Up, skirt

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

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11 Responses to “Up, skirt”

  1. There’s nothing “accidental” about the subway grate scene. “The Seven Year Itch” may be minor Wilder but this scene is one of the most iconic (a very overused word but there’s really no other that’s applicable) in the history of the cinema. The giant poster that covered of Marilyn — her skirt gaily flapping upwards — covered the New York theater where the film had its premiere and the unveiling of this poster was a major news story.

    Marilyn doesn’t sleep with Tom Ewell as “the girl” did in Axelrod’s play. The censors forbade it. But Marilyn came to the rescue. Her ever-flowing charm gives Ewell’s neglected middle-aged frump his “mojo” back — which is really what most married men want out of an affair. Note too that Marilyn’s “Girl” is so used to men making passes at her she takes total delight in Ewell’s inability to pull one off(save in fantasy. Note too that he comments that “She could be Marilyn Monroe” — which of course she is.

    As for Axelrod, he’s worthy of serious study. Wilder departs from his play but Tashlin in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” takes only the title, and Jayne Mansfield , and creates something else entirely. His scripts directed by Richard Quine are sometimes fabulous (“How To Murder Your Wife” ) and sometimes not (“Paris When it Sizzles”) “Lord Love a Duck” s a masterpiece as is “The Manchurian Candidate” (for which he doesn`t get nearly enough credit. “The Secret Life of An American Wife” (that’s the studio’s title. Axelrod’s was “The Connecticut Look”) — which stars Matthau as a famous ladies man(!) is a piece of “filmed theater” that’s worth examining, And I hope someone makes a film of his last novel, the magnificently titled “Where Am I Now When I Really Need Me?”

  2. Hard to account for Wilder’s claim to Cameron Crowe that nobody connected to the film knew what they had with the subway draught scene.

    It’s strange that Tashlin only used the title, character names and one line from Axelrod’s play, since in many ways Axelrod’s brand of mania and hyperbole seem a closer match for Tahlin’s cartoon enibility. Of course, the resulting film is a masterpiece.

    It’s annoying that several of those Axelrods aren’t available in their correct aspect ratios…

  3. I saw “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” on stage. It’s a modern version of “Faust”( cue Jack Buchanan in “the Band Wagon”) with Orson Bean as the Faust equivalent, Walter Matthau as Ol’ Nick and Jayne Mansfield as I guess “Marguerite” There was no character named “Rock Hunter” in it. I also saw Axelrod’s “Goodbye” Charlie” on Broadway. Lauren Bacall starred as a womanizer reincarnated as a woman. Mild fun. Minnelli directed the movie version which starred Debbie Reynolds at her dykiest. Not much fun.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    I’ve bloviated on this one before, I think it works despite the lack of consummation.

    On the one hand, Ewell is full of lust and talks (to himself) a good game. In his mind, only manly reticence against crazed females kept him faithful so far.

    Monroe is more than a lust object. She’s an increasingly perfect opportunity in terms of availability and safety. Sit on the floor, go on a date, smooch on the street … it’s all cool with her. His lunge on the piano bench failed because she was having too much fun with “Chopsticks” and because, well, a piano bench (He frantically backtracks and she accepts it as an unintended accident, saying it happens to her all the time).

    At first he’s eagerly moving forward, but that’s alternated with bouts of panic and nightmare scenarios. Meanwhile, his safe excuses are being picked off: Trusing wife is far away; girl is agreeable to escalating foolery with express disinterest in entanglements; no snoopy neighbors aside from the super who approves (there’s mention of two fellows on the third floor, nudge nudge); and finally a direct secret doorway connecting them. Her decision to sleep over is all about air conditioning, but the vibe is that sex or no sex is all the same to her. Between absurd temptation and abject terror he’s a nervous wreck in the morning.

    She cheerfully notes that the open ceiling means she can pop in to play 24/7 all summer. THAT’S what breaks him. Constant insane temptation and risk. He knows that sooner or later he’ll do it, and every fevered nightmare of disgrace and murder will come true. Suddenly there’s an urgent need to protect his wife from temptation; a way to deny to himself he’s running away from it.

    If you haven’t read the play, I’d suggest it. The girl is a much different character, anxiously testing her freethinking self-image instead of simply lacking boundaries.

  5. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    You know this year, I got to see Tashlin’s The Lieutenant Wore Skirts on online screening. Tom Ewell and Sheree North are there, and it’s actually a pretty good comedy about 50s marriage, and it kind of plays like what Ewell’s marriage to Monroe could have been like, i.e. not very happy.

    It’s got pretty amazing Tashlin stuff and it’s funny and bitter in the way all of his films are.

  6. My favourite (jaw-dropping) moment in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts is a too-brief cameon by Rita Moreno doing a flawless Monroe imitation.

    Ewell’s best is The Girl Can’t Help It, where his somewhat raddled appearance makes sense as he’s playing an alcoholic.

    Haven’t managed to obtain the playscript yet but I did read Rock Hunter with great interest and enjoyment. I can’t remember what the one line was that Tashlin retained, maybe the “titular” joke? But there was precisely one.

  7. Simon Fraser Says:

    I enjoyed this a good deal. I’ve been meaning to see Unfaithfully Yours again and this might be the push I need. Incidentally the air draught that comes up from subway gratings in NYC is hot not cool. Tramps sleep on them in the winter to keep warm.

  8. Ha! Shades of Wilder having a door open outwards into a corridor (never happens, for obvious reasons) in Double Indemnity. If the situation is served by it, nobody minds.

  9. The recent documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood outed Tom Ewell as gay, or at least bi. Not sure if this is apropos of anything regarding Seven-Year Itch or even The Girl Can’t Help it, but it certainly came as news to me.

  10. Wow. Well, I guess anything that increases the poor schlub’s chances of getting laid has to be good, if only for him.

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