One reason she has remained captivating for 60 years is that Marilyn Monroe fits cozily under both the “smart” and the “crazy” columns; we’ll never settle on which header she and Norma Jeane belong under, but we seem to like it that way. Venturing through Portland on what I call my “I’ve Got No Strings” road trip, I spent hours roaming through the labyrinth that is Powell’s Books . . . I had no idea I could feel wonderfully relaxed and completely overwhelmed at the same time. After a few hours of trekking through the overflowing rooms, finally I sniffed out the “Film Biography” section. Lodged between hundreds of books, each claiming to be the definitive text on Miss Monroe, was a small paper-bag-covered book called My Story, the only Monroe autobiography I’ve come across. I snagged it immediately, and, armed with a grain or two of salt, sat in the Powell’s café and finished it in about three minutes. Smart and crazy, relaxed and overwhelmed . . . it’s taken me 30 years to realize that so many conflicting qualities, thoughts, and feelings can (and often do) coexist.
Throughout this little project of mine, I’ve tried to chat with people from life’s different corners, absorbing their reactions to performers, time periods, fedoras, and morning martinis of classic cinema. Never have I come across such varying opinions than the times I bring up Marilyn Monroe, and particularly The Seven Year Itch. Naively I assumed that if someone wasn’t entertained by Marilyn, he or she would find her fascinating in a “case study” kind of way. And yet a number of you folks remain firm in your convictions when it comes to loving, liking, or loathing of Marilyn Monroe. Whether I agreed with them or not, these strong reactions thrill me to itty-bitty pieces . . . some opinions were very surprising, but to little old me, any form of passion regarding old films is goose-pimply thrilling! This film was an itch some loved to scratch, branded by many as their favorite “Marilyn” of all time. Others dismissed her immediately as the half-witted blonde of all blondes; a woman who offered audiences nothing more than her body parts. To this second group usually I inquire as to which films they’ve seen, and oftentimes the answer is “oh . . . well, none.” Fret none my dears, I’m here to help.
The Seven Year Itch follows a married man (played by Tom Ewell who originated the role on stage) whose wife and son are away for the summer and the fantasies he has about the girl renting the apartment upstairs. Marilyn brings as much “Monroe” to this part as possible, once again solidifying her immortality onscreen and off. As adorable as she is in this, I decided I really like the first half of this film, and then it seems to lose me for a bit. I had a similar reaction to Arsenic and Old Lace, but in that case the fun half of the cast all but disappeared as the film progressed. The Seven Year Itch starts off with plenty of cute alerts — when Marilyn accidentally knocks a tomato plant off her balcony and almost kills our hero, he abandons his anger after one look at her. They bond pretty quickly . . . it’s hard not to like a girl who battles the New York heat by keeping her undies in the icebox. When she shows up at his door a few minutes later, adorably she reminds him, “It’s me, don’t you remember? The tomato from upstairs!” Why, oh why do the most random lines send me into fits of uncontrollable giggles? I find the first half boasts a number of these “laugh therapy” moments before it starts to slow down. After a big tall martini, Marilyn shares with her new friend that she has some champagne hidden upstairs. “It’s just sitting in the icebox with the potato chips and my underwear,” she tells him. And . . . rewind!
Memories come and go throughout our lives, but the long-celebrated image of girl, a high-spirited white dress, and a couple of New York subway trains will remain forever stamped on our brains. An enormous crowd gathered to witness this filming, and somewhere on the street was Marilyn’s husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Refusing to be “Mr. Monroe” at any point during the marriage, apparently Joe wasn’t able to process his wife’s revealing dress in the healthiest of ways. As the story goes, when Marilyn returned to their hotel after shooting the scene, the fuming DiMaggio greeted her by slapping her around the room. And after this unforgivable outburst of anger, not only was the scene refilmed but it also turned out that audiences saw nothing more than her ankles in the finished picture. The Hayes Code was there to save the souls of American moviegoers, so the country spared the trauma of seeing Marilyn Monroe’s undergarments (on which she had doubled up for the shoot) in addition to being shielded from the original script’s peppery dialogue.
Although some of its disciples continue their attempts to save us all, the Code has gone, while Marilyn remains . . . sexy ankles trump righteous morality every time. I guess some things can’t coexist!