Film historian James L. Neibaur, whose 25 books include a career retrospective for Marilyn’s idol Jean Harlow, has reviewed The Seven Year Itch on his website.
“The Seven Year Itch appears to be the film that defines Marilyn Monroe’s career. She is forever identified as the blonde airhead as she plays in this movie. People forget her range as an actress, including films like Don’t Bother To Knock, Bus Stop, and Niagara. That said, this Billy Wilder adaption of George Axelrod’s hit play is indeed the quintessential 50s-era adult comedy.
Now, in the 21st century, the narrative of The Seven Year Itch seems tame. But in 1955 it was edgy and titillating, although Billy Wilder would later state that he wished he had filmed it later on when censorship restrictions weren’t so strict. Today the film is significant for featuring the iconic Marilyn in one of her most notable performances, and as a brilliant representation of 1950s kitsch, with all of the fashions and furnishings that so clearly represent that decade. It also shows another side of the ways and mores of that decade, far different than the conservatism by which it remains defined, even in popular culture.
While it is not quite the classic it is cracked up to be, The Seven Year Itch is a pleasant comedy with some clever ideas and a great cast. Marilyn Monroe has become so incredibly iconic in popular culture, it is natural to for anyone to see the movie that best defines her screen persona.”
This rather lovely photo of Marilyn in her Bus Stop costume – taken by Milton Greene on the Fox lot in 1956 – ran into the trouble this week, when a student wore the image on a sweatshirt at high school in South Ogden, Utah, as reported by Yahoo News. The image had been digitally altered to feature rapper Tupac Shakur (who once wrote a poem about MM), but that wasn’t the problem. It was Marilyn’s exposed shoulder that led a teacher to send the 13 year-old to the vice principal, who cited the garment as a violation of the school dress code – a claim challenged by the girl’s mother.
In 1962, Marilyn was set to become the first American actress to appear nude in a mainstream movie since Pre-Code days – but following her untimely death, that honour went to another blonde star, Jayne Mansfield, in a film released just a year later, produced independently with Tommy Noonan (who had played Marilyn’s love interest a decade earlier in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) And as with Marilyn’s shelved nude scene, Jayne’s big moment would make the cover of Playboy.
Although Jayne would reveal more than Marilyn did, both scenes showed the stars bathing (Marilyn in a pool, Jayne in a tub), and discovered by a shy, bespectacled man (Phil Silvers and Noonan respectively.) Kristin Hunt reports on the story behind aHollywood watershed for Vulture – and if you’d like to learn more about Jayne, read Puffblicity, an illustrated biography by April VeVea, author of MM: A Day in the Life.
“Monroe filmed two nude scenes — one for 1961’s The Misfits and one for 1962’s Something’s Got to Give — but neither made it into theaters in one piece. The first scene was cut and the second was a mere fragment of an unfinished movie … The Something’s Got to Give scene was a little more intentional. Monroe’s character Ellen is supposed to swim nude, as a means to entice her estranged husband Nick from his hotel room. The footage of Monroe skinny-dipping in a pool is now available in multiple YouTube clips, but the movie never screened for era audiences, since Monroe was fired and then died before filming wrapped.
Either scene would’ve made Monroe the first American star to go nude in a Hollywood movie in decades. But in Monroe’s absence, it was Jayne Mansfield who shattered the long-standing tradition. Like Monroe, Mansfield was a buxom blonde with a complicated reputation — but unlike Monroe, she craved the industry’s constant spotlight, and frequently used her body to get it.
While onscreen nudity certainly existed before 1962, it had been outlawed in the U.S. for decades under the Production Code … It was against that backdrop that Mansfield made her topless debut in the 1963 swingers cruise-ship comedy Promises! Promises! The actress was in a bit of a career slump at the time … Mansfield had always been famous for her crass publicity stunts, which often involved her ‘accidentally’ losing her clothing … Those blatant headline grabs had launched Mansfield’s career, landing her a star-making role in the 1956 comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, and they also made her distinct from her blonde-bombshell rival Monroe, who generated tabloid fodder without really trying.
Shortly after Monroe’s 1962 death, The New York Timesran an article explaining why each ‘successor’ to Monroe was an inadequate replacement: Ava Gardner was too reclusive, Kim Novak too serious, Natalie Wood too slight. But the newspaper reserved some of its meanest comments for Mansfield. ‘Jayne Mansfield, whom 20th Century Fox was building as a Love Goddess nominee, suffers from too much publicity and too few roles,’ The New York Times wrote. ‘She has become rather a caricature — like Mae West — and alienates the segment which takes sex seriously.’
If she was already a caricature, it made sense for Mansfield to seek out the absurdity of a sexploitation film. Promises! Promises! was a translation of Edna Sheklow’s 1960 play The Plant, about two couples on a cruise ship who swap partners in a drunken haze, and then have to figure out who fathered which pregnancy. Actor Tommy Noonan purchased the film rights after nearly starring in the stage show, planning to write, direct, produce, and act in the movie.
Noonan would’ve known as well as anyone the risks of including a nude scene, even within the context of this racy plot … But a code violation didn’t carry the weight it once did, because by 1963, the entire system of censorship was running on life support … Mansfield’s nude scene arrives fairly early into Promises! Promises!, soon after the couples have settled into their cabins. Her screen husband Jeff (Noonan) has just been to see the ship’s medic about his sperm. When he returns — in high spirits, after receiving a placebo from the doctor — he finds Sandy (Mansfield) stepping out of a bath, where she was just cooing the song I’m in Love under a blanket of bubbles. She appears in the doorway, patting down her torso with a towel that does nothing to obscure her chest. The shot lingers for a few seconds before she closes the bathroom door to dress.
As the crew filmed, a photographer for Playboy took extra shots to run in the magazine, pocketing them for the eventual publicity campaign. Despite Mansfield’s name, Promises! Promises! was a B-film to its core, shepherded by an actor-turned-auteur who was not quite a household name and who harbored no artistic pretensions. The movie entered markets without MPAA approval or studio backing, which meant it had to rely solely on advertising. You can guess what the publicity team focused on.
Playboy published its behind-the-scenes images in the June 1963 issue, promising ‘The Nudest Jayne Mansfield’ on the cover. Enterprising movie exhibitors were only too happy to join in the ogling … But in many cities, the exploitative advertising and lack of MPAA approval were a liability, with censorship boards in Maryland, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other markets attempting to keep the film out. When the Playboy issues hit newsstands, Hugh Hefner was arrested and hauled into Chicago court for ‘publishing and distributing an obscene magazine.’ The city based its complaint on two ‘particularly obscene’ images showing Mansfield lying naked on a bed with a fully clothed man. The case ended in a mistrial, letting Hefner off the hook.
Though Promises! Promises! made money, it was too crass and too indie to recoup Mansfield’s struggling stardom — and her career never bounced back to its 1950s heights. Critics savaged the film, with Variety calling it unsuitable for ‘anyone whose mentality surpasses that of a 5-year-old.’ But the topless scene did indicate where films were heading in respect to the policy against nudity. The following year in 1964, The Pawnbroker challenged the Production Code with a much more artistic — and much more upsetting — use of nudity through a Holocaust flashback sequence. The film had a celebrated director in Sidney Lumet and a serious method star in Rod Steiger, and due to this pedigree, it had more of a lasting impact than Promises! Promises! could, setting a precedent that would make it easier for movies to include nude scenes.”
A briefly nude scene from The Misfits – cut by director John Huston – may have survived, according to Charles Casillo, author of the new biography, Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon.
Still photos attest that Marilyn was indeed semi-nude in the bedroom scene, in which stayed in the movie after being edited. She wanted to keep the footage intact, but Huston dismissed the idea. Marilyn was more attuned to the mood of the times, as minor nudity was already becoming commonplace in films made in Europe.
“Charles Casillo interviewed Curtice Taylor, son of the film’s producer Frank Taylor, and was taken aback to learn that he has kept the footage in a locked cabinet since his father’s death in 1999.
Mr Taylor said: ‘A lot of times, unused takes were destroyed. But Frank Taylor believed that it was so important and so ground-breaking that he saved it.’
The footage, with sound, lasts about 45 seconds. Curtice Taylor, a photographer and teacher, understands why his father was so keen to include it: ‘It’s much more passionate.’
He said: ‘So Gable’s fully clothed. He comes into her bedroom. She’s asleep. He caresses and kisses her neck, turns her face around and gives her a good lip-lock. That exists in the scene in the [final] film – but not to the passionate degree of this one, which is much better. The smile on her face when he’s kissing her shoulder is just sublime.’
After Gable leaves the room, Ms Monroe holds up the sheet to put on her blouse. Mr Taylor believes that she dropped it partly due to her training as a method actress.
He said: ‘Why would a woman sitting up in bed, with nobody in the room, pull the sheet up and then try to put a blouse on at the same time? It makes no sense. So she just drops the sheet. I think it’s one of the reasons she did this. There are quite a few takes of this scene. Whenever she dropped the sheet, which she did a few times, Huston would say “Cut, remember the sheet, Marilyn”.’
Mr Taylor was surprised that the footage is an edited sequence, and wonders whether the censors had insisted on its removal.
He attended the shoot at just 13-years-old, and said he remembers Ms Monroe talking to him and asking him to do ‘little favours’. He said: ‘She’d give me $5 to go get something.'”
A large sculpture of Marilyn, currently on display outside the Cairo Opera House, has stirred up controversy, reports Egypt Independent. Recreating the famous ‘subway scene’ from The Seven Year Itch, Ehab al-Asyuti’s sculpture seems derivative of Seward Johnson’s ‘Forever Marilyn’, and some observers have deemed her likeness less than flattering. But while she probably won’t be replacing the Sphinx anytime soon, Marilyn has made quite the comeback – her films were banned in Egypt after she married Arthur Miller and converted to Judaism in 1956.
Yours Retro is a great read for lovers of all things vintage, and after several prior appearances, Marilyn finally graces the cover of the latest issue, available now in UK newsagents and via Newsstand. ‘When Marilyn Met Larry ‘, a four-page article by biographer Michelle Morgan, focuses on Marilyn’s time in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl, and there are also pieces of related interest about Cyd Charisse, Picturegoer magazine, and Hollywood censorship. If you collect magazines featuring MM, this is a must-have. (Yours Retro has recently been launched in Australia; however, it is several issues behind, so the UK version is your best bet.)
Although tame by today’s standards, Marilyn’s movies often fell foul of the rigid censorship code of the time. The Seven Year Itch was toned down to gloss over its theme of adultery, while the famous ‘skirt-blowing scene’, which garnered huge publicity, was cut to a minimum.
Even after its release, the film was considered risque. The Irish Examiner notes that posters featuring Marilyn’s windblown skirt were altered so that her thighs were entirely covered. And in Spain, another Catholic country, the same tactic was used.
‘I think they were doing it because they were afraid the local parish priest would close it down,’ said Dublin auctioneer Ian Whyte.
Over at Pretty Clever Films today, an interesting look back at director Billy Wilder’s tussles with the Production Code:
“Most of Wilder’s film topics were more risqué than other movies of the time. Take The Seven Year Itch (1955) for example, a film about temptation and marital infidelity. Richard’s (Tom Ewell) family is out of town for the summer, and a gorgeous blonde bombshell (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs. They strike up a friendship, and it’s clear he’s attracted. The specter of adultery rears its ugly head, but since much of the film is told through Richard’s fantasies – not actual infidelity – and is resolved with him joining his wife and family on holiday, Wilder’s suggestive and titillating film fully complies with the Production Code.
In Wilder’s slapstick comedy Some Like it Hot (1959) Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play down and out Chicago musicians. On the run from gangsters, they dress up in drag to join an all-female band on tour. Both enamoured of the band’s lead singer (Marilyn Monroe), the two men compete for her affections. Hijinks ensue.
By the late 1950s, many directors were getting more daring, and audiences were looking for a loosening of the Code’s standards. Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) was an enormous popular and critical success, but received a ‘Condemned’ rating from the National Legion of Decency. It was released anyway, without Code approval, and its success helped spur on the eventual demise of the Code in 1968.”
However, it seems that Marilyn may have thought the director wasn’t daring enough. In a 1961 interview with W.J. Weatherby, author of Conversations With Marilyn, she said of Wilder, ‘He’s a brilliant moviemaker, but he worries too much about the box office.’
As part of its ‘Essential Movie Library‘ series, Los Angeles magazine explores how Some Like it Hot helped to bring down the National League of Decency, and why Marilyn’s presence has made it such an enduring classic:
“This is the best movie of the sound era’s greatest female star, her unsung skills as a comedienne plainly tethered to the same vulnerability, even instability, that undid her, her performance of ‘I’m Through With Love’ more personal than anyone intended except maybe Monroe herself…The National League of Decency condemned this instant classic and almost immediately rendered itself obsolete; Kansas wouldn’t allow the film to be shown anywhere in the state, rendering Kansas obsolete too.”
Some Like it Hot was voted ‘funniest film of all time’ by the AFI. Its popularity is so ubiquitous that few stop to consider what made it so special. Over at Film.com, Eric D. Snider asks, ‘What’s the big deal?’
“Some Like It Hot was also one of the nails in the coffin of the Production Code. This was the Motion Picture Association of America’s method of self-censorship, instituted in the 1930s to keep the government from getting involved. By the 1950s, Hollywood was growing restless with the Code, and even after updates were made to reflect the changing times (you were allowed to depict interracial romances now!), there were still a lot of restrictions.
So filmmakers started pushing back. Adhering to the Code was voluntary, technically, but it had long been the accepted wisdom that a movie released without the MPAA’s seal of approval would be a flop, either because theaters wouldn’t play it, or audiences wouldn’t watch it, or both. But the studios gradually began to suspect that this was no longer the case. Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), with its graphic depiction of drug use, couldn’t get MPAA certification — so United Artists released it without one. The film was a commercial and critical success and the recipient of three Oscar nominations. Skipping the MPAA approval process didn’t necessarily spell doom after all.
The MPAA rejected Some Like It Hot because of its double entendre, cross-dressing, vague allusions to homosexuality, and general naughtiness. The studio (United Artists again) released it anyway, and it was, as previously noted, a smash hit. More and more people in Hollywood started saying, “Wait, tell me again why we even have a Production Code…?” After more and more films pushed the limits in the 1960s, the Code was finally abandoned and replaced with the rating system familiar to us now.”