Cooling Down

Maybe if I took the little fan, put it in the icebox, left the icebox door open, then left the bedroom door open, and soaked the sheets and pillowcase in ice water… no, that’s too icky!

Since America’s presently in the midst of a July heat wave, now seems as good a time as any to write about The Seven Year Itch (1955), Billy Wilder’s feature-length paean to air conditioning in the summer. Adapted from George Axelrod’s play of the same title, the film doesn’t hide its theatrical origins: most of it takes place in a single set, the Manhattan apartment of its seven-years-married protagonist Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). There, he monologues and fantasizes about infidelity, turning his abode into a psychic echo chamber—and turning The Seven Year Itch into the comic, gender-flipped cousin of Repulsion.

Fundamentally, this is a film about paranoid masculinity, about men who are only capable of viewing women as wives or sex objects. To the audience, “The Girl” played by Marilyn Monroe is a real, complex person, and indeed Monroe plays her as more than just a ditzy blonde. She’s new to New York and happy to have a friend in her building; a little naïve, but driven by innate sweetness and thrilled by an impromptu performance of “Chopsticks.” To her, Richard is a chance to combat both loneliness and, via his AC, the summer heat.

To the solipsistic Richard, however, The Girl only exists insofar as she plays into his fantasies, all derived from pop culture and peer pressure. His visions are alternately self-aggrandizing and self-loathing: first he’s an amorous, Rachmaninoff-loving nobleman and Monroe’s his Obscure Object of Desire; later, he’s the sex-crazed “Mad Lover of Liepzig” and Monroe’s a proto-feminist bitch out to ruin his marriage and reputation. This is Wilder at his most Tashlinesque, inflating gendered behavior until it’s cartoonish and extreme. Hilarious, too: Ewell’s body is the ideal vehicle for Richard’s neuroses, which manifest themselves in dances, tics, pratfalls, and grotesque visual gags.

The Manhattan that surrounds Richard is no less broad and garish: his male acquaintances include his boss at the publishing house—a bellowing summertime hedonist—and the janitor Mr. Kruhulik, a bawdy, intrusive blue-collar caricature. (Robert Strauss, who plays Kruhulik, should’ve gotten an Oscar for his insinuating delivery of “big, fat poodle” alone.) Although Monroe is so often described as an exaggeration herself, as this ne plus ultra of femininity, she actually gives the film’s subtlest performance; her “playing dumb” looks especially restrained and unaffected next to all these histrionic men.

This is part of why I love the short monologue cited above: while Richard’s in the kitchen fixing drinks and holding a one-sided conversation about civilization and its discontents, she isn’t being a sexpot—she’s just curled up in a chair, pondering the best way to sleep comfortably. She’s oblivious, yes, but also guileless, unaware of the obsession that drives this “family man” to try and fuck a younger woman. The Seven Year Itch is very much a movie of the ’50s, about a postwar era when prosperity and hypocrisy went hand in hand. With a satirical slant, it navigates a culture of quick fixes and consumerist highs, of advertising, pop psychoanalysis, and health food.

And, of course, pathological self-absorption. Richard’s lost his up his own ass, whipping up rationalizations and projections to claim that he’s a good guy, that she’s seducing him, that his wife is probably off cheating, too. For all the film’s jokey, pastel lightness, it’s surprisingly dark at heart: no matter how much he deludes himself, Richard is still a pathetic, manipulative scumbag, a regular “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” And he’s the film’s idea of a typical American husband and father. Maybe The Seven Year Itch is closer to Wilder’s acidic black comedies than we realize. It’s silly and farcical, yeah, but you can distill its impression of the American family down to one line uttered by Richard’s boss: “On the surface, clear-eyed and healthy… but underneath, dry rot.”

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Cooling Down

  1. lassothemovies

    I certainly see your point. I just recently watched this movie again and I had never realized what a scumbag he really is. Marilyn is just trying to be neighborly. Also, If you ever wanted a movie to try to sell air-conditioning, all that was needed was Marilyn begging to sleep in your apartment because she is just too hot to be anywhere else!

  2. I really like your reading of the movie. It actually changes the way I consider it in general. I mean, I’d always seen the ‘sex object’ stuff, but somehow I’d never quite connected the other bits. When I first saw the film I complained that though it was well done, the lead really should have been Jack Lemmon, you know, in retrospect. But with your reading of the film, Lemmon would’ve been too likeable and that wouldn’t work for the scumbag side to the character.

    • Corey —

      I feel like Lemmon was, by and large, a funnier and more flexible actor than Ewell, but that Ewell was nonetheless better-suited to the part of Richard Sherman. (As Wikipedia points out, “[he] played the part more than 900 times” onstage prior to the making of the movie.)

      Still, it’s a fun what-if, especially since Lemmon’s characters in The Apartment and Irma La Douce and their respective relationships with Shirley MacLaine aren’t too far removed from that of Richard and The Girl. It’s fascinating to see these subtle shifts in how Wilder represented male/female relationships over the years

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