Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Seven Year Itch (1955) * * *

(first lines: narration)
The island of Manhattan derives its name from its earliest inhabitants--the Manhattan Indians. They were a peaceful tribe, setting traps, fishing, hunting. And there was a custom among them. Every July when the heat and the humidity on the island became unbearable, they would send their wives and children away for the summer, up the river to the cooler highlands, or if they could afford it, to the seashore. The husbands of course, would remain behind on the steaming island to attend to business--setting traps, fishing, and hunting. Actually, our story has nothing whatsoever to do with Indians. It plays 500 years later. We only brought up the subject to show you that in all that time, nothing has changed. Manhattan husbands still send their wives and kids away for the summer and they still remain behind in the steaming city to attend to business, setting traps, fishing, and hunting. (As soon as the Indian squaws are out of sight, the Indian chiefs follow an attractive Indian squaw.) Now we want you to meet a typical Manhattan husband whose family is leaving for the summer...

Middle-aged married publisher Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is alone in his Manhattan apartment in July when his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and son Ricky (Butch Bernard) go to Maine for a summer vacation. He must remain behind "in the hot city and make money", and sees them off at the train station. Following the orders of Helen and his doctors, he has promised to eat properly, and not to smoke or drink. He is also determined to lead a sensible life and not to play around as soon as his wife leaves town like many other men.

The film's narrator explains that Richard Sherman is a publisher of paperback books: "He works for a publishing firm, Brady and Co. They're publishing those pocket editions, you know, two bits in any drug store. Old Mr. Brady is the boss, but to tell you the truth, Mr. Sherman is the key man. He keeps the whole operation together. In the 25 cent book business, you can sell anything, even the old classics, no matter how dreary they are. The trick is, you've got to soup up the title a little, and get yourself a cheerful and interesting cover. It's all a question of imagination, and Mr. Sherman has a lot of imagination."

After work, Sherman resists giving in to any form of temptation, and goes to a vegetarian restaurant on 3rd Avenue for dinner: "Health, that's the stuff. The human body is a very delicate machine, a precision instrument. You can't run it on martinis and Hungarian goulash especially in this hot weather." The restaurant displays its typical offerings, Spinach Loaf, Yogurt, and Dandelion Salad, but Richard has ordered the #7 Special: Soybean Hamburger with french-fried soybeans, soybean sherbert, peppermint tea, and a drink to start--a sauerkraut juice on the rocks. All the other diners in the restaurant are elderly. The waitress (Doro Merande) is plain and middle-aged, and although she doesn't accept tips, she does solicit contributions for a fund established for a nudist camp, explaining: "Nudism is such a worthy cause. We must bring the message to the people. We must teach them to unmask their poor suffocating bodies and let them breathe again. Clothes are the enemy. Without clothes, there would be no sickness, there'd be no war. I ask you sir: Can you imagine two great armies on the battlefield, no uniforms, completely nude? No way of telling friend from foe, all brothers together."

Waitress: Oh, yes, sir. Now let's see... we had the number seven special, a soybean hamburger with french-fried soybeans... Soybean sherbet and peppermint tea.
Sherman: Don't forget I had a cocktail to start.
Waitress: Oh yes, we had the sauerkraut juice on the rocks, didn't we? You will be proud to know that your entire meal with the cocktail was only 260 calories.
Sherman: I am proud.

He returns to his apartment, commenting to himself: "It's peaceful with everybody gone. Sure is peaceful. No Howdy Doody, no Captain Video. No smell of cooking, no 'What happened at the office today darling?'" But he accidentally steps on one of his son's roller skates, falls and lands flat on his back. His apartment's buzzer rings and he meets the new summer tenant. It's a stunning, curvaceous, sexy, wide-eyed blonde (Marilyn Monroe) wearing a tight white dress. She forgot her outer building key so she hit his buzzer to get in. "The Girl" is a model who is renting the apartment upstairs while she is in town to make TV commercials for a toothpaste.

One evening, while proof reading "Man and the Unconscious", written by psychiatrist Dr. Ludwig Brubaker (Oskar Homolka), he learns that a significant proportion of men have extra-marital affairs in the seventh year of marriage. He has an imaginary conversation with Helen, trying to "convince" her in three fantasy sequences that he is irresistible to women, bragging: "Women have been throwing themselves at me for years. That's right, Helen. Beautiful ones. Plenty of them. Acres and acres of them." In short vignettes of passionate flings with women, he tells of attempted seductions that he has resisted, first with his secretary Miss Morris (Marguerite Chapman) in the privacy of his office. He continues, "This thing about women and me. I walk into a room. They sense it instantly. I arouse something in them. I bother them. It's a kind of animal thing I've got. Really quite extraordinary." In another vignette, he describes being seduced in his hospital bed by Miss Finch (Carolyn Jones), a beautiful night nurse. His wife refuses to take him seriously, laughing at his manufactured stories: "You read too many books and see too many movies." In his third fantasy he parodies the famous love scene in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) and his wife's best friend Elaine (Roxanne) seduces him on a moon-lit deserted beach with waves crashing onto the shore. Again, Helen sees only his "tremendous imagination. Lately you've begun to imagine in Cinemascope, with stereophonic sound."

Dr. Brubaker: At fifty dollars an hour, all my cases are interesting. My 3:00 patient jumped out of the window in the middle of his session. I have been running fifteen minutes ahead of schedule ever since. Until you are able to commit a simple act of terror, I strongly advise you to avoid anything as complex as murder. When something itches, my dear sir, the natural tendency is to scratch.
Sherman: Last night I scratched.

Sherman reassures himself about how his wife and women in general age differently than men: "She probably figures she isn't as young as she used to be. She's 31 years old. One of these days, she's gonna wake up and find her looks are gone and then where will she be? Well, no wonder she's worried. And especially since I don't look a bit different than I did when I was 28. It's not my fault that I don't. It's just a simple biological fact. Women age quicker than men. Yeah, probably won't look any different when I'm sixty. I have that kind of a face. Everybody will think she's my mother."

He returns to reality when Helen calls and tells him her old boyfriend Tom McKenzie (Sonny Tufts) is also up at the resort. Getting up from his chair, a tomato plant crashes into his lounge chair. The Girl accidentally knocked it over, and apologizes. Richard invites her to come down for a drink.

The Girl: Let me just go put something on. I'll go into the kitchen and get dressed.
Sherman: The kitchen?
The Girl: Yes, when it's hot like this--you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox.
Sherman: (to himself) What am I doing anyway? Well, this is absolutely ridiculous. The first night Helen leaves and I'm bringing dames into the apartment...Now take it easy. There's absolutely nothing wrong with asking a neighbor down for a drink. Nothing. Why I just hope she doesn't get the wrong idea, that's all.
The Girl: Do you have any kids?
Sherman: No. None. No kids. Well, just one. Little one. Hardly counts.
The Girl: Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It's real crazy!
Sherman: There's gin and vermouth. That's a martini.
The Girl: Oh, that sounds cool! I think I'll have a glass of that. A big tall one!

As he waits for her to put on her underwear that she keeps cool in the refrigerator and gets dressed, Richard has a fantasy that The Girl is a femme fatale overcome by his playing of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. While playing Chopsticks, Richard in his fantasy grabs The Girl in a big hug that causes them to fall off the piano bench. She shrugs it off, but he feels guilty and contrite, and asks her to leave.

Over the next few days, they grow closer. His resolve to resist temptation fuels his fear that he is succumbing to the "Seven Year Itch", an urge to be unfaithful after seven years of matrimony, with a desire to satisfy one's sexual urges. The Girl doesn't realize her effect on him but he's got an air condtioner and it's hot upstairs. She's completely guileless. A classic scene is when The Girl's white dress is blown upward by wind from a subway grating of a passing train. He seeks out Dr. Brubaker for help, but to no avail. His imagination then kicks into overdrive: Helen and Ricky watch The Girl on TV as she warns the women of New York City about "this monster named Richard Sherman". The Girl tells a plumber (Victor Moore) how Sherman is "just like The Creature from the Black Lagoon". Then the plumber repeats her story to the horrified patrons of the vegetarian restaurant Sherman ate at. The Shermans' hunky neighbor Tom McKenzie arranges to be alone on a hayride with Helen, so the wronged Helen returns home for revenge. The fantasies turn Richard into a paranoid wreck.

Sherman: If Helen sent you to get a divorce...
Tom MacKenzie: A divorce?
Sherman: I absolutely refuse! I'll fight it in every court!
Tom MacKenzie: She sent me for the paddle.
Sherman: Because I can explain everything: the stairs, the cinnamon toast, the blonde in the kitchen.
Tom MacKenzie: Wait! Wait a minute Dickey-Boy. What blonde in the kitchen?
Sherman: Oh, wouldn't you like to know! Maybe it's Marilyn Monroe!

After a crazed confrontation with McKenzie, whom Helen has asked to drop by to pick up Ricky's canoe paddle, Richard comes to his senses. He tells The Girl she can stay at his apartment, then runs off to catch the next train to Maine.

THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH is a delightful, sophisticated and witty farce, using the caustic humor of director Billy Wilder on the subject of sex. It was adapted from the Broadway hit play of the same name by George Axelrod, with Tom Ewell reprising his Broadway role. On stage Ewell had played opposite Vanessa Brown. The film's entire story is an elaboration of the first scene in Wilder's directorial debut film THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942). Although the play is about an actual consummated affair, it was modified due to the puritanical Hays Code in force at the time, and many of the best lines from the play were cut.

This entertaining and smoothly crafted comedy is best known for the performance of Marilyn Monroe in her 19th film portraying herself as a blonde bombshell, and known simply as The Girl. The film's promotional tease photographs packaged her as the sexy girl next door--the perfect fantasy figure. In the film, one wonders whether Marilyn Monroe's character is an actual person or rather the living embodiment of the urban executive's wild imagination, just a fantasy. Keeping his marriage vows and fidelity in the face of Marilyn Monroe's flirtations proves hilariously tough when challenged by the notorious "Seven Year Itch." Monroe is perfect as The Girl and Ewell personifies the Everyman confronted with temptation when left on his own. Monroe is breathtaking in Technicolor and her performance speaks volumes about her comic talent. The subway grating scene caps her legend as a sex symbol, but when you watch her performance you see she was much more than that.

Ewell's crack timing is matched by Monroe's zesty comic flair. Robert Strauss is funny as Kruhulik the lecherous greasy-looking janitor, who quotes from "Porgy and Bess" to describe the antics of summer bachelors: "Summertime, an' the livin' is easy, when the fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high." Doro Merande has a funny line as a waitress whose pro-naturalist camp stance extends to pacifist sentiments. And Carolyn Jones, best known as Morticia Addams in the TV sitcom THE ADDAMS FAMILY, plays a red-haired nurse smitten by Sherman in an imagination sequence.

The cast also includes: Robert Strauss (Mr. Kruhulik the janitor), Marguerite Chapman (Miss Morris), Victor Moore (Plumber), Dolores Rosedale (Elaine), Donald MacBride (Mr. Brady), Carolyn Jones (Miss Finch the night nurse), Steven Benson (Kid at Train Station), Dorothy Ford (Indian Girl / Tall Beauty at Train Station), Doro Merande (Waitress at Vegetarian Restaurant), Ron Nyman (Indian), Ralph Sanford (Train Station Gateman), and Mary Young (Woman in Train Station). Alfred Newman composed the original music. Billy Wilder and George Axelrod wrote the screenplay based on George Axelrod's play "The Seven Year Itch". Billy Wilder directed.

"The Seven Year Itch" is a three-act play by George Axelrod. It premiered at the Fulton Theatre on Broadway on November 20, 1952. The titular phrase, which refers to declining interest in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage, has actually been used by psychologists. The characters of Elaine, Marie, and the inner-voices of Sherman and The Girl were dropped for the movie. But the characters of the Plumber, Miss Finch, the Waitress, and Kruhulik the janitor were added. Many lines and scenes from the play were cut or re-written because they were deemed indecent by the Hays office. Axelrod and Wilder complained that the film was being made under straitjacketed conditions. This led to a major plot change: in the play, Sherman and The Girl become intimate, but in the movie the romance is supposedly all in his head.

The footage of Monroe's dress billowing over a subway grate was shot twice: a first take was shot at Manhattan's Lexington Avenue at 52nd Street and the second on a sound stage. The sound stage footage is what made its way into the final film, as the original on-location footage's sound had been rendered useless by the over excited crowd present during filming. The movie was filmed between September 1 and November 4, 1954, and was the only Wilder film released by 20th Century Fox.

The DVD presents the film in 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen utilizing 22 scene selections. The source material was in rougher shape than any of the other films in the Diamond Collection and considerable work was necessary to restore it, particularly on one reel that was badly scratched. The results are commendable. On the whole, this is a fine looking transfer. The picture is perhaps slightly softer looking than several of the others in the Collection, but colors are bright and accurate. Edge enhancement appears to be minimal. It's too bad something couldn't have been done to improve the opening credits, though. As originally designed, they're quite hard to read and an insult to the cast and crew responsible for the film. The sound track is available in both 3.0 and 2.0 stereo Dolby Digital. There is little noticeable difference between the two. They both deliver this dialogue-driven movie quite adequately--free of any distraction.

Extras include an AMC Back Story on the making-of the film with an informative profile and two deleted scenes as delightful additions. There's a Movietone newsreel on a sneak preview of the film, English and Spanish trailers, several one-sheet poster images, and a restoration comparison. The latter provides a very clear indication of how improved the current version is over previous video incarnations. Footage of Walter Matthau testing for Sherman is included on the DVD.

Nicolas Roeg's film INSIGNIFICANCE (1985) features a character based on Monroe and a re-enactment of the subway scene. THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH was listed at number 51 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American comedy films of the past 100 years. Tom Ewell won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor--Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Billy Wilder was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award.

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