporary women consider The Seven Year Itch to be the meanest and the most misogynist movie in which Marilyn ever appeared. She wasn’t even given a name, for Heaven’s sake. Neither was the character in the Broadway play; and there is an overriding reason why Axelrod left her unnamed, but those facts do not seem to matter. I assume women who believe The Seven Year Itch is mean and misogynist have never seen The Misfits.
Consider this: Marilyn lobbied for the role of TheGirl and she even agreed, in order to get it, to appear in the mundane musical, There’s No Business Like Show Business. During her live television interview with Edward R. Murrow in 1955, she even mentioned and included TheGirl as one of her better roles. Marilyn certainly was not offended by the part, so why all the acrimony and rancor over the character some sixty-five years after the movie’s initial release? It always boils down to our perceptions, does it not? I perceive that Marilyn Monroe is celebrated by TheGirl while by Roslyn Tabor, Marilyn is disrespected and denigrated. Oddly enough, some perceive just the opposite. O well, we are entitled to our perceptions, and opinions, regardless of how screwy they may be … me included.