Silver Screen Standards: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Silver Screen Standards: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch (1955) Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe
Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe take a tumble together in The Seven Year Itch (1955), in which Ewell plays a married man fantasizing about infidelity.

News of summer heatwaves naturally put thoughts of The Seven Year Itch (1955) and undies in the icebox into my mind, so it seemed like the perfect time to revisit this sweltering sex comedy from director Billy Wilder, which stars Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe as two New Yorkers going slightly mad in the unrelenting heat. Everything in the movie is overheated, from the temperatures in New York City to the imagination of Richard Sherman (Ewell), and with our real-world temperatures soaring into triple digits it’s easy to sympathize with the kind of craziness that comes over Richard as he fantasizes about cheating on his wife, even if there’s a troubling “boys will be boys” attitude toward marital infidelity that hangs over the whole story. The dated bits of the movie (like that bizarre opening gag) might complicate a modern viewer’s enjoyment, but they don’t outweigh the deliriously meta comedy of the film, which still has a very modern quality to it almost seventy years later.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) Tom Ewell and Carolyn Jones Nurse
Richard (Ewell) concocts a steamy noir fantasy about his appendectomy in which the nurse (Carolyn Jones) offers to run away with him.

Ewell had already played Richard Sherman in the original stage version of The Seven Year Itch, even winning the Tony Award for Best Actor for the role in 1953, so it’s not surprising that he seems so at home in the character. As iconic as Marilyn Monroe is, especially in the billowing white dress, this movie really belongs to Ewell, who has numerous long scenes where he’s only talking to himself or being carried away into another of his fever dream fantasies. The stage roots of the story show through this setup, but Richard’s imagination helps to transport us out of the confines of the cramped apartment. Richard himself possesses an odd mix of personality traits, a nervous wreck one minute and a preening narcissist the next, but his most consistent quality is his absolutely uncontrollable imagination. He’s barely connected to reality, and the absence of the apartment’s other residents – his wife (Evelyn Keyes) and son (Tom Nolan) – allows him to whirl away into delirium without check.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe Piano
Richard’s daydreams about the Girl (Monroe) cast her as an elegant vamp, whom he seduces with his skill in playing Rachmaninoff.

As an imaginary version of Helen, Richard’s wife, observes in one early reverie, Richard imagines “in CinemaScope, with stereophonic sound.” It’s clear that Richard has spent a lot of time at the movies, as most of his fantasies revolve around cinematic tropes of various kinds. Each one winks and nods at the viewer, who is also, one must assume, spending a fair bit of time watching movies. Richard remembers his appendectomy recovery as a scene from film noir, with Carolyn Jones as the nurse who offers to break him out of the hospital and together make a run for the border. He also imagines his wife shooting him when she finds out about his infidelity, which would be a very noir ending to his affair. He imagines himself as the suave seducer from a sophisticated romance, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the piano for a vampish version of Monroe’s Girl (the classical music is itself a nod to its use in the 1945 film Brief Encounter). We even see Richard imagine himself taking Burt Lancaster’s place in the iconic beach scene of From Here to Eternity (1953), loyally trying to fend off yet another smitten female (Dolores Rosedale aka Roxanne). In other scenes he refers to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), proving that his moviegoing tastes are widely varied. This is a movie about a man who has watched so many movies that he now imagines his own life as a series of cinematic scenes, and the meta humor of the situation is only truly appreciable by people who have also watched all of those movies and are now watching this movie, as well.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe Beach
Richard imagines sex on the beach with a beautiful woman (Dolores Rosedale) in the style of From Here to Eternity (1953).

The surreal nature of the experience reaches its high point when Richard is finally asked directly about the attractive blonde visitor he claims to have in his apartment and replies, “Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!” Of course, it IS Marilyn Monroe, playing the unnamed Girl who has so unhinged Richard’s already unstable imagination, but we suddenly realize that Richard might be imagining her, too. Perhaps she’s just another of his CinemaScope fantasies (The Seven Year Itch is, of course, itself shot in CinemaScope). The only other person who has seen her is the janitor, the leering Mr. Kruhilik (Robert Strauss), but Richard’s imagination is completely capable of conjuring him, too. We remember how real Richard’s previous visions have been; the ghostly quality of his first vision of Helen has given way to fantasies of much more substance. We’re left, at the end, wondering if anything we’ve just seen was “real” within the world of the film, or if a lonely, overheated, middle-aged man has imagined the whole thing to compensate for being left alone in the city while his wife and son enjoy the cool pastimes of the countryside. It sounds like a movie Christopher Nolan or Rian Johnson might make today, and it’s that startlingly modern approach to surreal experience that makes The Seven Year Itch such a great picture.

For variations on the theme, see Tom Ewell with Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), or Tony Randall with Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Danny Kaye plays another dreamer carried away by his imagination, while other cinephiles get lost in the movies in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and The Last Action Hero (1993). For a sizzling double feature, continue to Wilder’s second and final collaboration with Marilyn Monroe, the aptly named Some Like It Hot (1959)

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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