Marilyn: Behind the Icon –
The Seven Year Itch Delivers Monroe’s Immortal Iconic Image
In 1955, after Marilyn Monroe left Hollywood to study at The Actor’s Studio in Manhattan, she sat in a booth in a diner facing Lowe’s State Theatre on Broadway. Friend and actor Eli Wallach sat across from her. Monroe stared out the window and gazed at the recently unveiled four-story cutout of her in a billowing skirt erected above the marquee of the marquee to promote The Seven Year Itch. “That’s all they think of me,” she said ruefully, appalled by the indelible representation of the very image she was battling to escape. Monroe’s character didn’t even have a name.
The Seven Year Itch gave Monroe an iconic image that would grant her immortality. Her character innocently stands over a subway grate as a train passes beneath, generating a gust of wind that raises her pleated skirt above her waist, revealing her lace panties. The iconic image contributed to the end of her marriage and defined her public persona for future generations.
The trailer for The Seven Year Itch opened with a wolf whistle. “It’s coming at last!” read the titles. “The howling stage hit that kept Broadway roaring for three great years. It tickles! It tantalizes! Now it will sweep the nation with an epidemic of laughs!”
George Axelrod’s 1952 adultery-themed comedy ran for 1,141 performances. The play starred Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman, a middle-aged Manhattan book editor whose wife and son depart for the country for a summer vacation, leaving him alone in their apartment with a beautiful model subletting the apartment upstairs. The model is every red-blooded heterosexual man’s fantasy — albeit an objectified woman — a character who Axelrod does not give a name. In the script, she is simply “The Girl.” After a protracted comedic internal struggle, summer-bachelor Sherman has an affair with the model.
The play’s title refers to a documented 1950s statistic regarding when a married couple is likely to divorce. Social scientists theorized that after seven years of monogamy, an average couple has raised an average of one to two children through infancy, grown apart, and feel an “itch” to seek out another sexual partner.
The role of the tempting model in the film adaptation seemed ideal for Marilyn Monroe. Her screen persona embodied the character. The script might well have spelled out that Monroe herself was subletting the apartment upstairs from Richard Sherman. She was the public figure with whom many married men fantasized about having an affair. Zanuck recognized this, as evidenced by a memo dictated early in the production’s development: “She is an absolute must for this story.”
Censorship threatened to reduce The Seven Year Itch to an unrecognizable story. The strict Production Code Administration enforced the forbiddance of adultery as the subject of a comedy. Much of Axelrod’s funniest dialogue would be eliminated for its racy tone, but Wilder was a master at repartee that had already passed the censors. The play derives laughs from Sherman’s consequent guilty feelings and farfetched imagined repercussions for having metaphorically scratched his itch.
Director and screenwriter lost the battle with censorship but won Marilyn Monroe. Without her, the film would simply have not made sense. Monroe’s sexy screen presence communicated visually much of what could not be implied by plot or verbalized through lines. Her unparalleled sizzle compensated for all dialogue and plot turns the censors had excised.
Actor Walter Matthau was Wilder’s original choice for the role of Richard Sherman, but Zanuck agreed on casting Tom Ewell. “Marilyn was a fighter,” Ewell said of his co-star, honoring an overlooked attribute. “I was extremely fond of her. I grew to admire her because I knew she put up a terrific battle to do what she did. Oh, boy she was a street fighter. She had to be. She had a miserable, miserable early life. Everything she got, she fought for. She really was a wonderful person. There’s never been anyone like her.”
William Travilla’s sunburst-pleated ivory summer dress of rayon-acetate crepe with halter-top was aerodynamically designed to catch a gust of wind from a subway sidewalk grating and became the globally iconic and most recognizable motion picture costume in the history of cinema. Travilla created a dress to make Marilyn’s character “clean and adorable.” The dress sold for $5.6M at auction in 2011.
Whose idea was the skirt-blowing scene? Travilla’s pleated white summer frock itself was not revealing; it was the special effects crew’s manipulation of the aerodynamically designed garment that would expose Monroe’s flesh. The idea is credited to photographer Sam Shaw, based upon his image at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, taken for a 1941 cover of Our Navy magazine. Shaw suggested that Fox include a scene like his striking shot of a sailor and his girlfriend whose skirt was raised a draft of wind.
On a hot summer night, Sherman and the Girl go to the cinema together and see The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Universal Studio’s 3-D film featuring a menacing amphibious monster that abducts a beautiful girl. Exiting the theater, the Girl spontaneously straddles a sidewalk subway grate to feel a blast of cool air generated by a train speeding under the city, and her pleated skirt rises above her knees. With girlish delight, she holds her dress down and squeals, “Do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?” In the preceding dialogue, the Girl expresses empathy for the monster. Although “scary-looking,” it wasn’t “all bad.” The Girl theorizes the monster merely craved affection and “a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”
The subway grate scene filmed outside the New York’s Trans-Lux Theatre on Lexington Avenue — and inside a soundstage at Fox — captures the Girl in a spontaneous, nonsexual moment of joy—at least this is how Monroe played it. Richard becomes the aroused voyeuristic male. The crowd of onlookers and the audience become voyeuristic as well. Still, what was going through Monroe’s head? She clearly knew the sexual implication. In true Monroe fashion, she played the scene like an innocent child, seemingly unaware of the sexual allure she creates.
The scene can also be argued as both an example of objectification of a woman; exactly what Monroe battled against, or a woman exercising her own sexual power. Monroe’s complicity is often labeled as an act of exhibitionism or self-abasement. But was she really colluding in her own objectification? Monroe was a hard worker who tried her best to bring reality and art to any project in which she was involved. She never expressed shame in portraying the Girl and may have justified the scene as the price of working with the esteemed Billy Wilder.
Wilder admitted the spectacle could have been offensive and distasteful, but Monroe performed with naïveté. He asserted the act was “the finest instance of a Monroe’s character’s ability to suggest simultaneously both childlike pleasure and sexual delight.” In fact, her casting had been a calculated effort to include tasteful sexuality over obscenity. “She had a natural instinct for how to read a comic line and how to give it something extra, something special,” Wilder said in tribute to Monroe. “She was never vulgar in a role that could have become vulgar, and somehow you felt good when you saw her on the screen. To put it briefly, she had a quality no one else ever had on the screen except Garbo. No one.”
From every angle on Lexington Avenue, a mob of photographers snapped what Irving Hoffman called “the shot seen around the world,” referencing a line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about the cannon blast that began the American Revolutionary War in 1775, the “shot heard around the world.”
What scenes were deleted? Wilder reshot Monroe and Ewell’s entire scene when censors objected to Monroe’s “short” shorts; the costume was replaced with matador slacks. A fantasy sequence was also eliminated in which Sherman’s guilty conscience triggers suspicion that the girl is blackmailing him for his adulterous impulses.
During the production, the Monroe-DiMaggio marriage was marked by turbulence and alleged domestic violence. Fox hairdresser Gladys Rasmussen later claimed DiMaggio “beat [Marilyn] up” and left bruises on her shoulders that required extensive coverage with makeup. Before the film wrapped, the couple separated.
Delightful and effervescent onscreen, Monroe presents no indication of the stress occurring in her personal life. She was later bashed for requiring numerous retakes during the production. Producer Charles Feldman’s memo to Zanuck on Monroe’s challenges refutes this: “There have been tough days…the 18-takes have only happened on rare occasions with the girl…for the last two weeks this girl has worked as hard as anyone I have known in my life.”
Monroe’s pivotal scene in the film appears close to the end, when Sherman tells the Girl no attractive woman would want him. Monroe delivers a heartfelt response. Since it was a long speech, Wilder and the crew assumed it would require multiple takes and many hours to film. Surprising to all, Monroe completed it in a single take and everyone on set applauded. “She told me later she was able to do the scene because she believed every word of what she was saying,” George Axelrod recalled. In the end, the Girl reminds Sherman of what matters, his wife and son. He rushes off to them as she waves from the window.
Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote a title song for Monroe to sing over the closing titles. However, she left LA for New York shortly after production and didn’t record it. Rachmaninoff ’s dramatic Piano Concerto No. 2 was used in the seduction scene and in dream sequences of Sherman’s lustful fantasies of the Girl. This classical piece, with its low, rhythmic piano and lush strings was used in the British drama Brief Encounter (1945), with a familiar theme of a woman tempted to cheat on her husband with a stranger she meets at a railway station.
The Seven Year Itch also contains numerous inside jokes, derivatives, and parodies evoking other popular films in its various fantasy sequences. In the first, Helen tells Richard that he imagines things “in CinemaScope with stereophonic sound.” Richard kisses a blonde on the beach in a manner like swimsuit-clad Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr passionately necking in the surf in From Here to Eternity. Later, the Girl interrupts her toothpaste live-television commercial by warning the nation of Sherman’s lecherous behavior and compares him to the monster in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Finally, after being kissed by his secretary, whose unbridled desire results in her ripping open his shirt, Sherman runs off half-dressed like William Holden in Picnic.
Axelrod and Wilder also blurred Monroe with her nameless screen character. When the Girl recites her lines in the Dazzledent toothpaste commercial to Sherman, Monroe strikes a pose remarkably like her own studio publicity photos in an obvious self-parody. Near the end, when Sherman brags about having a blonde in his kitchen, Tom McKenzie asks, “What blonde in the kitchen?” Sherman snaps, “Wouldn’t you like to know? Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”
In the film, Monroe looks like she arrived from the future. She is luminous. She makes co-stars seem obsolete. Her vocal delivery is unlike stagelike staccato of the era. Her comic timing is flawless. Monroe’s reviews were generally positive — with few exceptions by conservative critics seemingly jaded by the sexualized nature of her role rather than her actual performance.
“[Monroe] was an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense of comic dialogue,” Billy Wilder asserted. “Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone is earthbound by comparison.” Seven years after the film’s release, Monroe would be dead.
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.