AFI Movie Club Scratches ‘Itch’ for Marilyn

Having featured All About Eve and Some Like It Hot earlier this year, the AFI Movie Club (hosted online by the American Film Institute) now focuses on The Seven Year Itch, with a recorded introduction by actress and Monroe superfan Elle Fanning, and a lively discussion with Bernadette Peters, Cher and Goldie Hawn, plus questions for further debate. An in-depth essay on the making of the film, published at the AFI Catalogue, reveals how this enduringly popular comedy – although only mildly suggestive by modern standards – was in the frontline of Hollywood’s battle against censorship.

“According to Hollywood Reporter news items and information in the film’s file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, several studios, including Warner Bros., M-G-M and Twentieth Century-Fox, were interested in obtaining the screen rights to George Axelrod’s hit Broadway play and asked Production Code Administration officials to evaluate the play’s potential for translation into a movie … In the original play, Richard does have a sexual affair with ‘The Girl,’ and the PCA did not approve the final screenplay until all suggestions of the affair were removed.

On 20 Feb 1953, HR announced that agent Charles K. Feldman had acquired the screen rights to the play for $255,000, and that Billy Wilder would direct the picture and might ‘also figure in the ownership of the rights.’ According to information in the Charles K. Feldman Collection at the AFI Library, Feldman and Wilder also considered producing an Italian-language version of the film, starring Gina Lollobrigida.

The Feldman papers reveal that Feldman approached a number of studios … while he preferred to distribute it through United Artists, Wilder persuaded him to co-produce the picture with Twentieth Century-Fox and distribute through that studio. Part of Wilder’s reason for wanting to work with Fox was that it would be easier to obtain the services of Marilyn Monroe as the Girl, because Monroe was under contract to Fox. Feldman was Monroe’s agent, and his papers confirm that when he and Wilder signed with Fox, the deal was partially predicated on obtaining Monroe, who consequently did not have any rehearsal or vacation time between making her previous Fox film, the 1954 release There’s No Business Like Show Business, and The Seven Year Itch.

Despite complaints from studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, contained in the Feldman papers, that the production was falling behind schedule, in part because of Monroe’s illnesses and need for repeated takes, Feldman supported the actress, stating that the additional takes were required due to the lack of rehearsal time, and that she worked fifteen days straight in order to make up time she took off during her divorce proceedings. Monroe completed retakes for the film in Jan 1955, despite being on suspension from the studio for asserting that her long-term contract was no longer legally binding. Monroe formed her own corporation with close friend Milton Greene, with whom she intended to produce films, but later in 1955, signed a much more favorable contract with Fox, which awarded her greater freedom and higher pay.

After production on The Seven Year Itch was completed, the PCA agreed to issue the film a MPAA certificate number on the conditions that … one of the three shots of the Girl’s skirt blowing in the subway breeze be eliminated. Numerous contemporary reviews commented that the play’s story and risqué dialogue were considerably toned down for the film version. After the film first opened, however, it was protested by the National Catholic Legion of Decency, which threatened to give it a ‘C,’ or condemned, rating.

The immense publicity for The Seven Year Itch included a four-story cutout of Monroe, in the pose with her skirt blowing up, being hung over the Loew’s State Theatre marquee in New York City. According to 24 May 1955 HR and New York Times news items, the Legion of Decency objected to the revealing cutout and it was replaced with a ‘more decorous’ fifty-two foot version. A 17 Jun 1955 telegram from publicist Charles Einfeld to Feldman, contained in the Feldman papers, reveals that some newspapers refused to run the ad featuring Monroe’s windswept skirt pose, and other ads had to be used in its place.

On 1 Jun 1955 a ‘sneak preview’ was held in New York, and Monroe attended the widely publicized event with DiMaggio, even though their divorce had been finalized by then.  Numerous other theaters across the country, including in Chicago and Los Angeles, used variously sized cut-outs of Monroe to adorn their marquees. According to a 28 Jun 1955 HR news item, publicity for the film included a picture book entitled Marilyn Monroe as the Girl.  The ‘over 100 candid photographs’ were taken by Sam Shaw, who took the famous photographs of Monroe with her skirt blowing. The Seven Year Itch became one of Fox’s highest grossing film of 1955 … and was ranked number fifty-one on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list in 2000.”