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TNR Film Classic: Delmore Schwartz on ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (1955)

The film version of The Seven Year Itch, George Axelrod’s Broadway hit, has carried over enough of the play’s sophisticated brightness to indicate the reasons for the play’s success: the perfect fulfillment of the well-known Broadway genre of gag, gag, punch-line, epigram, and paradox, crackling like machine-gun fire for three acts until everyone is exhausted, and everything but the next wisecrack is unreal. Certainly some very funny things get said, as when a vegetarian waitress in an offhand way presents the first serious argument for nudism: pacifism. The soldiers, lacking uniforms, will be unable to tell friend from foe, so they won’t be able to kill anyone: the result of their confusion will be universal peace.

Despite the script’s cleverness, the presence of Tom Ewell, who is a first rate comedian and Oscar Homolka, who has long been a first rate actor, the entire film continually misses fire and fizzles out, like defective fireworks. And the chief reason, doubtless, is Marilyn Monroe’s radiant presence. She is as out of place in a sophisticated comedy as she would be in a Tibetan lamasery, or, to be more exact, a nunnery. She has been profoundly miscast in a Dumb Dora-Gracie Allen role and in relation to Tom Ewell as a Caspar Milquetoast-Walter Mitty character, both roles being foils for that classic American farce: my wife’s gone to the country, hurray.

Miss Monroe is neither a Dumb Dora nor a sophisticated comedienne: neither intelligence nor stupidity have anything to do with her radiant, self-delighting image, which in this film is a distraction so immense that it becomes the chief interest, the kind of thing one would expect to happen had W.C. Fields played in The Importance of Being Earnest or a Restoration comedy. Nevertheless other film critics were wrong, I think, to question Miss Monroe’s gifts as an actress when they described the failure of the film. To say that Miss Monroe is at fault is a colossal piece of irrelevance, one comparable to that of the little girl in Carl Sandburg’s poem who, when she saw the midsummer moon arise, wanted to know what it was supposed to advertise.

Miss Monroe, like the true Hollywood beauties of old who preceded her as daughters of Venus, is a national phenomenon, like Buffalo Bill, the Mack Sennett bathing beauty, cross-word puzzles, Coca-Cola, babe Ruth, and chewing gum. She can be understood only from one point of view, that of beauty, which is its own excuse for being, a truth which, as Emerson was but one of the first to recognize, must be pointed out to the American public time and again. Nothing that Miss Monroe says in any role can be quite as meaningful as the ways in which she sways: her poise and carriage have a true innocence: have a spontaneity, an un-selfconsciousness which are the extreme antithesis to the calculated sex of the strip tease and other forms of the propagation of prurience.

As an image and symbol, Miss Monroe represents an advance—or a regress, depending upon one’s point of view—but in any case something new and different from her predecessors as screen sirens and queens. Most of them made sexual attractiveness quite as exciting as Miss Monroe does, but scarcely ever without making sexual beauty inseparable from evil, ruin, destruction, and all the stigmas imposed by Puritanism: the screen siren was a deadly vamp like Theda Bara, a honky-tonk Medusa like Marlene Dietrich, an unattainable Valkyrie who suggested Nirvana with a Swedish accent like Garbo, or a platinum blonde who suggested, like Jean Harlow, the blank and fatal beauty of an iceberg: but whatever her incarnation, she united love and death, beauty and evil, passion and demoralization as cause and effect.

Miss Monroe, however, is either beyond good and evil or prior to it. Sex is naughty, in a way, but very nice; it is naughty only as eating candy between meals might be, or getting a tan on the beach: it’s not going to kill anyone, wreck a man’s life, cause Anthony to lose the Roman Empire, inspire Nelson to win the battle of Trafalgar; nor will it either precipitate or prevent another world war. Miss Monroe’s attitude toward herself precludes such unnecessary overcomplications: she likes herself, she likes her body, she likes men, and she is having a wonderful time.

To speak thus of Miss Monroe as an image and a symbol and a “sign of the times” is to risk seeming pompous, or jocose. The literal seriousness of the point can be made clear by citing two very different witnesses: women’s clubs all over the nation protested when, two years ago, Miss Monroe appeared in Niagara, a film in which the Falls seemed less of a natural force than Miss Monroe; and in the preface to a recent pocketbook of photographs of the film production itself, George Axelrod, enchanted enough to disregard the disappearance of his comedy, says “Marilyn Monroe doesn’t just play The Girl, She is The Girl.” But clearly the whole truth belongs to the future and future social historians: the most one can say now is that Puritanism is no longer alive enough to inspire defiance; and the new attitude which Miss Monroe embodies with such natural and joyous ebullience first began to emerge in the lyric which Celeste Holm sang in Oklahoma in which she expressed much mock-distress at being just a girl who can’t say no.

As the film of The Seven Year Itch shows, it would be wholly wrong to suppose that it does not matter what roles Miss Monroe plays, a comment which is prompted by Miss Monroe’s interest in the heroines of Dostoevsky, an author who has suddenly become the object of mortal blows from all directions, including Jimmy Durante who announces in Reader’s Digest that he can do without Dostoevsky but not without Reader’s Digest. There are many other roles for which Miss Monroe is a natural: the one principle to be kept in mind is that, as long as the moonlight of Hollywood shines from coast to coast, it is just as important to be a star as to be an actress, provided that one is not a mixture or compromise but is, like Miss Monroe, a genuine star and nothing else. Among the plenitude of parts awaiting Miss Monroe are, for example, Venus in the drama of the judgment of Paris, Pocahontas, all the girls Ziegfield wanted to glorify, and all the Miss Americas from 1920 to 1950 on the boardwalk or the beach at Atlantic City. Neurotic, unhappy-making roles such as Grushenka, Hedda Gabler, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Iris March, ought to be left to actresses more divided in mind and heart, less wholesome, and less blessed with a pure physical confidence and a beautiful innocence of heart.

The subject is one I feel so strongly about (it is a great deal less unimportant than a great many things that are wrongly supposed to be a great deal more important) that I have been inspired to conceive of two proper scenarios: in one Miss Monroe plays Lady Godiva: this is a slightly new version, for Lady Godiva’s underlying motive is to impress her horse, who has shown himself insensitive to her charms; but better by far is a version of the drama of Original Sin free of all morbidity: Miss Monroe plays Eve, the serpent (Raymond Massey) comes along with the apple, which is turned down by Miss Monroe as Eve who declares that she is getting along fine with Adam, is happily married, and needs no fruit; and then either the serpent is sent away like an obstreperous salesman or Eve uses all of her female wiles to seduce the serpent intonating the apple himself, thus eliminating Satan, purging the universe of evil, and bringing about the most overwhelming, total, and conclusive of all the happy endings Hollywood has ever filmed. A part like this would reveal how Miss Monroe differs from all other actresses. However pure and virginal they are as ingenue heroines, they seem to have by contrast an irreducible, inescapable resemblance to Mata-Hari and her Philistine forbear, Delilah.

This article originally ran in the August 8, 1955, issue of the magazine.