Marilyn’s Subway Scene at 65

Marilyn with co-star Tom Ewell

On the night of September 15, 1954 – 65 years ago today – Marilyn filmed the iconic ‘subway scene’ from The Seven Year Itch to an adoring crowd. It is also said to have ended her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, though in truth they were already heading for a split. Over at Marilyn Remembered, Lorraine Nicol recalls one of the greatest promotional stunts of all time, with input from Fox publicist Roy Craft, and crewman Paul Wurtzel, who operated the industrial fan beneath the grate – and the many imitations which still abound in popular culture. (You can read a selection of past ES Updates posts on the ‘subway scene’ here.)

“The post-midnight hours of September 15th 1954, outside of the Trans-Lux Theatre near 52nd Street on Lexington Avenue, a luminous Marilyn wearing a white pleated halter dress, stepped over a subway grating. With a crew member operating a powerful fan positioned below the grille, the stage was set for a legendary scene. Hordes of reporters and spectators (estimates range from several hundred to five thousand) watched the crew film take after take of history-making moment.

The postscript of the film of this New York sequence was unusable. Her skirt had flown up to her waist, and the cheers of the crowd were clearly audible. The famous scene’s true setting was the controlled atmosphere of a Twentieth Century FOX soundstage. Unlike the iconic images that exist, in the finished film Marilyn’s skirt billows up only slightly above her knees and a full body shot is never shown. Back in New York, a fifty-two foot high picture of The Girl with the upswept skirt was mounted above the marquee of Loew’s State Theatre at Times Square.”

64 Years Ago: Heartbreak on the Subway Grate

September 15 marks the 64th anniversary of the filming of Marilyn’s most famous movie scene, standing over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch with her skirt blowing up in the breeze. In an article for Mama Mia, Polly Taylor looks at the personal heartache behind one of Hollywood’s most iconic moments.

“The scene was filmed in public to generate publicity for the movie, and DiMaggio was among the crowd. Director Billy Wilder described the ‘look of death’ on DiMaggio’s face as Monroe’s skirt flew up and onlookers cheered, as reported by The Telegraph.

George S. Zimbel, one of many photographers on set, recalled DiMaggio becoming irate and storming off, riled up by the uproarious press and onlookers who were gathered to watch the scene … Just a month later, in October 1954, Monroe divorced DiMaggio on the grounds of ‘mental cruelty’.”

Double Take: Marilyn’s ‘Subway Scene’ Diorama

Double Take: Reconstructing the History of Photography is a new book by Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger, two Swiss artists who have recreated some of the world’s most famous photos in miniature – including Sam Shaw’s 1954 shot of Marilyn filming the ‘skirt-blowing scene’ for The Seven Year Itch on a New York subway grate. Read more about Cortis and Sonderegger’s work here.

Marilyn in New York, and an Historic Injustice

Canadian-American musician Meghan Remy aka U.S. Girls is about to release her sixth studio album. In an interview for The Ringer, Meghan takes Lindsay Zoladz on a sightseeing tour of New York, including the subway grate on Lexington and 52nd Street where Marilyn shot an iconic movie scene, while her marriage fell apart.

“The night that iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe was taken—you know the one: stilettos on a subway grate, billowing white dress—Monroe and her husband Joe DiMaggio got into a screaming match. The fight was partially about the photo itself: While shooting The Seven Year Itch, the studio had savvily leaked Monroe’s whereabouts to the press, and by the time Billy Wilder was ready to roll camera on what would become the most notorious scene in the movie, several thousand onlookers had shown up to watch. (They were almost all men, but I hardly need to tell you that.) DiMaggio was there, and he wasn’t too keen on what he took to be his wife’s public exhibitionism. When she showed up to set the next morning, Monroe’s hairdresser applied foundation to hide fresh bruises. She filed for divorce from DiMaggio before The Seven Year Itch wrapped.

‘We’re constantly presented with this smiling Marilyn,’ says Meg Remy, the singer and eccentric creative mastermind behind the band U.S. Girls. ‘But for some reason, when you have all the information, it just feels so heavy.’

I should mention that Remy is speaking into a headset, as she drives a rented, 15-seat van deftly through the streets of Manhattan. In anticipation of the release of U.S. Girls’ new album In a Poem Unlimited—the most ambitious and, as it happens, best album of Remy’s decade-long career—her label suggested a listening party for fans and members of the press. Remy asked around enough to learn what a listening party was, and, ever the DIY-minded eccentric, then decided it just wasn’t her style. What she came up with instead was this: a van tour of ‘sites of injustices in New York City,’ written and narrated by Remy herself, while we listen to the new album in the background.”

‘The Seven Year Itch’: The Girl, a Dress and a Mystery

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That iconic scene from The Seven Year Itch – and the dress worn by Marilyn as she stood over the subway grate – is constantly being referenced in popular culture. One recent example is this magazine ad for the Marilyn-themed Sexy Hair brand.

On Immortal Marilyn this week, Marijane Gray unravels the mystery of what happened to that dress, designed by Marilyn’s regular costumer, Travilla.

“The white pleated halter dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch is always described in superlatives: most iconic, most recognized, most recreated, most expensive. It can also be called the most mysterious: how many copies of the dress were there? Is there another one in existence, hidden away all these years? Did Marilyn herself own a copy of the dress, and if so, where did it end up? And perhaps most intriguing: was a copy of the dress really stolen back in 1993?”

Also this week, Keena Al-Wahaidi reviews the movie that started it all for The Medium, the student magazine for the University of Toronto. (Incidentally, the campus is based at Mississauga, which is also home to a skyscraper complex whose curvaceous design has earned the nickname The Marilyn Monroe Towers.)

“The most notable aspect of The Girl is her obliviousness towards her own allure …. The most dubious fixture of this film is the lack of identity in Monroe’s character. The reason for her ambiguity is because she’s nameless … However, Monroe’s lack of identity contributes to the mystery of the film’s plot. Regardless of the immorality of the situation, we find ourselves rooting for Richard and The Girl. Despite the futility of their relationship, or perhaps owing to it, their fling is undeniably enthralling.”

Scratching an ‘Itch’ for Marilyn

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With the lost footage from the New York location shoot for The Seven Year Itch now making headlines, it’s a good time to revisit Marilyn’s most famous movie scene, as Ian Freer does in ‘Story of the Shot’, published in the February issue of UK film magazine Empire.

Thanks to Fraser Penney

Marilyn’s Lost ‘Itch’ Footage

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Amateur footage from the set of The Seven Year Itch has resurfaced, as Helene Stapinski reports for the New York Times. Shot by Jules Schulback, a furrier and home movie enthusiast, in September 1954, the missing reel – in pristine condition, and lasting for three minutes and seventeen seconds in total – was found by his granddaughter Bonnie Siegler and her husband Jeff Scher almost sixty years later.

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“The film starts with a spliced-in intertitle that reads ‘World Premiere,’ Mr. Schulback’s little inside joke.

And then there is Marilyn Monroe, in a white terry robe, coming down the stoop of a white-shuttered building at 164 East 61st Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. It was the earlier scene — before the subway grate footage — that Mr. Schulback had shot. Cameramen and press photographers are gathered outside as the actress smiles and waves.

Cut to Ms. Monroe in a second-floor window wearing a slip and blow-drying her hair. Mr. Ewell walks down the street and into the building. The film cuts inexplicably to 30 seconds of what must be a Shriners parade in Manhattan, then jumps to another intertitle, which reads ‘Our Baby.’

And suddenly, there is Ms. Monroe again, this time on the subway grate in that famously fluttering white dress, holding a matching white clutch in her right hand and a red-and-white-striped scarf in her left.

Mr. Schulback was incredibly close, filming right behind Mr. Wilder’s shoulder, stopping to wind his hand-held camera every 25 seconds. Now and then, a silhouette of the director’s arm intrudes into Mr. Schulback’s crystal-clear shot. At one point Mr. Wilder, in a fedora, passes across the frame. Ms. Monroe gets into position and yawns, while the cinematographer sets up the camera. Through a gap in the film crew, Mr. Schulback captures just her face, looking off to the left, serious and unsmiling.

Then Mr. Ewell is there, chatting with Ms. Monroe, who pushes him into position. The dress flutters again, Ms. Monroe holds it down, bending slightly, smiling and talking to Mr. Ewell, but it flutters up some more and she laughs, her head thrown back. It blows up again, but she doesn’t push it down this time, and it flies up over her head, clearly revealing two pairs of underwear that, because of the bright lights, do not protect Ms. Monroe’s modesty quite as much as she might have liked.

Then, as suddenly as she appeared, Marilyn is gone, and the film reverts to home-movie mode: Edith Schulback walking on the grass at a family outing in the country. It’s like being shaken from some crazy dream, back to reality.”

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Elsewhere in the Times, Alexandra S. Levine retraced Marilyn’s steps in today’s New York.

“We started outside 164 East 61st Street, the townhouse shown in the film.

The house is still standing, and this week, it appeared to be the only one on the block still adorned with Christmas decorations.

(It’s also now directly across from Trump Plaza, which was certainly not part of the movie’s quaint side-street landscape.)

We then walked to Lexington to visit Gino, a restaurant where Ms. Monroe would often eat with her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, and later with her third, Arthur Miller.

We regret to inform you that the eatery is long gone. It’s now Sprinkles, a cupcake shop, and the outside of the building has an A.T.M. that dispenses cupcakes. (How far we’ve come in 63 years!)

We headed south, to 52nd Street, the site of the celebrated subway grate.

There was no Marilyn Monroe plaque or street sign to be seen; the block is designated Lew Rudin Way. And the Trans-Lux Theater, which stood behind Ms. Monroe as she filmed the scene, is no longer there.

So we stopped above what we imagined was the same grate, now in front of the bistro Le Relais de Venise l’Entrecôte, to see if it might elicit an out-of-body experience.

Not quite.

The long, narrow subway grate was sandwiched on one end by a garbage can, and on the other by a large, thirsty-looking potted plant.

When we stood over the grate, we didn’t feel the swoosh of the subway swiftly blowing at our heels. When we looked down, all we could see was our own reflection in some murky water. And we certainly didn’t look like we were having an exceptional hair day.

What we’d suggest, to better recreate that unforgettable New York (but made in Hollywood) moment, is to ask a friend to come along with a giant fan and an iPhone. Ask that kind soul to turn on the fan, encourage passers-by to cheer your name, and let the photo shoot begin.”

‘Zimbelism’: New Doc + Book On Marilyn, and More

Zimbelism, the long-awaited documentary about photographer George S. Zimbel, had its premiere at the recent Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. Zimbel, now 86, spoke to Laura Goldstein for mashumashu.com about his 72- year career in ‘humanist’ photography, and his memories of Marilyn as she filmed the ‘subway scene’ for The Seven Year Itch. A retrospective of Zimbel’s work, Momento, was published last year.

“‘I am more of a determined photographer than a pushy photographer but that night I did something atypical. I started to shoot as the filming commenced. (Strictly forbidden!) There was enough street noise to cover the discrete click of the Leica shutter, but someone obviously didn’t like what I was doing and I was removed from the press photography area and escorted behind the police lines by two of New York’s finest. I used the new viewpoint and kept shooting from there. I remember when all action stopped as two men walked across the set. It was Joe Dimaggio, (Marilyn’s) husband and Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist. Dimaggio was furious about the scene (remember it was 1954.) Every publication that could find an excuse to run photos of that event did so. And here is my personal mystery – I decided not to throw my shoot into the editorial pot.’

I ask George bluntly, ‘Why did you do that? Didn’t you kick yourself afterwards?’

‘We all have our priorities,’ he says without regret, ‘and I was working on a photo essay on Irish Americans that had to be completed first. You know we had to fight just to be paid $100. Of course I checked the Marilyn negatives first and then I filed them away unprinted and unpublished. They even survived a fire in my darkroom in 1966 and my move to Canada in 1971.’

Amazingly, the Monroe photographs weren’t shown until over 20 years later, in Zimbel’s solo exhibition in 1976 at Confederation Centre of the Arts, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The full set was shown for the first time in 1982 at Galerie Art 45 in Montreal.

As Zimbel reminisces, ‘In January 2000 I had a retrospective in Valencia Spain and my Marilyns were exhibited on the walls of Sala Muralla, a gallery fashioned from an ancient archeological site at Institut Valencia d’Art Modern where they shared space with an ancient plaque of a Roman goddess. I felt it was a homecoming for her image.'”

The Sixty Year Itch

“A warm draft from the subway ventilator shaft is enough to turn Marilyn into the most exotic butterfly in history. Director Billy Wilder’s brilliant idea, with its mixture of erotic fantasy and the dream of being weightless and able to fly, transcends the mere tomboy eroticism of a sensation-seeking public. Film still for The Seven Year Itch, September 15th, 1954.” – Schirmer’s Visual Library, Marilyn Monroe Photographs 1945-1962

Read more about the filming of Marilyn’s most iconic movie scene in The Guardianand another perspective from Melissa Stevens – granddaughter of Sam Shaw, who captured the moment – on Biography.com.

A Girl, A Grate and the Censors

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US poster – unaltered

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.

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Irish poster

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Spanish poster