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The picture of Marilyn Monroe standing on an air vent with her dress blowing in the wind in The Seven Year Itch is one of the most iconic images in movie history. The thing is: how many of us have actually seen the movie itself?

The Seven Year Itch

Feature


Welcome to Manhattan in the 50s. In this world, the menfolk pack their ladyfolk and children off to the country for the summer while they stay in the city to bring home the bacon. So are the men sad and lonely all summer long, pining for their beloved families?  Are they hell—they can’t wait for them to hit the road so they can go wild and do all those things that they aren’t allowed to do. Smoking, drinking, gambling and adultery are the order of the day. And the next day, and the next…

Tom Ewell plays one of these men, New York publicist Richard Sherman. The movie opens with Richard seeing off his nagging wife and annoying son at the train station. As soon as they are out of sight, he instantly begins the struggle with his conscience to keep his urges in check and his son’s forgotten canoe paddle means he has to carry a long piece of wood around for a lot of the movie. Is it a metaphor? You bet it is.

Richard returns to his apartment, swearing to follow his doctor’s orders not to drink or smoke and vows not to chase after dames. Instead, he settles down to read a manuscript about the ‘repressed urges of the middle-aged male’. On his first night alone, his reserve is tested by the arrival of a new tenant in the apartment upstairs, an unnamed blonde played by Marilyn Monroe. They drink and flirt and it becomes clear that Richard is in with a chance of bedding her, but will he hold his nerve?

The Seven Year Itch was a successful play shortly before playwright George Axelrod joined forces with master writer/director Billy Wilder to re-tell his story on the silver screen. The stage production had been a huge success and addressed many controversial issues, including the protagonist’s inevitable adultery. Translating the play into a movie proved incredibly difficult due to the strict guidelines imposed on Hollywood productions by the Motion Picture Code of 1930 (aka the Hays Code).

The Hays Code was an attempt to remove immoral content from film productions in response to the rise in gangster films and on-screen violence. Billy Wilder managed to skirt around the Hays Code many times in his career but the screen adaptation of The Seven Year Itch lost a lot of the impact it had on stage.

The Seven Year Itch
The Seven Year Itch is quite obviously an adaptation of a stage play. Most of the action takes place in long takes in Richard’s apartment and the story is driven by clever dialogue between the two leads, but lacks a satisfying resolution after the all the groundwork. There are many metaphors and innuendos within the story and Wilder even turned up the heat in the city to generate sexual tension in his cast. Richard allows his imagination to run away with him throughout the film and a lot of the more risqué elements occur within these scenes but on the whole, The Seven Year Itch is incredibly tame by today’s standards. Even the famous shot of the wind blowing up Monroe’s skirt barely shows her knees.

During the making of the movie, Marilyn Monroe was at her unreliable best, turning up several hours late on set, drinking heavily and forgetting her lines, resulting in dozens of takes for simple scenes. Even with all of the troubles, Billy Wilder liked working with Monroe and gets a strong comedy performance out of her. He once commented that his auntie would probably turn up on set on time but there’s no way he would put her in a film. Monroe shows her comedic potential in a film where she is oblivious to her attraction to men even though she waters the plants on her balcony in the nude and keeps undies in her icebox during the heat wave. Unfortunately, there is no character development in her role and her purpose is to prompt Richard to remember that he loves his family and he should go and stay with them in the country.

Tom Ewell’s performance as the buffoon Richard Sherman is a difficult one to assess. Ewell played the role on Broadway and was the producers’ natural choice. However, the fact I found an uncanny resemblance between him and George Jetson and the fact that Walter Matthau was screen-tested for the role means that I was left with a feeling of ‘What If?’. Ewell is competently funny but Matthau’s strong screen presence would have given the role something extra.

The Seven Year Itch is an enjoyable farce and taken for what it is, it is a lot of fun. The problem is that without Walter Matthau in the lead role and confirmation that Richard eventually sleeps with his new neighbour (which Wilder valiantly but unsuccessfully fought to include), all we’re left with is an average rom-com that sold a million posters.

The Seven Year Itch

Video


The Seven Year Itch was one of Billy Wilder’s first movies to be filmed in Technicolor, which he didn’t much care for, preferring black and white. The movie is very colourful though and the picture has been remastered very well, making the picture bright and vibrant. Marilyn Monroe’s bright red lips and innocent white eyes are critical to her character and strong colours like this stand out very well. With very little dirt on the film, the picture is amazing given that it is over fifty years old. The only complaint I have is that the colour of the entire frame changes in tone before fading out at the end of a scene.

Though not a problem with the video quality, it’s worth mentioning an issue with the opening credit sequence. The opening credits were created by Saul Bass, who was behind the credit sequences in many of Hitchcock’s greatest works. The sequence is intended to show opening and closing doors to hint that The Seven Year Itch is a classic farce but this was surely intended to be seen on the big screen and the text is very small. Even on a 32-inch screen, the credits were difficult to read.

Audio


Just as there is very little dirt on the picture, there is a surprising lack of interference on the soundtrack. Dialogue is what drives this film and it is very clear, without any crackling during the silent moments. The orchestral music in the fantasy sequences sounds suitably grand and rounds off an excellent audio track for such an old film.

The Seven Year Itch

Extras


Disc one comes with a commentary by Billy Wilder biographer Kevin Lally (the disc menu incorrectly states that the commentary is by Billy Wilder and Kevin Lally). Lally is a good choice to provide the commentary—he is obviously well-versed in the works of Billy Wilder but also in the works of Marilyn Monroe and the period in which The Seven Year Itch was made. Some of the comments he makes about the Hays Code and the problems of working with Monroe are duplicated elsewhere in the package, but this is forgivable in a comprehensive set like this.

The ‘Back Story’ featurette is one episode of a longer running series and follows a predictable formula—picking out the main points of the film, retrospective interviews with stars and discussing the effects of the film on everyone involved. For example, Joe DiMaggio’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe didn’t last very long after the public filming of the air vent scene, when hundreds of gawkers were invited to a New York street corner to look up her skirt.

Two deleted scenes are included on the second disc, which are also discussed in the ‘Back Story’ featurette. One is a slightly extended version of the air vent scene, the other is an extended version of the bathtub scene, where the plumber drops his spanner in the bath that Marilyn Monroe is lying in and sticks his hand in to pick it out. Both were unacceptable under the Hays Code and represent the changes that were necessary during very different times.

The ‘Restoration Comparison’ featurette shows the differences in video quality between the remastered version of the feature and the master copy used for previous releases. The gulf between the two is huge and really highlights the efforts that have gone in to making The Seven Year Itch look great in this release. The ‘Sneak Preview’ is a thirty-second press clip from Fox upon the release of the film, showing Marilyn Monroe turning up for the premiere. A gallery of film posters is thrown in for the completists.

The Seven Year Itch
Also included on the second disc are two documentaries, both of which have very little to do with The Seven Year Itch. ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days’ is based around previously unseen footage of Monroe in Something’s Got to Give, one of the most famous unfinished movies in Hollywood history. When Monroe was fired, Dean Martin refused to complete the film with anyone else and when she died of an overdose two months later, the movie was abandoned. The documentary clocks in at just under two hours and finishes with thirty seven minutes of footage from the unfinished movie.

‘The Legend of Marilyn Monroe’ was made in 1966. The black and white documentary is narrated by John Huston and charts Monroe’s life from childhood to stardom and includes interviews with family and friends. The film includes clips of Monroe, the most famous of which is her serenade to President Kennedy on his birthday.

Overall


I was looking forward to watching The Seven Year Itch and in the main, it is good fun. What disappoints me is the feeling that it could have been so much more. What if the studio had gone for Walter Matthau? What if the Hays code hadn’t watered down the impact of the original story? This release contains an incredible amount of extras and presents the film with the best possible audio and video quality but I was left wondering whether this film deserved such loving treatment.


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