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” 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 finally decided they should stick with Tom Ewell. He had the everyday guy look needed for the part.
Also 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!
In 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.”
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.
The 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.
Originally, 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.
(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.