To celebrate the 100th anniversary of 20th Century Fox, we list the 50 Best Films from the Hollywood studio in our latest issue. But we kick off the countdown online with Billy Wilder’s subversive comedy from 1955.
“You can sell anything… the trick is you’ve got to spruce up the title and get yourself a cheerful and interesting cover, it’s all a question of imagination.”
The narrator for The Seven Year Itch starts off with this gem, appropriate for a film whose most iconic image, Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate as her billowy white dress flies up around her, never made it to the screen.
The shot, shown endlessly in the tabloid press and promotional material, did not meet the strict standards of sexual morality set out by the Hays code. To get the movie made, writer/director Billy Wilder had to use a bit of imagination.
Long before a ratings or classification system were introduced, the Hays Code of 1930, named after the President of what later became the Motion Picture Association of America, harshly enforced what filmmakers could and couldn’t do. The code set out guidelines on nudity, sex and adultery, ensuring that no picture would ever “lower the moral standards of those who see it” and that the sanctity of marriage was upheld.
In spite of the code, Wilder decided to adapt George Axelrod’s Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch for the screen. The play deals explicitly with adultery and the temptation facing New York businessman Richard Sherman when his wife and son go away for the summer and a beautiful woman known only as “The Girl” moves into the apartment above his own.
So how to depict adultery without making it explicit or at all desirable when the entire story is about a guy who’s desperate to cheat on his wife? The Code and its enforcers had rendered the whole subject taboo – Wilder had to have a bit of fun with them to get the film made.
The Seven Year Itch dealt with adultery in the same way Thank You for Smoking handled cigarettes – by not showing a single person smoking throughout the entire film. Misdirection was enough – while everyone was talking about it and had their tongues firmly in their cheeks, no one noticed that adultery never really happened, and Wilder got to have a go at the whole system.
An early scene features Richard (Tom Ewell) at a restaurant being offered a tip jar for a nudist fund, from a waitress who proudly proclaims, “Isn’t it such a worthy cause, we must bring the message to the people, we must teach them to unmask their poor suffocating bodies and let them breathe again!” Richard acts like she’s a crazy person and walks away – according to the Code no normal person would ever express such a view, the regulators don’t have to worry about this because the audience clearly won’t put any stock in a nutter.
We move on to Richard’s house where he is reading a manuscript for The Repressed Urge of the Middle Aged Male, its Roots and its Consequences. He meets ‘The Girl,’ in the form of Marilyn Monroe peering out from a balcony behind some bushes. Her shoulders are bare – it’s not clear what she’s got on underneath or if she just stepped out of the shower. The Girl tells Richard she’ll run and put something on – but there’s nothing to suggest she’s not actually wearing nothing at all – so it’s ok.
There follows a series of comical and highly melodramatic fantasies replete with adultery, all taking place in Richard’s head. Some between Richard and the Girl, between Richard and various other women, and yet more involving Richard’s wife and other men. Richard tells an attractive nurse lusting after him, “please, not again tonight” before she is dragged away by her colleagues. His wife ends up rolling around in a hay-stack with a handsome rogue. None of its real – all we’re seeing is in Richard’s head. There’s no scandal, just an over-active imagination.
Everything is implied, unreal, or just innocent – when Richard and the Girl kiss outside a movie theatre, it’s just so he can taste the toothpaste she’s selling.
David Lean’s Brief Encounter had faced the same issues ten years earlier – navigating the very risqué subject of adultery without depicting it too explicitly. Brief Encounter prominently featured the protagonists exchanging pleasantries somewhere public and then parting – Wilder pushed the Hays Code even further at a time when many filmmakers wanted to introduce new areas of interests to an industry strangled by outmoded ideas of morality.
Four years after The Seven Year Itch, Wilder and Monroe made Some Like It Hot, one of the most popular comedies ever made, featuring the very taboo subjects of cross-dressing, gender roles and homosexuality. While still firmly tongue in cheek, Some Like It Hot joined many films pushing the envelope as strict morality was becoming increasingly harder to police. In 1968 the Hays Code was ultimately abolished and replaced with a classification system we use today to regulate content.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, The Seven Year Itch was a milestone in challenging the regulation of an industry which had suffered from suppressed creativity. This didn’t stop Wilder’s ingenuity in a film where nothing monumental or scandalous really happened. You just have to use your imagination.