I’ve finally sat down to watch The Seven Year Itch. Given how iconic this film is, or rather how iconic Marilyn Monroe is, you’d think I’d have watched this by now. But the truth is, there’s a large, gaping black hole in my film viewing history that includes both Marilyn Monroe and Woody Allen. I don’t know why I’ve not seen much from either of these two, but if there was something I’m ashamed of as a movie lover, this would be it.
It’s not that I’ve avoided any of these films. On the contrary I’ve long wanted to see them but haven’t often had the chance. I’ll admit that I’m often lulled away from picking some of these films when I have other films I’m more excited about. I’m a fan of film history, and so I fully support and defend old films. This is our story-telling history. How can I expect to have a blog that anyone takes remotely seriously without knowing a good deal about film history?
Now that Marilyn Monroe (and Woody Allen) films are regularly seeing blu-ray releases or streaming through Netflix or Amazon, I have no excuses other than the availability of time. Someday soon I’ll commit to fully exploring Marilyn and Woody. But enough of my babbling, what about The Seven Year Itch?
Released in the summer of 1955 and directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot…a movie I’ve seen!), The Seven Year Itch is a simple comedy about a married man with an over active imagination trying to stay faithful while his wife and son are vacationing for the summer. Almost immediately, Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell, The Girl Can’t Help It) is finding it hard not to scratch the titular itch. When his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes, Gone With the Wind) and son hop on the train heading out of New York and towards the vacationland of Maine, Richard starts muttering to himself all the things his wife has reminded him not to do. He can’t drink. He can’t smoke. He needs to eat well and take care of himself. He starts off on the good path, although he’s tempted at every turn. He’s even judgmental of how all the other men react when their wives leave town for the summer (in this film, every man becomes a bachelor for the summer who can’t wait to chase women it seems). But once Richard gets home from work he runs into the new girl (Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) who’s renting the upstairs apartment and can’t keep his tongue in his mouth. He even cranes his neck to follow her to the point of absurdity. Despite Richard’s interest in avoiding temptations, he eventually invites the girl down for a drink. And a smoke. He eventually realizes what he’s doing, but will he be able to stop? Can he resist the charms of the naïve young woman upstairs?
This is an interesting film to view for the first time so far removed from the era which created it. That could be said about a lot of older films, but I tend to think comedy is so much more confined to its generation than any other genre. Obviously the film is socially outdated. Richard Sherman is trying to be a good man, but his wandering eye and the suggestion of rampant infidelity of all men is very simplistic and somewhat offensive when seen from a more modern perspective. Likewise, the dumb blond routine of Marilyn Monroe may have worked then, but it doesn’t work now. At all. And yet, it somehow does. All of it. The film has its charms, despite how outdated its social context may be. And there’s something about Marilyn’s character that, even now, is hard not to fall for. While it’s not much of a departure from her character in Some Like it Hot, it seems to work better here. I can see why she’s such a cultural icon even though I can’t logically explain it. Perhaps there’s a slyness to her, a wink of the eye that suggests she’s in on the secret, too. That she’s just playing dumb while laughing all the way to the bank. Of course we know now that her personal life was in shambles, but we also know she was a lot smarter than her on screen persona. Maybe that’s it. But despite the issues I have with her character, I found myself smitten along with Richard Sherman.
The only part about the film that really doesn’t work for me is how much Richard talks to himself. It’s the lazy way of giving the audience the information they need, but this too is more a sign of the film-making age. But by the time Marilyn’s character is talking about her underwear being in the freezer, the movie picks it up and it’s easy to forgive single character dialog. The performances are very good. Tom Ewell is perfect as the slightly aging, slightly pot-bellied everyman. Marilyn is likewise perfect in her role. Mixing sexy with naiveté and hamming it up for the camera.
This is an old film. It’s an old comedy film. Very rarely can films actually remain timeless, and this is a good example of how many things can change in a relatively short time frame. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t enjoyable. It’s a hoot, actually. Marilyn Monroe is magnetic, even if her character seems alien to modern audiences. At the very least, watch it for its worth as a historical document. Watch it to understand how much the film pushed the boundaries of sexuality. Watch it for just how much fun it is to lose yourself in absurdity.
First of all, The Seven Year Itch is presented in a somewhat strange aspect ratio if 2.55:1. This is about the time that whole slew of movies were being presented in Cinemascope or some similar moniker of the time to compete with television programming and, to some degree, 3D. Aspect ratios have never really been a standardized thing, despite what we might think now as the theatrical aspect ratio isn’t always the same as the ratio used in home media. This makes the image even wider than your typical wide frame film (most are 2.40:1 or 2.35:1). What this means is the black bars you sometimes see on top and bottom of the image will be a little larger than normal. I’ve always been a fan of seeing the original aspect ratios in the home, so I don’t mind the black bars. But for some, it’s a problem.
The picture itself looked very soft to me. While this is perhaps the best the film will ever look at home, I was a little let down with the lack of clarity. Watching a film projected onto a 120″ screen certainly bring all the flaws out for all to see, and this was the only issue I had with the presentation. Early in the film at the train station, there are signs behind the characters listing the destinations of the trains. I really wanted to read these but most were very blurry as to make reading them difficult or impossible. They should have been clear given how the shot was set up, but they weren’t, which is either a problem with the transfer or the original film source. I know the lenses that were being used at the time varied in quality, so I suspect this is the culprit, which lifts the weight of the blame off the transfer. Again, this is the best I think the film could probably look given its age. But it’s not a bad look, by any means. Apart from some fine detail murkiness, the print looks great.
The DTS-HD Master Audio in 5.1 might be overkill for this film that was first presented in stereophonic sound, but it sounds wonderfully natural. If you might be concerned that the expanded sound field has somehow added things that weren’t there before, don’t be. Like the picture, I think the audio is about as good as you could hope for, which means dialog is clear.
Conclusion and Recommendation
You don’t have to be old to appreciate films before your time. my favorite film, Jaws, came out before I was born. But to say that the film is timeless would be laughable. The contrasts are stark and might be a sticking point for some viewers who can’t let the past be the past while still enjoying a movie of that time period. This is a comedy, which is a genre that generally strives to expose contradictions in society already, so some of those issues may have been placed there intentionally, anyway. There’s quite a lot going for this film (and we haven’t even discussed the possibility of the girl being only a part of Richard’s imagination!). This is a film to just sit back and take in, and with that in mind, I highly recommend it!
Conclusion: Highly Recommended!