I’m not convinced the effect was intentional from anyone involved, but the Big Studio comedy classic The Seven Year Itch might be one of the few rare examples of a movie that was saved by the Hays Code, rather than stifled by it. Adapted for the screen by comedy legend Billy Wilder from a mildly raunchy stage play, The Seven Year Itch suffered many negotiations & revisions at the behest of the overly moralistic Hays Code & the overly protective playwright of its source material. As is usual with risqué comedies of its era, this revision process dulled much of its sex humor, or at least obscured it behind a veil of winking insinuations. It also, unintentionally, made for a much more fascinating picture in the process by abstracting its POV. The original version of The Seven Year Itch features the inner monologues of a pair of upstairs & downstairs neighbors in an apartment complex – offering the POV of a young single woman & older married man in the middle of an adulterous sexual tryst. Hays Code censorship & other production restrictions removed the woman’s POV from that dynamic, as well as the extramarital sex the pair indulged in. You would think that these changes would enhance the film’s sexist, male chauvinist POV, but it curiously has the exact opposite effect. Through censorship & writing process bickering, The Seven Year Itch transformed into something strangely compelling, if not outright surreal.
The male chauvinist protagonist in question is played by Tom Ewell, perhaps the most milquetoast screen presence of all time. Experiencing a midlife crisis at the exact seven-year mark when married couples supposedly tend to cheat in boredom, he finds himself alone in NYC for the summer. While their wives & children escape to cool off on lakeside vacations, businessmen husbands stay behind in the hot city ostensibly to continue their work, but actually use the opportunity to drink, cheat, and let loose. As explained in a constant torrent of soliloquies to the audience, our protagonist Richard believes himself to be above that boorish, animalistic behavior. It’s only that his macho virility is too irresistible to women, so it’s the young seductresses’ fault that he gets into trouble as a wayward husband, not his own. Just looking at the mild-mannered, middle-aged dolt, we know these delusions of macho grandeur to be far beyond the realm of reality. However, there’s an initial unease in not knowing whether we’re meant to be sympathetic to his complaints that marriage & the modern world are what’s holding back his dominant alpha male energy, rather than him just being an unremarkable specimen of a middle-aged sap. As his delusions & paranoid fantasies escalate, though, it becomes crystal clear that we’re not watching the justified political rants of the Modern American Male stifled by his environment, but rather the ravings of a total lunatic who has entirely detached from reality. He might as well be bloviating into a bullhorn from a street corner in a tinfoil hat rather than working in a brick & mortar office building.
There are no bounds to Richard’s paranoid fantasies. Any vague recollection he has of being alone with a woman other than his wife is distorted into their being violent temptresses who cannot resist his “tremendous personal magnetism.” When his wife misses a phone call while on vacation, he becomes panicked that she’s necking with another married man on a romantic hayride. When seen talking to another woman while his wife is away, he imagines the exact gossip trail that would lead the intel back to her, convinced that she instantaneously knows of his planed infidelity. These fantasies are increasingly ludicrous & far-fetched, making Richard the most blatantly unreliable narrator that you can imagine, one who compulsively feels the need to narrate every thought that comes to his delusional mind. How are we to trust his version of events, then, when he begins an inevitable romantic affair with his upstairs neighbor, who has only moved in when he was left to his own devices by his family & whom has been seen by no other reliable source in the film? Marilyn Monroe’s portrayal of the ditzy, naive blonde upstairs who is entirely clueless to the sexual desires of every man around her (or so she pretends) is such an exaggerated, draggy version of femininity it can only be the physical manifestation of a man’s fantasy-bimbo. And, since Richard is the most fantasy-prone man on the planet, he’s the exact kind who could imagine an entire person into existence if left alone for too long with too many bottles of Scotch. Yes, by the time Richard says the name “Marilyn Monroe” aloud in the script it becomes clear that his upstairs neighbor isn’t real at all, only a Fight Club-style figment of a milquetoast man’s delusional imagination.
This reading of The Seven Year Itch, the one where Marilyn Monroe’s upstairs temptress is nothing but a male fantasy, would not be possible without Hays Code intervention. The Hays Code’s regulations drop the neighbor’s own inner monologues and the suggestion that the affair is consummated with actual sex, leaving only a nameless blonde knockout who has no inner life & no clue what effect her high-femme vava-voom presence has on the men who drool over her. Monroe, of course, is iconic casting for this role; the scene where she wrestles with the skirt of her white dress over a gusty subway grate is as iconic of a Studio Era image as any dorm room poster of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Wizard of Oz or whatever image you can conjure. Before it becomes clear that Richard is a raving lunatic, her breathy temptress presence is the film’s only saving grace. All the swanky music, lush De Luxe color, Saul Bass animation, and cheeky sex humor are in service of a nastily chauvinist view of the world where wives are disciplinarian shrews and all other women are gateways to sin, so that The Seven Year Itch’s surface pleasures only sour & rot in the context of the overall tone. Monroe is a (moaning) breath of fresh air in that idiotic macho worldview, lightening up the mood with an exaggerated femme-drag screen presence in a deliciously subversive way. The movie eventually catches up with her, dropping its initial sympathy with its pathetic protagonist’s “Woe is the modern man” POV to become a character study for a total loser & a complete psychopath. The Seven Year Itch is less a swanky sex comedy than it is the ravings of man driven mad by the social pressures of toxic masculinity, as well as a testament to the unintended virtues of Hay’s Code censorship.