Wilder: The Seven Year Itch (1955) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

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Like many other Manhattan husbands, Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) sends his wife and son to the country for the summer, while he stays behind to toil. Though reveling in temporary bachelor freedom of lifestyle, he's resolved not to carouse and philander like some others. But his overactive, over-vivid imagination goes into overdrive when a delightfully unconventional, voluptuous blonde (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs.

Seven Year Itch to me is not a classic comedy or even a good one. Most of Wilder's films are timeless and are as fresh today as they were when originally released. This movie is not like that, I actually think it's horndog 50's vibe went stale before the movie was even released. This movie is nothing more than a sex romp but ones without any characters that I could even stand.

This puts Seven Year Itch under such recent sex comedies as American Pie. This might hurt you but I think this film is the equivalent to something like Tomcats. All the men in this film are a grating sex-crazed Tex Avery Wolf-type caricature and were not fleshed out at all.

This leads into my biggest problem with the film which is that I HATED Tom Ewell in the film. His character of Richard Sherman is a wimpy, annoying douche of a man. What makes it worse is that Ewell brings out everything bad about the character and magnifies it. He was the worst choice for a bad character there could be. Last week we talked about how Cary Grant was up for the role in Sabrina and that wouldn't have necessarily made the film better.

I am going to do a 180 here and mention that Wilder wanted Walter Matthau for the role of Sherman and was shot down by the studio. Matthau would have definitely made this movie 100 times better, of that fact I have no doubt! I want to go to an alternate world where this casting happened because I would love to see that film. As it is, The Seven Year Itch was an endurance test for me and took me three different occasions to get through the movie. So far this is the movie I disliked the most and by a pretty big margin. I have a feeling you might disagree with me, Danny, so tell me: what I am missing?

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Oh, come on, Ryan. You have to give The Seven Year Itch some measure of credit, especially since it apparently murdered your parents.

The Seven Year Itch is one of the best vehicles for Marilyn Monroe. Whether her persona informs The Girl, or The Girl embodies Monroe's persona is up for debate: they're indelibly linked. The commentary track even goes so far as to posit that Monroe is playing herself in the film, with everyone just too polite to mention her name.

What that means here, though, is that we can revel in the experience of her. Coy, smart, funny, and undeniably lovely, she embodies the girl next door (or upstairs, as the case may be). Wilder frames her as provocatively as the time period would allow, with her big iconic billowing skirt and her legs straddling an air conditioner. She oozes charisma, and her speech at the end of the film about the kind of man she really loves is honest and sweet.

You say this movie is vulgar, but I don't see it. Monroe's sweetness punctures all of it for me.

Not to say I don't see where you're coming from. Ewell plays one of the more interesting letches you can find, the kind who wanders around with his big phallic paddle and switches between terror and lust at a drop of a hat. He is the Creature from The Black Lagoon, someone hideous and horrifying, but also loving and mysterious. He doesn't know this himself-- he switches who he is too often to pick upon it-- but I think it's safe to say that he has gone to the theater and watched a movie about the monster, and the monster is him.

He's not as charming as Matthau would have been, of course, but few people are. He's got more of a rotten face, though, like a schlep. Maybe charm would have deflated how much of a a sad sack this material needs.

I do think that the film has a fair share of problems, so I'll go ahead and name them before you start bringing them up: first is the film's open. Wilder tries to paint the pursuit of sex by the married man as some carnal universal constant, and suggests that the veneer of civilization is just that-- and it flounders. Complicating matters is just how unrelentingly dull the movie looks-- Ewell's penchant for wearing grey sports coats in a gray painted house do help to point the entire thing towards Monroe's ruby red lips, but even those can't keep your attention the entire film. Wilder didn't like color, and he sure didn't put much effort into it for this go around.

And I'd like to add that it's pretty safe to say that the the film goes off the rails in act three soon as Ewell kisses Monroe and gets away with it. His transformation doesn't work, too much time is spent with him rather than the much funnier Monroe, and there's really only one big laugh left in the movie after that, which may be one of the most pointedly self referential lines ever put on film.

That brings me to an important point: The Seven Year Itch is butchered to within an inch of its life. You can feel that Wilder wants to push this thing to the Lubitsch madcap urbane sex comedy, but the tyrannical Production Code Administration wouldn't let him get quite so far. The Administration being those censors who clamped down on innuendo from 1934 to 1960, until another Billy Wilder/Marilyn Monroe collaboration helped spell its doom.

Ryan, you accuse this of being a tasteless romcom, and I disagree. This is what the world contorted Lubitschian comedies to be by the mid-50's: safe and quiet. Here Wilder is just trapped in the times (and a couple bad directorial decisions), unable to push the material into the farce it needs to be.

But, hell, I still like it. Besides the misogynist male horndogs that populate the film (and the 1950's in general to an extensive degree), what else do you find so objectionable?

I am going to use a parental phrase here and say that I am not so much mad at this movie as disappointed in Mr. Wilder. The movie is bad and the flop sweat is very evident. You say that he was going for the "Lubitsch Touch" and I hope he wasn't because he would have failed miserably. None of Lubitsch's classic films felt forced at all while Seven Year Itch was a slide whistle and a wah-wah sound away from total parody. I agree that Monroe is the best thing in this film but her screen team is not nearly enough. I feel like the first half hour of the film was just Ewell walking around his apartment talking to himself and that felt like a death by a million papercuts.

You also brought up color and I find it interesting that this is the 2nd film he shot in color and much like The Emperor Waltz, is very lifeless. Wilder excelled in black and white but felt totally lost with color. Being out of the comfort zone of B&W effected every other aspect of this film from the acting, to the sets to the cinematography.

Monroe is the ONLY good part of this movie and it is just from the sheer force of her persona that this movie has not been forgotten by the world. You take away the famous shot of her on the sewer grate and replace the icon with just any actress and the movie would fall apart even more.

This movie reminds me a lot of 1941 because if the sound and fury and effort that went into a film that just never worked. Spielberg had Jaws and Close Encounters before and crashed with 1941 and Wilder made some of his best films right before this misfire. These movies show that sometimes directors should stay away from their worst inclinations. But what do I know, this movie does have its fans so I might just be too harsh.

Ha! Come on, Ryan, don't back down from your opinions. You said this movie is like Tomcats-- what's your equivalent to the 'dude eating a testicle' scene here?I think the problem you're having with the film is that the film isn't charming like Lubitsch, but it's still being heavily codified by the censors, leaving it more lurid than anything else. There's a Patton Oswalt routine about how dialing down really dirty stuff to PG level dialogue makes it infinitely more disturbing, and I think that may be what you're seeing somewhat here.

I don't mind that too much because I do find much of the movie funny ("You sure have powerful thumbs!" "I used to play a lot of badminton."), even in spite of itself on occasion. It becomes self referential as hell, and there's one imaginary sequence with Tom Ewell crashing around in the waves with a woman on a beach, and he decides to loudly declare "I love you FROM HERE TO ETERNITY!". That's a huge clunker.

And I'll underhand toss one more criticism I have, which isn't anyone's fault, and that's that the musical score for The Seven Year Itch sounds faintly identical to the opening segments of the theme song to "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show." Can you hear it now?

The Seven Year Itch isn't one of Billy Wilder's best movies, but it has a lot of his cynicism tucked inside. The men here are still pigs, and the women are all victims of the male libido. Ewell spends most of the movie trying not to fit in with the crowd of adulterers who compose the men of New York City-- his boss and landlord both take up with women while their wives are away-- and uses his imagination to try and reframe his meek life into a series of adventurous sexual conquests. It takes the most beautiful woman in the world telling him that not sleeping around is okay for him to snap out of it. Well, that and a punch to the face of his biggest imagined romantic rival.

Which kind of makes me want to watch the uncensored play, since Ewell's character sleeps with The Girl in that version, meaning the message there would run more along the lines that adultery could make a marriage stronger. And that, I think unsurprisingly, would be a moral that pops up a couple of Wilder movies later when it could be uncensored. That idea must have some draw to Wilder, and it sounds like something Lubitsch could conceivably run with-- but it would take a lot of charm and understanding, which I'm not sure Wilder ever built enough of here or in that other movie I'm neglecting to name.

They're completely different beasts, which I think makes the movie slightly more palatable. And, in conclusion, I would also like to declare The Seven Year Itch as a weird friggin' prequel to Do the Right Thing, except instead of racism, it's about sexism, and instead of throwing a trashcan through a window, we see Marilyn Monroe standing on a grate. Do you buy that?

Maybe if the censors would have let him, he would have included some testicle eating. I think blaming the censorship board for this movie falling flat is too easy of an out. I have read the stories of Wilder wanting to push the movie further but being shot down by both the board and his studio but that should not be an excuse, many wonderful films skirted the censors throughout the years and were able to tell the story they wanted.

The Seven Year Itch being as bad is it is baffles me because it should have been right in Wilder's wheelhouse. Wilder is great at getting laughs out of the sex comedy and he makes THE essential one a few years later with Some Like It Hot but here he commits the cardinal sin of a comedy and throws tons of jokes out there that aren't remotely funny? Did they work in 1955? I don't know but I am sure that in the year of 2012 they do nothing but fall flat.

So far we have compared this film to Tomcats, 1941, and Do The Right Thing and I am going to add one more because the constant fantasy scenes remind me of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty but less whimsical.

Finally, I think at this time the sting of Ace in the Hole was still with him and he saw that adapting Stalig 17 worked out wonderfully so he tried to repeat that same feat. The problem is he never swung for the fences with this movie and was hoping to just hit a single but in my opinion he failed miserably. The Seven Year Itch isn't funny, has some of the most obnoxious stereotypes of the horny male and showed no spark of creativity at all. Billy Wilder could do much better and Marilyn Monroe and her performance deserved a lot more.

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Next week: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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  1. Suddenly Ryan’s pitch for the Bruce Almighty sequel makes more sense – he’s been horribly scarred from the memory of seeing Marilyn Monroe sass it up.

    This was my favorite exchange to read so far. Danny, you should trudge up more memories from Ryan’s brittle past more often.

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