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There are a lot of drawbacks to directing an expensive motion picture, but one of the biggest obstacles is the constant pressure to continually compromise while trying to force some semblance of your original vision onto the screen. It's always been that way, and the situation won't be changing any time soon. Even Billy Wilder, who participated in scores of hit pictures as both a writer and director, periodically fell victim to everything from demanding studio heads to antsy censors.
The Seven Year Itch (1955), which is probably best remembered today for that indelible image of Marilyn Monroe's dress being blown up by the wind rising from a subway grating, is a case in point. The film is often hilarious (despite being dated by unashamed sexism), but Wilder's inability to include an all-important scene of marital infidelity turns what could have been a biting black comedy into a mere Walter Mitty fantasy. Though Monroe, playing a breezily seductive single girl who's supposed to be the downfall of a married man, seems about as threatening as a walking lollipop, she still dazzles in one of her most engaging performances. She's exceptionally sexy, and her comic timing is nearly flawless...not that it came easily.
Based on a popular Broadway play written by George Axelrod, The Seven Year Itch was a significant step in Monroe's transformation into a legend. Tom Ewell (who enjoyed an unexpected career resurgence two decades later, when he co-starred with Robert Blake on TV's Baretta) plays Richard Sherman, a New York-based paperback book publisher who hopes to take advantage of a few months of freedom when his son and wife leave town for the summer. But he quickly gets more excitement than he hoped for, in the form of a dim, but irresistibly attractive young woman (Monroe) who lives in the apartment above his.
There's not much more plot to it than that, as Sherman has conniption fits trying not to think about bedding "The Girl," as Monroe is listed in the credits. The film's theatrical roots and staging are hard to ignore, but a lot of the dialogue, and such touches as Ewell mixing Monroe a libido-loosening martini in a huge water glass, still score major laughs.
It's amazing it works as well as it does. Frustrations arose for Wilder almost from the beginning of production. Although Ewell originated his role on Broadway, he wasn't a particularly electrifying screen performer. Wilder badly wanted to bypass Ewell and give the role to a gangly newcomer named Walter Matthau. But 20th Century Fox wasn't taking any chances with a proven property, so Ewell stayed in, and Matthau was stuck playing second-banana roles for several more years. (He would eventually win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his work in Wilder's The Fortune Cookie, 1966.)
Casting battles were a mere nuisance, however, in comparison to the shellacking Wilder and the play's author, George Axelrod, took from industry censors. "Axelrod couldn't believe what was happening to his play," Wilder later recounted. "On Broadway, the guy has an affair with the girl upstairs, but in the picture, he only gets to imagine how it would be to go to bed with Marilyn Monroe. And just the idea of going to bed with her has to terrify him, or it won't get past the censors." If that was how it really worked, virtually every heterosexual man in America at the time would have been scared out of his wits.
Wilder always insisted that "the difference between a good film and one that is less than what it might have been (in the case of The Seven Year Itch) was a hairpin." Wilder's idea was to not show Ewell and Monroe making love, but just signify that the act had taken place by having Ewell's maid find a hairpin in Ewell's bed. "That's how Lubitsch would have done it," Wilder said. "But they wouldn't allow it. A picture that got down to one subtle hairpin, and we had to cut it out."
Of course, Wilder also had his share of problems with the ever-tardy-and-traumatized Monroe, who never met a director she couldn't drive to distraction. "I would get very angry at her," he said. "For The Seven Year Itch she never came on time once." However, he always maintained a good working relationship with the star. "She thought the way she looked entitled her to special privileges. It was true. But it didn't work with me, because I looked at her not as a man, but as a director.Well, most of the time."
In Wilder's view, inherent dazzle, as opposed to genuine acting chops, is what made Monroe an undying legend. "Working with her," he said, "was like being a dentist, you know- pulling those lines out like teeth, except the dentist felt the pain. But no matter how much you suffered Miss Monroe, she was totally natural on the screen, and that's what survived. She glowed." And today's viewers still can't get enough of that magnetism.
Trivia: Bell potato chips was a regional brand on the West Coast. Wanting to go national, theydelivered cases of potato chips to movie sets in the hopes they'd be used as props in afilm. Their plan worked when Billy Wilder needed them for The Seven Year Itch -after a scene where Marilyn Monroe came home from the store and started eating them,they became famous.
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and George Axelrod (based on Axelrod's play)
Producer: Charles K. Feldman, Billy Wilder
Photography: Milton Krasner
Editing: Hugh S. Fowler
Music: Alfred Newman
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler and George W. Davis
Set Design: Walter M. Scott and Stuart A. Reiss
Costumes: William Travilla
Cast: Marilyn Monroe (The Girl), Tom Ewell (Richard Sherman), Evelyn Keyes (Helen Sherman), Sonny Tufts (Tom McKenzie), Robert Strauss (Kruhulik), Oskar Homolka (Dr. Brubaker), Marguerite Chapman (Miss Morris), Victor Moore (Plumber).
by Paul Tatara