The Lonely Women of ‘The Seven Year Itch’ And ‘The Apartment

A blonde woman stands above a subway vent, her white dress blown up by the breeze. “Isn’t it delicious?” she cries out in a high, sweet voice. The director, sitting behind the cameras, isn’t happy. The gathering crowd of almost 2000 fans is becoming too rowdy for them to shoot on the street in Manhattan, so they’ll have to move to the studio lot soon.

The Seven Year Itch was released on the 1st June, 65 years ago. It’s remembered now mostly as the source of that indelible Hollywood image – Marilyn Monroe, holding her billowing skirt down and smiling. It seems curious, then, that a film made iconic by its star’s sex appeal was straitjacketed by the moral judgements of the Hays Code.

Tom Ewell reprised his role from the original Broadway production of The Seven Year Itch, a play about a married man left alone in New York for the summer who becomes fixated on his upstairs neighbour. The object of his fantasies, however, was now played by Marilyn Monroe, one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest stars.

There was one other crucial difference. The Hays Code, a set of censorship guidelines that had dictated films since the 1930s, ruled out showing infidelity on screen. So while in the stage version Ewell’s character does eventually have sex with The Girl, in the film he stays loyal to his wife.

Director Billy Wilder was unhappy with the chaste conclusion, telling producers, “Look, unless they do it, we have no picture.” But the societal standards of the 1950s didn’t allow even the implication of extramarital sex, so Wilder could only include a few innocent kisses.

Clever fantasy sequences take the place of actual adultery, parodying sweeping romances like Brief Encounter and From Here to Eternity. Wilder always had a knack for intelligent comedy, and the movie shines when he’s illustrating the gap between the main character’s view of himself and reality.

Marilyn Monroe as The Girl seems to belong to that world of fantasy, even when she’s rambling about toothpaste. Her charisma is otherworldly. Behind the scenes, however, her life was far from perfect. The subway vent scene, for example, had prompted a disastrous fight between Monroe and her new husband, Joe Dimaggio, who had a violent temper. They would eventually divorce after only nine months.

Wilder resented what he saw as Monroe’s lack of professionalism on set. Afterwards, he was more philosophical. “She is a very great actress,” Wilder said after they worked together again on Some Like It Hot. “Better Marilyn late than almost anyone else on time.”

There’s something intensely touching about her declaring her love of The Creature From The Black Lagoon – another icon of the screen only remembered for how it looked, and how that image made audiences feel. “I think he just craved a little affection – you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted,” she sighs about the movie monster. To a modern viewer, knowing how unhappy her life truly was, Monroe could be talking about herself.

At the time, however, most people probably assumed her real self was close to her character: sweet, unsophisticated, and seemingly unaware of the effect she has on men. The Girl is pliant no matter what the main character wants: she doesn’t mind him launching at her on the piano bench, she tells him he’s “just elegant” when he doubts himself, and she helpfully throws him his shoes when he runs to reunite with his wife. What does The Girl herself want? To sleep somewhere with air conditioning.

Perhaps an interesting comparison could be drawn with a film Wilder made five years later: The Apartment. This comedy was also very concerned with where people sleep, but willing to explore darker themes like attempted suicide. Wilder balanced his natural cynicism with sentiment to tell a story about two very lonely people finding each other, and gave the “other woman” a more intricate inner life, with different shades of despair and hope.

Shirley MacLaine plays the elevator operator Fran Kubelik, a role that almost won her the Best Actress. She’s the object of office worker Jack Lemmon’s affections, and the mistress of his boss. In a heartbreaking scene with the latter, set in the Chinese restaurant where they used to meet, Fran tells him she’s fine.

“Happens all the time. Wife and kids go away to the country, and the boss has a fling with the secretary, or the manicurist, or the elevator girl… Come September, the picnic’s over, goodbye. The kids go back to school, the boss goes back to the wife, and the girl…” Fran pauses, grief flickering over her face before she abruptly comments on the menu.

Quiet moments like that one allow us to glimpse how lost and abandoned this character feels. MacLaine’s acting also gives us one of the all-time great closing lines in cinema history. Lemmon tells her he adores her, and she passes him a deck of cards, smiles, and says “Shut up and deal.” She’s still wounded and weary beyond her years, but the film ends by giving her the tentative hope of a kinder tomorrow.

They might be set in the same city, but The Seven Year Itch is the bright, restless, shallow summer day to The Apartment’s lonely, bittersweet winter night. Fran Kubelik and The Girl are two very different versions of the “other woman” archetype; Fran gets not only a name but a more sympathetic, richer perspective. Perhaps standards of morality really changed dramatically in those five years, or perhaps Monroe’s image was just too powerful for a male director to see beyond. But when you look at The Apartment, or Monroe’s acting in later films like The Misfits, it’s hard not to wish The Girl was given more to wrestle with than that famous white dress.

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