Acclaimed director Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch” was a movie that at the time drove the Motion Picture Production Code enforcers crazy. As risqué and seductive as the film was, it’s based on a much edgier play by George Axelrod. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Axelrod and ended up making several changes to satisfy the censors. But these alterations did nothing to hurt the picture. “The Seven Year Itch” is a smart and funny romantic comedy – exactly the kind of movie you would expect to get from Billy Wilder.
The story is set during a hot Manhattan summer when wives and children leave the city for cooler vacation sites leaving behind the men to work. This exodus, which resembles a massive animal migration, leaves a nerdy, insecure business executive named Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) alone while his wife and son head off to Maine. It doesn’t take long to see that Richard is a bit eccentric and unsure about himself. He also has a vivid imagination and often times finds himself daydreaming about things that feed his insecurities. He spends a lot of time carrying on conversations with himself, discussing his wife’s skepticism over his ladies man status as well as his unquestioned faithfulness to his wife while she’s away. While other husbands may be out catting around, not Richard Sherman. There will be no drinking, smoking, or womanizing for him.
Well that may be easier said than done, especially when he bumps into the new tenant in his apartment building. Now this is no ordinary tenant. The a gorgeous blonde bombshell is played by Marilyn Monroe. Apparently that says all you need to know because we never get her name (which may give us an indication of where Richard’s mind is at). She’s simply credited as The Girl. As you might expect, Richard is smitten with his beautiful neighbor and regardless of his best efforts and outspoken arguments with himself, he places himself right in the path of temptation.
Richard’s array of flirtatious errors begins with inviting ‘the girl’ to his apartment for a drink. Bad move. The girl’s ditzy, playful, and seductive charm is more alluring than Richard imagined and soon he finds himself in too deep. A little fib here and a poor decision there has the already paranoid Richard a little on edge. The question becomes will he go too far and irreparably harm his marriage or will he come to his senses? On the other hand, does he even have any senses to come back to?
Tom Ewell was never what you would call a leading man. The consummate character actor, Ewell had a familiar face for film fans but his biggest career successes came on Broadway. His greatest recognition came with his lead performance in the stage version of “The Seven Year Itch”. He would play the role for three years, eventually winning a Tony Award. So Ewell was the natural choice to reprise his role of Richard Baxter in the film version. While the material was altered between stage and screen, Ewell handles it well and his common, everyday man persona works perfectly within Wilder’s film. In fact, my wife has said that Ewell’s portrayal of Richard’s neurosis is so convincing that it makes her antsy.
And then there’s Marilyn Monroe lighting up every scene with her radiance. While Ewell was clearly the lead character, it was Marilyn who received top billing. In 1955 Monroe was a hot property and it was her name that would serve as the biggest draw. She’s fantastic in this film. It’s easy to dismiss her character as another air-headed blonde but I think there’s more here than that. She certainly has her ditzy moments but its also feasible that she knows what she’s doing. Marilyn sells both sides and when combined with her obvious beauty and undeniable sexiness, she gives us one of her better cinema performances.
“The Seven Year Itch” has earned it’s place as an appreciated movie and many call it a true classic. There are several things about the film that is etched in pop culture history. Of course nothing more so than the iconic scene with Marilyn standing on the subway grating. The subway zips by underneath, the beautiful white dress of hers billowing from the air blowing up. But “The Seven Year Itch” has also been called an overly simplistic movie that at times feels too much like a play. I think that’s a fair criticism but one that doesn’t subtract too much from film. It’s witty and intelligent and ultimately unforgettable. The story never grows dull and the performances are a blast. While this may not be Billy Wilder’s best film it’s still a fun picture and a nice part of his amazing résumé.