The Girl From the Future: Marilyn in ‘The Seven Year Itch’

In the latest instalment of his ongoing series for Classic Movie Hub, Gary Vitacco Robles looks at The Seven Year Itch (1955), one of Marilyn’s most popular movies, featuring the iconic ‘subway scene’ which hastened the end of her marriage to Joe DiMaggio.

“The role of the tempting model in the film adaptation seemed ideal for Marilyn Monroe. Her screen persona embodied the character. The script might well have spelled out that Monroe herself was subletting the apartment upstairs from Richard Sherman. She was the public figure with whom many married men fantasized about having an affair. Zanuck recognized this, as evidenced by a memo dictated early in the production’s development: ‘She is an absolute must for this story.’

Director and screenwriter lost the battle with censorship but won Marilyn Monroe. Without her, the film would simply have not made sense. Monroe’s sexy screen presence communicated visually much of what could not be implied by plot or verbalized through lines. Her unparalleled sizzle compensated for all dialogue and plot turns the censors had excised.

‘Marilyn was a fighter,’ Tom Ewell said of his co-star, honoring an overlooked attribute. ‘I was extremely fond of her. I grew to admire her because I knew she put up a terrific battle to do what she did. Oh, boy she was a street fighter. She had to be. She had a miserable, miserable early life. Everything she got, she fought for. She really was a wonderful person. There’s never been anyone like her.’

The subway grate scene can also be argued as both an example of objectification of a woman; exactly what Monroe battled against, or a woman exercising her own sexual power. Monroe’s complicity is often labeled as an act of exhibitionism or self-abasement. But was she really colluding in her own objectification? Monroe was a hard worker who tried her best to bring reality and art to any project in which she was involved. She never expressed shame in portraying the Girl and may have justified the scene as the price of working with the esteemed director, Billy Wilder.

Wilder admitted the spectacle could have been offensive and distasteful, but Monroe performed with naïveté. He asserted the act was ‘the finest instance of a Monroe’s character’s ability to suggest simultaneously both childlike pleasure and sexual delight.’ In fact, her casting had been a calculated effort to include tasteful sexuality over obscenity.

Delightful and effervescent onscreen, Monroe presents no indication of the stress occurring in her personal life. She was later bashed for requiring numerous retakes during the production. Producer Charles Feldman’s memo to Zanuck on Monroe’s challenges refutes this: ‘There have been tough days…the 18-takes have only happened on rare occasions with the girl…for the last two weeks this girl has worked as hard as anyone I have known in my life.’

In the film, Monroe looks like she arrived from the future. She is luminous. She makes co-stars seem obsolete. Her vocal delivery is unlike stagelike staccato of the era. Her comic timing is flawless. Monroe’s reviews were generally positive — with few exceptions by conservative critics seemingly jaded by the sexualized nature of her role rather than her actual performance.”