The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Written by Billy Wilder and George Axelrod
Directed by Billy Wilder
Watching these later works by Billy Wilder feels like if David Fincher went from doing dark thriller movies to working exclusively in light comedies. They aren’t bad, but they are definitely not as strong as the earlier work. The Seven Year Itch is another film based on a stage play, and it feels like through the first half. It’s slow, and the main character thinks aloud constantly, which gives away the stagey-ness of the production. Throughout the film, I kept thinking of Mad Men and how this picture was pretty dated with its portrayal of marriage.
Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is a man in his late thirties, married for seven years, and sending his wife and son off for the summer in Maine. This is a tradition in Manhattan with hordes of dads looking forward to their freedom from family for the summer months, referred to as “summer bachelors.” Richard knows better, shunning off flirting with young women, smoking, and drinking. He’s focused on his job and relaxing. All of that goes down the drain when his new neighbor (Marilyn Monroe). The neighbor, never named in the script, immediately charms Richard breaking down his walls as he feels more and more tempted to indulge in his temporary bachelorhood.
I was most struck with how good a comedic actress Monroe. This was the first time I’d ever seen any of her acting, and she nailed the physical comedy aspects. In fact, she outshines her co-star Tom Ewell who, while very funny, just can’t keep up with Monroe’s charisma. The rest of the plot, Ewell daydreaming about his wife stepping out on him, imagined encounters with women in his life, and that his wife knows what he’s up to are mildly amusing but are just little sight gags that pad out the time.
You definitely understand why Richard would be so smitten with this woman. Monroe isn’t quite what the flat icon she has become represents. There’s more complexity here, naivety, that translates into cleverness that sees beyond Richard’s fawning. She points out that there’s nothing to worry about around married men because they can’t leave their lives for you. The neighbor understands the temporary nature of the summer and where the boundaries exist.
The Seven Year Itch is a product of its time that hasn’t aged great. The prologue features white actors in brownface playing the Natives who once lived in Manhattan. Monroe doesn’t even get a name in the story, which further objectifies her character despite the excellent acting done by the actress. Cheating on your wife is just generally accepted by every man Richard encounters to the point that it gets a little uncomfortable.
On the other hand, Wilder definitely seems to be poking fun at the male ego. Richard’s numerous daydreams are played with him as the fool. He opines that he can’t help it that beautiful women just throw themselves at him when we can see it’s not quite the truth. We’re supposed to laugh at Richard in the same you’d laugh at Will Ferrell or Jack Black if they attempted to present themselves as sex gods.
This will likely be my least favorite of the Wilder films by the time we get to the end. Once again, like Sabrina, this is the best of its genre compared to the modern copycats. We’ve all seen films like this produced by studios over and over. Things like American Pie or Hall Pass, sex comedies about how buffoonish men become when given attention from a beautiful woman. Wilder knows how to write these stories with intelligence, and modern screenwriters could learn a lot from this.