by Sabina Stent
One image always makes me think of summer: Marilyn Monroe, clad in a white halter neck dress, red lipstick and white-heeled shoes, standing over a New York subway grate in The Seven Year Itch.
Summer and Billy Wilder’s film are intrinsically connected in my mind. Titled after the psychological theory of boredom and general malaise that occurs in the seventh year of marriage—a condition that significantly rises at the height of summer—Wilder’s film perfectly captures the primal effects of intense heat and the potency of warmer environmental conditions and temptation. That intense heat may be responsible for flirtations, fantasies and revelries, enhancing moods, removing inhibitions and altering behaviours. It’s an “anything goes” mentality. Anything can happen.
New York is too hot for wives and children in the summer, as husbands swelter away in their offices while families frolic at the shore for a few weeks. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is one of these men, dutifully waving his wife Helen and son away at the station before returning to his empty apartment, a summer of bachelorhood, and the male playground that has taken over Manhattan. He begins with good intentions—he will abstain from liquor, cigarettes and junk food, dutifully mail his son’s forgotten paddle and be on his best behaviour. All of these vows last until he meets his new neighbour upstairs (Monroe, enigmatically credited as “The Girl”). Monroe’s dynamic sexual potency has also been elevated by the intense temperature, and her potent sensuality immediately works its way into Sherman’s cerebral cortex, blurring his sense of reality; he begins to hallucinate scenarios when she ensnares him after being overcome by his piano-playing ability.
The film—essentially about one man’s mid-life crisis in the height of summer—has always struck me as interesting in part because of its overall tone of seediness. Tom Ewell (reprising the part he originally played in the stage production) portrays Sherman as a predatory leach very successfully, despite extracting less audience sympathy than another Wilder character, Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. Although Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter was essentially pimping out his apartment for prestige and personal gain, we felt for his misgivings and, more significantly, he was not married. This is the clincher: all the men in The Seven Year Itch come across as, to put it bluntly, desperate. Monroe is a manifestation of all of their heat-induced fantasies, almost as though the high temperatures and male desperation have summoned her like a genie from a lamp. She is a non-threatening presence, immune to the male lust that she faces while maintaining the image of a male summer fantasy on a plate. More interestingly, we never actually see her engage with any other women. This only adds to her illusory, phantom-like nature.
Sherman hardly makes a subtle first impression on The Girl. His tongue literally falls from his mouth, he cannot remove his eyes from her as she walks away, and he visually stalks her up the stairs to her apartment. I cannot help thinking that if he were a cartoon character his heart would thump out of his chest and his eyes would be transformed into two giant red hearts. He not so much melts as collapses at her feet, continuing to talk incessantly, unable to divert his eyes from her as she wiggles away. When he is almost killed by an over-watered tomato plant falling from her balcony, she throws a bucket of ice water on his rage by appearing and apologising. At the end of their conversation, Monroe delivers one of the script’s most memorable lines of dialogue when she shares her secret to remaining cool: “I put my undies in the icebox.”
Monroe may look like a bombshell, but the role—essentially constructed around her image—is that of a sweet, largely naïve girl who is oblivious to her married neighbour’s predatory advances. Always polite and courteous—she continues to ask about his family—the only thing she desires from Sherman is his air conditioning. I doubt that he would act as highly strung (or as lustfully) in the winter months, but the height of summer emphasises everything. Sherman is a cliché, contemplating his life’s malaise; after desiring some excitement—something new, fresh and fun—here it is! Voila! He has been presented with a cake that is screaming (in his mind, at least) “EAT ME!” She is the itch in his marriage and he only wants to scratch it more.
Maybe this idea—that summer is the time for fun and play, and to hell with age, responsibilities or social situations—is ingrained in the human psyche. Summer for the men left in Manhattan is the Fight Club of seasons, the adult equivalent of Spring Break, and (in the words of Grease), the days of “Summer Lovin’.” They come across as pitiful—they have regressed back to their college selves who spent their summer months going wild in Cancun—hoping that any woman who is not attached will look at them.
There are fewer things more fantastic than watching an incredibly sexually potent woman make a man crumble without any flirtation. Every single word that Monroe utters is a turn-on for Sherman and, while she remains oblivious, he finds all of her actions incredibly seductive. Monroe was actually a wonderful comedian, something she is rarely given enough credit for, and perfectly uses her “kooky” blonde image to maximum effect. Her aforementioned tip for keeping cool is an absolute scream. She thinks that she is having the most regular, run-of-the-mill conversations, but everything she does and says gets Sherman increasingly hot under the collar. The discovery that the ‘artful’ photographs she once posed for are in the book sitting on Sherman’s bookshelf only adds to his troubles, and her innocent offer to sign the pages is only met with more pent-up sexual agitation. The Girl has no interest in Sherman sexually, thinks that it is ‘wonderful’ that he is married, and is more aroused by the air conditioner that he has cooling his apartment while she swelters upstairs. Immersed in Manhattan’s rising temperatures, Sherman appears ready to combust. Every word that falls from his lips pains him, and soon his body temperature has become hotter than the sidewalk, especially as she shares another personal anecdote on keeping cool:
You know what I tried yesterday? I tried to sleep in the bathtub. Just lying there up to my neck in cold water... But there was something wrong with the faucet. It kept dripping. It was keeping me awake, so you know what I did? I pushed my big toe up the faucet... The only thing was, my toe got stuck and I couldn't get it back out again... No, but thank goodness there was a phone in the bathroom, so I was able to call the plumber... He was very nice, even though it was Sunday, I explained the situation to him and he rushed right over... But it was sort of embarrassing... Honestly, I almost died. There I was with a perfectly strange plumber and no polish on my toenails.
Monroe’s performance combines impeccable comic timing and physical comedy with an inherent self-awareness; her ability to acknowledge and “send up” her own self-image is at the core of The Seven Year Itch, and is why it remains so endearing. Furthermore, it links back to the idea that she is a mirage, a heat-created fantasy created by the male imagination. A walking, talking representation of the male gaze. She is an object to be visually consumed; a delicacy to be optically devoured—concepts only strengthened by Sherman’s tendency to concoct fabricated stories in his mind. Her hallucinatory nature is cleverly expressed in one a simple exchange:
Richard Sherman: [continuing; crazed] Because I can explain everything: the stairs, the cinnamon toast, the blonde in the kitchen.
Tom MacKenzie: [interrupts; incredulous] Wait! Wait a minute Dickey-Boy. What blonde in the kitchen?
Richard Sherman: [seething with contempt] Oh, wouldn't you like to know! Maybe it's Marilyn Monroe!
The Girl? An illusion, a product of fantasy caused by one man’s sexual lust, rising temperatures and irrepressible sex appeal. Even her costume is telling. Clad in virginal all-white or blush-pink she is a stereotypical apparition, a figment of the male imagination. Then we reach that scene—yes, that iconic moment: white dress billowing out from her body as she stands over the subway vent, momentarily exposing her legs, and gleefully exclaiming “isn’t it delicious?” What I always find curious about this scene is its striptease element: it is extremely brief, we do not see much, and it is all implied and left to our imagination. Due to censorship, a huge portion of the film was toned down for sexual content, and we remember the moment as more risqué than it really was. It is a playful moment—a hint, a tease, a forbidden glimpse, a thrill, made all the more honest by how clearly The Girl relishes the coolness around her legs, delightfully and openly expressing her feelings. She is not ashamed or embarrassed that she has been exposed, and why should she be? It is summer, people wear far less on the street and at the beach, and it is so hot you need to find the coolness wherever you can.
The Seven Year Itch is a summer film, but it is Marilyn Monroe’s summer film. It is an exploration of the male fantasy—his ego, his tendency to crumble when an attractive women looks at him during the height of summer. Manhattan is Summer Camp for men, the City turning into a bunch of lecherous overheated randy business men with Monroe as the beacon of good behaviour and decency.
The heat can do very strange things to people—I know that it can affect my mind and send me off in a hallucinogenic daze. As I’m writing this, London is having its hottest day in a decade, with temperatures reaching up to 98°F. I think I’ll go and stick my undies in the icebox.
Sabina Stent is a London based freelance film and culture writer who has written for BFI, Little White Lies and academic journals among others. She has a PhD in Women Surrealists and is currently writing her first book, The Hollywood Surreal, for The Critical Press.