The Seven Year Itch: Consumerism, Gender Roles, Sexuality & 1950’s America
(This essay focuses on my favorite Marilyn Monroe film, The Seven Year Itch, and discusses the ways in which the film reflected the mainstream cultural landscape of America, as well as the ways it helped shaped it.)
Billy Wilder’s 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, manages to capture a nation on the brink of a sexual revolution, a cultural uprising in consumerism, and the state of mainstream entertainment. Through the relationship of pulp novelette executive, Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), and his voluptuous upstairs neighbor, who is referred to only as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), Wilder’s light hearted comedy examines the civilized American male’s inability to reconcile a liberal-humanist view of the American female with a historical desire to appropriate her sexually in post-war America. Socially, this was an often-debated issue in the 1950’s. The debate found national endorsement in the form of The Kinsey Reports, which were published between 1948 and 1953. These reports demonstrated that sexual practices until then regarded to as perversions were actually quite normal, and maintained widespread practices. The report led to a large increase in sexual permissiveness, and had a large influence on George Axelrod, the writer of The Seven Year Itch. Not only does the film display the uprising of unabashed sexuality and the malaise and conflict that it caused, it also displays the suppression of such subject matter in 1950’s America. While The Seven Year Itch comments on the suppression of conventional sexuality in 1950’s America, it also displays the suppression of the Hollywood Industry in the fifties, and their strict censorship on adulterated themes. Like the 1950’s Abstract Expressionist aesthetic which Saul Bass’ credits subvert, The Seven Year Itch is more than just a 1955 Billy Wilder film. It is a key artifact of a particular society at a particular stage in cultural evolution; an artifact that subtly comments on Hollywood and mainstream culture, sexuality and gender roles, and the escalation of a consumer nation.
The Seven Year Itch, which was written by George Axelrod and co-written by Billy Wilder, focuses on a New York pulp novel editor Richard Sherman, who listlessly describes himself as, “The most married man you will ever know” (The Seven Year Itch). When Richard sends off his wife and son to Maine for the summer, he is surprised to instinctively find himself checking out another girl at the train station. He quickly writes this off as a silly, impulsive desire and composes himself: “Oh no, not me, and I’m not going to smoke either” (The Seven Year Itch). However, Sherman’s eyes continue to curiously wander. The manuscript he is reading defines the phrase “The Seven Year Itch and The Urge Curve” as the desire of middle aged husbands and summer bachelors – which Sherman is both – to cheat on their wives during the seventh year of marriage. Coincidentally enough, Sherman realizes that he is currently in his seventh year of marriage to his wife, Helen. The plot thickens when a beautiful, blonde actress arrives at Sherman’s apartment building, and Sherman discovers that The Girl is subletting the upstairs apartment for the summer. In the sweltering New York Heat, Sherman attempts to eat healthy, quit smoking, lay off drinking, and most of all – stay away from The Girl. But Sherman cannot resist, and convinces himself that it is only neighborly to invite her down for a friendly drink and conversation in the confines of his cool, A.C apartment.
Over the next two days, this summer bachelor finds himself wrestling with his conscience, torn between the pictures of fulfillment and exposure that his over-active imagination conjures up for him. The stakes are raised even more when The Girl has an early call to her studio, and – to be fresh for work – seems willing to swap sex for an A.C apartment. Presented directly with a moral dilemma, Sherman gallantly sleeps on the sofa, and lets The Girl take the bed. For the first time, The Girl is exposed to Sherman’s gentle nature, and kisses him, telling him that his wife is wrong not to be jealous of him: “If your wife tells you got cranberry sauce on your collar, tell her she’s got cherry pits in her head!” (The Seven Year Itch). On an impulse, Richard offers The Girl his air conditioned apartment and sporadically leaves for Maine, where he plans to reconvene with his wife and son.
Before The Seven Year Itch was a feature length film, it was a successful Broadway play, first hitting the stage in 1952. In attendance at one of the stage productions of The Seven Year Itch was Billy Wilder, who immediately called the plays writer, George Axelrod, and proposed adapting the play into a film. Axelrod was reluctant to agree to a cinematic adaptation, since he was aware that The Seven Year Itch was a story about adultery, and at the time The Motion Picture Code did not accept adultery as a subject for humor: “Axelrod couldn’t believe what was happening to his play. On Broadway, the guy has an affair with the girl upstairs, but in the picture, he only gets to imagine how it would be to go to bed with her. And just the idea of going to bed with her has to terrify him, or it won’t get past the censors” (Wilder 178). The Seven Year Itch, which was initially considered impossible to film due to the subject nature, was re-written by Wilder and Axelrod, and became a film about adulterated adultery: “Because of the social taboo’s of the time, everything has to be in the guy’s imagination. That means it has to be in the audiences.” (Wilder 178). Wilder’s desire to push the conventions of 1950’s censorship was automatically dismissed by 20th Century Fox, an unfamiliar studio to Wilder where he did not have the power of seniority he had at Paramount: “Fox made Wilder co-producer as well as co-writer. The contract also obliged him to cast the studio’s (and America’s) biggest star, Marilyn Monroe, for the role of The Girl” (Armstrong 70). With little say so in the film, Wilder felt as though he was simply a contracted director working on a large studio’s vehicle for it’s new star: “Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl, there’s nothing. But you couldn’t show that in those days, so I was straight jacketed. I wish I could have done The Seven Year Itch later, because it was a good property to do without censorship” (Wilder 182). Wilder even made an attempt to subtly imply an affair had taken place by filming a scene where Sherman’s maid finds a hairpin in his bed the morning after The Girl spends the night. However, Fox considered even finding a hairpin too sexually explicit, and the scene was cut, and the conventional moral standards of 1950’s conservative America were upheld.
The production of The Seven Year Itch was a prime example of mainstream Hollywood’s stranglehold on the films it released; sacrificing drama and story in order to reflect the nations perceived dominant ideology: “The summer bachelor story, a popular theme in French, Italian, and Spanish movies, was changed from an adulterous episode in a married man’s life to a bittersweet fantasy of infidelity taking place in his imagination” (Chandler 179). In a time where the industry thrived on The Anti-Trust Case, many writers and directors struggled to maintain creative control over their films. The creative suppression that the studio’s put on it’s contracted writers and directors is similar to the sexual suppression that American society put on itself in the 1950’s – the age of the nuclear family and domesticity: “The fantasies in The Seven Year Itch dramatize the extent to which this over-worked individual is trapped in a conformist lifestyle by enmeshing even his subjective life into a series of pre-packaged scenarios” (Armstrong 78). Sherman’s fantasies are rooted in the idealistic stereotypes of the era, and often take place in satirical scenes from other Hollywood blockbusters of the era. No strand of production is exempt from the cliché and ironic dialogue, and contemporary movies of the 1950’s ranging from From Here to Eternity to The Creature From The Black Lagoon are parodied within the film. In the subtext of the film, you can hear Wilder commenting on the state of a nation seated in a dark theater absorbing faulty notions of love and life, as well as poking fun at the studio system that was essentially trying to turn his film into what he is ridiculing in The Seven Year Itch.
The Seven Year Itch also displays the ramped rise of consumerism in the 1950’s, and much of the screenplay is based on the rhetoric nature of 1950’s Affluent Society; its dialogue is filled to the brim with buzzwords of the era: Cinemascope, stereophonic sound, Dazzledent, and Captain Video. Although often mocking and ironic, The Seven Year Itch embraces the consumer culture that America was immersed in during the 1950’s: “Wilder himself marvels at the collision of high and low culture, where potato chips can be dipped in champagne. Such a collision could only take place in America where there’s plenty of everything and everything is game for consumption” (Armstrong 74). The Seven Year Itch shows a culture that is swamped by an abundance of choices – cars, toothpastes, sodas, partners, and lifestyles. Even Sherman’s urge to fictionalize his life can be taken as the middle aged American male’s response to a consumer culture set on channeling desire into a tangible consumer product.
However, despite all of this, the films driving force in its commentary of 1950’s culture – whether it be consumer culture or sex culture – is epitomized within its leading starlet, Marilyn Monroe.
“Marilyn Monroe is what most people remember about The Seven Year Itch. She was not the kind of girl you would bring home to your wife” (Wilder 177). At the time The Seven Year Itch was in production, Monroe was becoming the “first female superstar of the post-war years” (Halberstam 568). She became a key figure in the public’s eye and was virtually seen everywhere. Between acting in films, nude photography, and dating other famous celebrities such as Joe DiMaggio, the production company’s to be the next big thing in Hollywood was prepping Monroe. With the rise of television, Hollywood monopolized Monroe’s seductive appeal as a means to bring audiences back to the theater: “Her image was for Hollywood, fighting new competition from television, which now offered free home entertainment. Hollywood was responding to the challenge by gradually allowing greater latitude in showing sexual matters on screen. Her sexuality, so overt it might previously have been doomed by the censors […] was now not only permissible, it was desirable” (Halberstam 568). While The Production Code inhibited Marilyn from participating in any sexual acts or implying the act of sexuality, it did not inhibited Marilyn from acting sexy. If The Seven Year Itch is remembered for anything, it is remembered for Marilyn Monroe’s naïve performance as The Girl: “In advertising The Seven Year Itch, the famous photograph of Monroe with her skirt blowing up was used for a fifty-two-foot-high billboard cutout that towered four stories over Time Square” (Chandler 180).
In The Seven Year Itch, Sherman’s discovery of his own humanity reflects Monroe’s attempt to find herself as an actress in 1955. While Wilder and Axelrod were imprisoned by the economics of studio control, Monroe was relishing in her newfound fame, but struggling to avoid being type-casted. Fox marketed Monroe’s performance as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch as a high commodity; consumable by the public, but unattainable to the public. Monroe managed to walk the fine line between two juxtaposing archetypes in her portrayal as The Girl: the girl next door and the exclusive sex goddess. “With breast like break lights on a Cadillac and a derriere as inviting as a triple cheeseburger, she [Monroe] is the epitome of the American Dream of Abundance Declared, and the system which marketed it” (Armstrong 78). Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch managed to override every other aspect of the film. Even established Hollywood veterans like Wilder took a backseat to the sizzling Monroe, and many believe that if The Seven Year Itch is anyone’s film –whether that be the studio, Wilder, or Axelrod – it is Marilyn Monroe’s: “Marilyn’s performance gives The Girl an irresistible blend of sweetness and sexual practicality. The distinctive stamp on this film is more Monroe’s than Wilder’s” (Hoop 61). The subtle sexuality that drips from Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch not only made the film Fox’s biggest hit of the year, but also one of the most memorable films of all time. It established the “blonde bombshell” craze of the 50’s that would produce many Monroe prototypes, including Jayne Mansfield, who would act alongside Monroe’s Seven Year Itch co-star, Tom Ewell, in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It. Monroe quickly became part of the consumer market, as significant of a product as CineScope or Dazzledent. To this day, The Girl is one of the most iconic female characters in film history, and Monroe will forever be embedded within American culture – standing above a subway on a New York street, giggling as she tries to push her dress down.
The Seven Year Itch was a large financial success, and Marilyn Monroe was catapulted into super stardom. Wilder would work with Monroe again in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. While many critics do not consider The Seven Year Itch to be one of Wilder’s better films (including Wilder himself), it is a landmark film of 1950’s. It is an extremely topical film in the context of the decade it was released, and explores a vast array of themes and issues that were prevalent in the 1950’s: sexuality, gender roles, the consumer market, and the dominant ideology of an impressionable post-war nation. Although The Production Code, censorship, and the hierarchy of the studio system prevented the film from reaching it’s full potential, The Seven Year Itch is a great example of Americana culture of the 1950’s, and the suppressed nature of the film only adds a nostalgic irony to the state of the national psyche.
Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Applause Books; Illustrated edition, 2004.
Wexman, Virginia Wright. A History of Film: Sixth Edition. Chicago: Pearson Publications, 2006.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffery, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford, 1996.
Halberstam, David. The Fifities. New York: The Random House Publishing group, 1993.
Hopp, Glenn. Billy Wilder. Vermont: Trafagler Square Publications, 2001.
Armstrong, Richard. Billy Wilder, American Film Realist. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2000.
Wilder, Billy. The Seven Year Itch. 20th Century Fox 1955.
Jacobson, Colin. The Seven Year Itch. http://www.dvdmg.com/sevenyearitch.shtml