Monday, June 01, 2015

The Truly Divine Miss M

"Hi. It's me, don't you remember? The tomato from upstairs."

The Girl (Marilyn Monroe)

I'm a fan of Marilyn Monroe — even though she was way before my time — and I have always believed she was more talented than she got credit for. You probably couldn't tell that, though, from her movie that premiered on this day in 1955 — Billy Wilder's "The Seven–Year Itch."

(It also happened to be Marilyn's 29th birthday.)

She was such a dumb blonde in that one that her character didn't even have a name. She was simply called "The Girl." Oh, there was a time or two when the male lead, Tom Ewell, tried to convince his wife (in imaginary conversations — he was in New York and she was spending the summer in Maine) that he wasn't as predictably faithful as he imagined that she thought. At one point, it was suggested that he had a blonde in his kitchen and was asked who she was. He responded by saying, "Wouldn't you like to know? Maybe it's Marilyn Monroe!" — which, of course, it was.

A nice little inside joke, eh? Just between Tom Ewell and the audience.

But her character was never addressed by any kind of name, not even as The Girl, by anyone in the movie — which suggests two possibilities to me that may have been at work (and both could be happening at the same time). First, it is an indication of how socially insignificant women were in the 1950s. By implication, that seven–year itch was afflicting the man. The Girl just happened to be there. It could have been any female. The man in the scenario had an itch to scratch. With whom he scratched it did not matter.

Second, because she was deemed to be of so little consequence, she wasn't worthy of a name. Even a dog has a name and is addressed by that name, but "The Girl" was not. For all intents and purposes, I suppose, her character was less than a dog. She was a prop, eye candy.

(It's ironic, really, that the girl was regarded as replaceable. I have heard that Wilder wanted to cast Walter Matthau as the male lead, but 20th Century Fox preferred to have Ewell reprise his Broadway role.)

Of course, it didn't help Marilyn's case that her character provided perhaps the most iconic image ever in the movies in the course of making it. It was a very suggestive image, which shouldn't be a surprise really. In spite of the Hays Code, Hollywood has always been about sex appeal. Rather than banning certain thoughts, words or images from the big screen, the Hays Code merely made some things even more tempting because they were forbidden and encouraged some movie makers to skirt around the edges of what was acceptable and what was not.

(And sometimes the movie makers played with fire. I've heard that it was the spectacle of the repeated takes of that scene, before a leering audience from across the street, that was the straw that broke the back of Marilyn's marriage to baseball icon Joe DiMaggio.)

Marilyn certainly did her part to bring about the eventual demise of the Hays Code — in no small part because of the role she played in "The Seven–Year Itch." It was never explicit, mind you, but it was suggestive.

All of that contributed to her sex kitten image. Frankly, I think Marilyn shrewdly used that image whenever and however she pleased.

I've never really understood why Marilyn got such a bad reputation, especially since her character was often capable of some really insightful comments, the kind of thing you didn't hear women saying — openly, anyway — for a few decades, things like this ...

"You think every girl's a dope. You think a girl goes to a party, and there's some guy in a fancy striped vest strutting around giving you that I'm–so–handsome–you–can't–resist–me look. From this she's supposed to fall flat on her face. Well, she doesn't fall on her face. But there's another guy in the room, over in the corner. Maybe he's nervous and shy and perspiring a little. First, you look past him. But then you sense that he's gentle and kind and worried. That he'll be tender with you, nice and sweet. That's what's really exciting."

(Now, personally, I don't really buy that, but perhaps I have become jaded by the times in which I live. In the mid–'50s, though, it must have raised some eyebrows.)

But there was the flip side to that — and it was the side that fueled her dumb blonde image.

The Girl had some unusual tastes ...
"Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It's real crazy!"

The Girl thought things were elegant — it seemed to be her favorite word. She thought it was elegant that Ewell was married. Cool air on a hot summer evening was elegant, too — actually, she might have been on to something there.

And she thought it was elegant to have an imagination.

"I just have no imagination at all," she said. "I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination."

I'm not so sure that is true. Now, there was no doubt that Ewell's character had a vivid imagination — and, perhaps, when compared to his imagination, anyone's imagination would pale. He was a kind of dweebish publishing executive whose imagination was straining at its leash — the residue, I'm sure, of all his repressive years of proofreading manuscripts.

And there was no doubt that Marilyn's character did, indeed, have "lots of other things." (I suppose you can define that as you wish ...)

But I think she did have an imagination. It just couldn't compete with Ewell's. His only equal, I'm inclined to think, was Walter Mitty.

Even Walter Mitty couldn't conceive of the kind of scenarios Ewell's character could — for example, his fantasy about him and Dolores Rosedale (whose character did have a name — Elaine) in a spoof of the beach scene in "From Here to Eternity."

I guess it wasn't necessary for Ewell to fantasize about Marilyn; her character, after all, was living in the apartment above his. He was alone for the summer. He still fantasized about her, though.

No fantasy could compete with the real thing. And the real thing was right there, up close and personal all the time; Ewell's fantasies took off.

Like, for example, when he fantasized about seducing her by simply playing Rachmaninoff.

"It isn't fair," he imagined her saying. "Every time I hear it, I go to pieces. It shakes me, it quakes me. It makes me feel goose–pimply all over. I don't know where I am or who I am or what I'm doing. Don't stop. Don't stop. Don't ever stop!"

In reality, though, they had conversations and looked at books about photography and such.

I guess it was a concession that the movie made. In the play on which the movie was based, the two had sex. They couldn't do that in the movie. That made certain other changes to the story necessary as well.

In fact, Wilder called it a "nothing movie." It should be remade without censorship, he said. "Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl, there's nothing. But you couldn't do that in those days, so I was just straitjacketed."

Wilder and Monroe worked together again — in the biggest hit of Monroe's career, "Some Like It Hot."