The Seven Year Itch (1955) Billy Wilder

7 Year Itch

George Axelrod was a playwright, screenwriter, novelist and film director best remembered for his 1952 hit Broadway play, “The Seven Year Itch,” turned into a movie by Billy Wilder and starring Marilyn Monroe. Axelrod’s plays which included “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” and “Goodbye Charlie” introduced  to modern pop culture, the sex comedy, a sub-genre that would become more prevalent in the 1960’s and beyond. Axelrod’s other works include “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “How to Murder Your Wife” (screenwriter), “Lord Love A Duck,” and “The Secret Life of an American Wife” (screenwriter and director).

The Seven Year Itch“The Seven Year Itch” opened on Broadway at the Fulton Theater on November 20, 1952 and ran for 1,141 performances closing in August of 1955, two months after the June premiere of the Wilder directed film.  The play starred Tom Ewell (1), who recreates his role as Richard Sherman in the film, and  twenty four year actress, Vanessa Brown (2), as The Girl.

Axelrod was still a relatively little known playwright at the time, he had one other play, a musical that lasted less than 150 performances. He was thrilled to learn Billy Wilder wanted to direct the movie version. At first, Wilder was not enthusiastic about Tom Ewell recreating his stage role. Names tossed around included Jack Lemmon (only rumored), Walter Matthau, Gary Cooper and James Stewart. Stewart was tied up, scheduled to do a western with Anthony Mann. Walter Matthau (3), it was decided was not well known enough and Gary Cooper, according to author Ed Sikov, was nixed by Darryl Zanuck. It was decided they should go back to Tom Ewell. He had the everyday guy look needed for the part.

pb-7 yr itchAlso into the mix came Marilyn Monroe, via her agent at the time, Charlie Feldman.  By now, Monroe was at the peak of her fame. Axelrod did not give his female character a name. She was only known as The Girl, and in the 1950’s who better to epitomize the male fantasy of “The Girl” better than Marilyn.

The story revolves around Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), a regular guy who works in the advertising department of a twenty-five cent paperback publishing house whose products (“The Scarlet Letter,” retitled “Adulteress” with a lurid 50’s style cover) are sold in drugstore book racks.  Sherman’s wife (Evelyn Keyes) and kid are off to Maine for the summer to avoid the scorching New York heat. Left alone, that first night Sherman’s plan to listen to a ballgame on the radio is interrupted when a tomato plant from the apartment upstairs comes falling down nearly clobbering him on the head. The person responsible turns out to be the voluptuous new tenant only known as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe). He invites her down to his apartment for a drink and suddenly gets the “itch!”  That is the seven year itch, a condition when a married man allegedly gets the urge to stray. Sherman begins to fantasize various scenarios where his “itch” will be well scratched by his voluptuous new neighbor but interrupting those fantasies are fears of guilt, getting caught by the wife and most significantly in 1955, the movie production code!

Filming the Seven Yearr itchIn Axelrod’s play, old Sherman does get to commit the “Scarlet Letter” but in the film it all remains just male fantasies and no relief. Production code officials had long ago declared adultery was not the type of behavior allowed on screen, especially for laughs. Subsequently, in the film, The Girl falls asleep in Sherman’s bed but he sleeps on the couch (she stays in his apartment because it’s air conditioned and her place is not). This change damages the entire storyline diluting in a sense the entire idea of the story.

Unfortunately, time has not been good to the film. What made the play, and the movie, so spicy in the 1950’s is rather tame by today’s standards. After years of reading about the peccadilloes’ of Presidents (Kennedy and Clinton) and film stars having babies out of wedlock (too numerous to name) we are no longer shocked by the behavior, of  middling Richard  Sherman  whether he sleeps with The Girl or not. The film still does have some amusing lines and the performances by Ewell and Monroe are still a delight to watch. Wilder and Axelrod “opened” up the storyline allowing for Sherman’s fantasies to break out of the apartment for example, when he parodies the beach scene from the then hit movie “From Here to Eternity.”

Marilyn Monroe Filming The film also remains memorable for what has become one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Monroe standing on top of a Subway grating and her white skirt flying up, with the help of a large electric fan placed underneath the grating, revealing her legs and matching white panties. This shoot was filmed on location in NYC, outside the Trans Lux Theater on Lexington Avenue and 52nd street, late at night with plenty of photographers and fans standing behind roped off barriers. However, the actual shots we see in the film are not from this session and are much tamer. The New York location shoot was mainly for publicity purposes. The scene was reshot back in Hollywood on a set. In the film, Monroe’s skirt only goes up to just above her knees or so.

seven-year-itch-The MovieThe location shoot was successful, a little too successful as far as baseball legend and Marilyn’s then husband Joe DiMaggio was concerned. He did not like the idea of his wife’s skirt flying high above her waist revealing her white panties while photographers and the crowd watched and cheered with each and every take. The jealous husband and the movie star had a big fight soon afterward and within less than a month, Monroe filed for divorce from the baseball legend.

Loew's State 7 Yr ItchOriginally, the film was scheduled to open in early 1956. By that time the play would have run its course on Broadway. George Axelrod had it in his contract the film would not open until the play closed. However, 20th Century was so enthusiastic about the finished film, Axelrod agreed, after receiving a large bonus, to alter his contract allowing the film to be released in June 1955. The premiere was at the Loew’s State on Broadway. A large fifty two foot cutout photo of Marilyn in her white halter dress was placed above the theaters’ marquee much to the delight of all Times Square to see. The film was a huge success with the critics and public alike dominating the summer of ’55.

Notes:

(1) At this point in his career Tom Ewell was primarily a stage actor who appeared in such plays as “John Loves Mary,” “Stage Door” and “Key Largo.” Ewell had supporting roles in the films “Adam’s Rib” and “Lost in Alaska.” He also appeared in quite a few TV shows in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

(2) Vanessa Brown appeared in the films, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “The Late George Appleby,”  “The Heiress,” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.” She appeared extensively on TV co-starring with Barry Nelson in “My Favorite Husband.” She also appeared on “Robert Montgomery Presents,”  “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse,” “The Millionaire,” “The Loretta Young Show,” “Climax,” “Wagon Train,” “Perry Mason,”  “General Hospital,” “Dallas and “Murder, She Wrote” among many others.

(3) Walter Matthau’s screen test is included in the DVD as an extra and he comes across as a natural for the role.

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10 comments on “The Seven Year Itch (1955) Billy Wilder

  1. Dave Crosby says:

    Dear John,

    Thanks for this very nice reminiscence about “The Seven Year Itch.” I really can’t agree, however, that time has not been kind to the film. I think audiences have no difficulty whatever in entering into the spirit of the time and all its restrictive mores. It’s quite easy to laugh at Ewell in his feverish attempt to seduce Monroe. Especially funny, I think, are the scenes involving his use of Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto in his fantasies. Marilyn is really delightful in her evocation of a sophisticated countess who uses a cigarette holder.

    Dave

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Dave,
      You may be right when you say, “I think audiences have no difficulty whatever in entering into the spirit of the time and all its restrictive mores.” Still, I kind of think the script lost its purpose when the production code refused to allow even a hint of adultery. Monroe is perfect as the idolized idea of 50’s female sexuality and Ewell is great as the everyday average looking guy whose fantasizes of a woman who is out of his league. The film does have its share of laughs, and I agree, the “use of Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto in his fantasies” still works. It’s remains entertaining but I don’t think it’s top notch Wilder.

      Thanks David as always for sharing your well thought out comments.

  2. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Nice take on a ’50s classic. That this “adultery comedy” without any adultery was a smash hit seems a testament to the skill of Billy Wilder (and George Axelrod), not to mention the importance of great ( in this case, perfect) casting. And brilliant publicity. “The Seven Year Itch” may not be Wilder’s or MM’s best film, but it has its definite charms.

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, Monroe was at he peak and the publicity wagon with the New York shoot was a stroke of genius. The performances are both great, though I would have loved to see Walter Matthau in the role. Thanks!

  3. ClassicBecky says:

    Boy it would have been a great mistake to put Gary Cooper in that part! He’s too sexy and handsome — The Girl would have been pursuing him! Matthau could have been very good. Jack Lemmon too, although there again, he is handsome and just darling, maybe too much so to be believable. Ewell is perfect, in my opinion, as the average Joe. I agree about the story being made lame by the Hollywood code — it did fall flat in that respect. Do you know if the skirt-flipping Subway scene was done in any way in the play? That just seems like capitalizing on Monroe’s sexuality a little too much. Good piece, John!

    • John Greco says:

      Becky, I read the play, the “infamous” skirt flying scene was strictly for the film. The whole New York shoot was a publicity stunt to capitalize, as you say, on MM’s sex symbol status.

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    “Unfortunately, time has not been good to the film. What made the play, and the movie, so spicy in the 1950′s is rather tame by today’s standards.”

    I would have to say I completely agree with this statement myself, and I’ve never really warned to this particular film. As always I appreciate the engaging and succinct analysis and for various revelations that taught me things I hadn’t realized. For example, while I knew DiMaggio was extremely jealous, I didn’t figure that this film actually signaled the beginning of the end of their relationship. Joey D. was overprotective and overbearing, but I can’t say I blame him for some of his anger in this case. Of course he loved Marilyn deeply to his dying day.

    Excellent work here John!

    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      Joe D. did love MM. He was always there for her and he hated what he called the Hollywood phonies who he felt used her. Thanks again, my friend!

  5. Christopher says:

    Nice piece on an inconsistent film. My problem with this title has always been the abundance of screen time given to Ewell. His endless monologues get so tedious after a while, and there simply isn’t enough Marilyn, though she receives top billing.

    • John Greco says:

      Welcome Christopher and thanks!

      The original source for this film was a play which was more about Ewell’s role than the woman. Obviously, by the time the film was made, Marilyn was a big star and attraction. Ewell, not so much. The film is dated, and uneven. Part of the reason for this is because the censors forced Wilder to change a major point in the storyline. Ewell and Monroe’s characters never go to bed in the film where as in the play, Ewell commits the adultery making the script more real.

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