The Seven Year Itch (1955)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 5: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 28 of the first edition hardback, Ebert lists films he recalls seeing in the theater with his parents. In that passage he remembers preparing to clap his hands over his eyes during a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because the local church paper reported that the film was “racy”.

What Ebert had to say in his review:Ebert never officially reviewed the film, but he mentioned in his memorial blog post for director Howard Hawks that “Marilyn Monroe was never more sexy or more vulnerable than she was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

From what I gather, the common wisdom at the time when Marilyn Monroe was on top of the world was that the actress wasn’t necessarily super-talented, just beautiful enough to get by on looks & charm alone. There’s no denying that the camera loved Monroe. She was a gorgeous woman & it showed in every vivacious frame of celluloid. However, the idea that she was all bosom & no brains is selling her talents insultingly short. Monroe was not an airheaded bimbo of an actress; she was just remarkably adept at playing airheaded bimbos on screen. If she had been offered any other kind of role we might’ve seen a completely different side of her personality, but throughout her career she seemed to be eternally typecast.

In a lot of ways Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘s gold-digging showgirl Lorelei Lee is the ultimate Marilyn Monroe character. The Howard Hawks musical often positions Lee’s intelligence vs. her breathtaking beauty as the butt of a joke. However, under that airheaded blonde surface lurks a cunning schemer, shrewd in her dealings with men of various levels of wealth. As Lee puts it, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” The breathy, aggressively delicate performance Monroe brings to he screen as Lee suggests that the character is a pushover for any “gentleman” with a sizeable wallet, but that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Lorelei Lee might be in desperate search of a sugar daddy throughout Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but that search is a keenly orchestrated attempt at obtaining lifelong financial stability, a goal she’s willing to manipulate, drug, and seduce an endless procession of male suitors to achieve if necessary (or convenient). Much like Monroe, Lee is a severely underestimated talent with the brains to take full advantage of every opportunity her bosom affords her. They’re a perfect match in terms of Old Hollywood typecasting, whether or not Monroe had been asked to play Lee’s exact role in countless other works.

With all of this talk about Monroe’s particular screen presence,  you’d think that she were the protagonist in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, hut the truth is that she’s the protagonist’s scene-stealing best friend. From the opening scene were Monroe & Jane Russell enter the film as a Vegas-style showgirl act decked out in Technicolor sequins, it’s all too apparent who the real star is here. Even Monroe knew she as far more than a supporting actress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, responding to an interviewer who asked her how she felt not being the film’s star with the retort, “Well, whatever I am I’m still the blonde.” She’s not wrong. If there’s any question who’s in charge in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, just look to the painfully unfunny scene in which Russell bleaches her hair & impersonates Monroe on the witness stand of a larceny trial. Without Monroe’s inherent magnetism, Lee’s eccentricity is downright annoying. It’s also telling that nearly every scene featuring Russell’s “protagonist” concerns Lorelei Lee’s search for a rich husband. This movie is 100% The Marilyn Monroe Show.

One of my favorite things about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is that it completely avoids committing the morally bankrupt atrocity I just indulged in all last paragraph: pitting its two female leads against each other. Despite what the film’s title (or even more so the title of its novelized sequel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes) suggests, the plot of this film does not concern women in competition. One woman chases lust & a good time. The other chases money. They both find true love at the end of their journeys (as all characters in comedy musicals inevitably do) without ever once conspiring against each other. They consistently have each other’s backs in a world where men are looking to take advantage of them at every turn. Plot-wise, its depiction of showgirls scheming to marry rich might not seem like the end-all-be-all of cinematic feminism, but the two leads’ friendly love & support is surprisingly refreshing within that framework.

In his memorial piece for Howard Hawks, Ebert mentions that the writer/director/producer, who had a hand in iconic works as varied as The Thing from Another World & Bringing Up Baby, never consciously aimed for Art in his films & was often surprised when people found it there. The songs aren’t particularly great in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which was adapted from the stage musical). The sets can be downright laughably cheap. Characters often fall into pathetic caricature, such as a wealthy diamond mine owner with a monocle who exclaims “By George!” constantly & refers to himself as “Piggy”. Still, despite Hawks’s no frills approach to crowd pleasing cinema, there’s plenty of Art lurking in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes if you know where to look for it. An early musical number featuring a men’s Olympic gymnastics team is like a classic beefcake photo shoot come to vivid life. I appreciated a shot where Lorelei mentally replaces Piggy’s head with a gigantic diamond. Most impressive all is an the film’s centerpiece: Monroe’s iconic rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. This musical number is stunning with or without narrative context. Its stark red backdrop, BDSM-themed chandeliers, suicide humor, and diamond fetishization all amount to a singularly memorable aesthetic that puts the rest of the film’s relatively flat visual representation to shame. Whether or not Hawks was looking for “Art” in his Gentlemen Prefer Blondes adaptation, he found a bottomless wealth of it in that scene alone.

In case you couldn’t tell by now, it’s Monroe’s performance that elevates Gentlemen Prefer Blondes above by-the-numbers musical comedy mundanity. Ebert’s not wrong when he says that she was at her sexiest & most vulnerable in the film. There’s a whole lot of Monroe reflected in Lorelei Lee (both physically & personality wise). Whenever she drops the gold-digging bimbo pretense to reveal her true, shrewd self, there’s something truly personal that plays out on the screen. Lines like “It’s men like you who have made me the way I am. If you loved me at all you’d feel sorry for the terrible trouble I’ve been through instead of holding it against me” cut through her faux airheaded persona like a hot knife through butter. This probably isn’t Monroe’s best picture (for my money, that would be Some Like It Hot), but it very well might be her most personal & that dynamic makes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes much more than the empty trifle it could’ve been without her.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

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Next Lesson: Bwana Devil (1952)

-Brandon Ledet