The Seven Year Itch (1955; dir. Billy Wilder) is billed as a classic American comedy of the 1950s. It is so much a product of its times that it now seems a fossilized artifact. It’s difficult to feel any affinity with either of the two main characters. The film in fact wants us to identify with Richard Sherman (Tommy Ewell). The pervasive view is masculine. The underlying premise of this comedy is that during the summers in New York City businessmen hustle their wives and children off to the cooler mountains for vacation while they stay in the city to work. Then they are free to prowl for other women. Sherman is torn between relative boredom with his own marriage, his interest in the possibility of other women, and his love for his wife. It’s difficult to identify with a film in which it’s considered normal for men to hoot and howl at attractive women, in which the tendency of men to have affairs with women other than their wives is a sort of game at which everyone winks and grins. In essence, this film is about the sexual double standard: while the wives are away, the men will play.
Marilyn Monroe plays the 22-year-old bombshell who moves in the apartment upstairs from Sherman while his wife and child are in the mountains. He fixates on her, becomes convinced that she is his target, and engages in a dance of attraction and repulsion (his desire for her, his wish to be loyal to his wife) to which she seems oblivious. Monroe is very good at inhabiting the bimbo role, but it’s a role that is entirely dated. She has no name in the film—Sherman doesn’t even know her name—she’s just the Girl. She speaks with a soft, breathy voice, with the hint of a lisp. She’s oblivious, largely, to just about everything. But she is also young, fresh, and ostensibly innocent. She boasts of a photo shoot on the beach that was featured in a photography magazine. Sherman’s reaction to it is so strong that we assume it was a nude photo shoot, but when we finally see the photo it is comically and ridiculously chaste.
The film clothes Monroe in costumes that exaggerate her breasts to ridiculous proportions. It’s as if they’re her defining characteristic, as if nothing else about her matters. The iconic scene in the film, of course, is when she stands over a subway ventilation grate and the breeze from passing trains balloons her dress upwards. Does the character know that she is titillating others around her, especially Sherman? Or is she oblivious. Or does she not care?
Sherman speaks to us throughout the film in prolonged asides in which he ponders his situation and his would-be wandering ways. Although in the Broadway play that was the basis of the film Sherman does sleep with the girl, in the film there is only flirtation. Sherman presents himself as torn between his wife and his lust. He imagines outlandish encounters with women—his secretary, his wife’s best friend. And of course his imagination works overtime on the possibilities of a relationship with Monroe’s character. He comes across as indecisive, deluded, weak, and silly. At the very end, Monroe’s character hints that she was more aware of Sherman’s longings than she had previously let on. A classic this film might once have been, but no longer.