The Seven Year Itch

The film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, (dir. Howard Hawks – came out in the US the same year as the Kinsey Report – 1953. First Playboy out then too). It is famous for many reasons, but for me most importantly because it made movie stars into export commodities. This kind of export – crucially, like the arms trade, one of the few with a US surplus relative to imports – refers not just to the face of Garbo as make-up vehicle, as discussed in the now equally commodified Roland Barthes essay; but rather, with this film, the image of Marilyn also commodifies all women (see the Marilyn Reader, and Luara Mulvey’s essays). It makes a cosmetic America the standard model for women in Europe, bereft of menfolk, seduced by G.Is with nylons and looking for alternatives to war.

Cinematic commodification of woman has a long history. The possibly apocryphal story that Griffith invented the close up, of an anonymous leading lady. All the way to: Your Look Hits My Face – Barbara Kruger’s street billboards and The Face, the airbrushed, streamlined mass commodity, glamour puss into todays rent a face model scene (and leave Kate Moss alone, arrest Robbie instead).

So Jane Mansfield and Marylin Monroe belong to those who brought glamour and relief to post war Europe, and did so in the interests of retail. The Monroe thing is not sex, its commerce. Dancing for the Marshall Plan. As Lily Marlene did ideological work for NSAP Germany, Garbo was sold back to them by Hollywood, so now, Monroe becomes the white supremacist’s dream date – but the dumb blonde swaps sex/Love for money/diamonds routine is stale, and it didn’t take Madonna’s tribute to Marylin to let us know she was the Materialist Girl or to emphasize the economic investment of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War.

In the last interview she did for ‘Life’ magazine, Monroe said: ‘That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing and I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I would rather have it sex’. But it wasn’t to be – Sex transubstitutes for dollars.

Monroe starred in the Seven Year Itch (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955). The movie starts with a mock documentary voice over explaining that 500 years earlier in Manhattan Indian males packed their squaws off to the hills for the hot summer months.

I am not trying to be funny here, but the obvious sexual readings apply where Marilyn stands above the grate over the subway enjoying the rush of air as the train passes underneath. Curiously though, in this scene she does not look at her co-star Tom Ewell at all, but is rather absorbed in her own pleasure. Tom, publisher of 25c paperbacks, is the hapless male onlooker immediately after they come out of a screening – the film hoarding lit up behind them informs us – of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Poor dim Tom. Laura Mulvey draws attention to women’s pleasure in her essay … here its possible to discern that pleasure again in the somewhat unusual pacing of the subsequent sequence. Marilyn seems to be waiting for more, but not from her leading man. She is looking slightly off camera, as if at an audience, and though on the pavement outside a screening of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, there should be no audience, there clearly is (in the film documentary Norma Jean and Marilyn such an audience cheers as if at a football game).

Marilyn has explained to Ewell that she will be on television and after a discussion about the chances the ‘Creature’ has for being loved and wanted – a close-up of Marylin then Ewell is seen fixated on her ankles. She looks away.

He says – and I think this is crucial – ‘you sound like a commercial’. There is a kiss, in fact doubled, then a cut to Marilyn walking through the door to her apartment block waving Ewell’s hat as if that previous scene was way too steamy. The apartment upstairs, which we have already learnt is filled with African sculpture, is also hot like a ‘Turkish bath’. Ewell manages to get Marilyn into his apartment with the promise of air-conditioning in every room – heavy innuendo.

He is about to become a duck, a Freudian, an orator and a prude, trying to justify his seduction with psychoanalysis. After all the savagery in the film starting with Manhattan Indians, Turkish Baths, African statuary, he then wonders what he will talk about with Marilyn and speculates aloud about Freud and the human predicament: ‘what shall we talk about … psychoanalysis’ which leads him to speculate that ‘under this veneer of civilization we are all savages’. Marilyn meanwhile, in a syncopated monologue, is thinking of shopping, sleep, being cool, sleeping downstairs… Ewell responds to her not so innocent suggestion with ‘there are savages and savages, but that could be too savage’.

They are interrupted, of course, by the representative of working class uncouth lust, not far removed from the routines of Ewell, who, just as he dithers over the impending sex act ‘there’s such a thing as society you know’ [improbably anticipating Margaret Thatcher’s famous line in reverse]. He answers the door to the janitor – there is a scene in which Marilyn’s legs are iconically registered, and she is described, by the janitor, as a ‘living doll’. Of course the resolution involves Ewell’s return to his wife, after denying the ludicrous idea that he might have Marilyn Monroe in his kitchen. She’s there.

An aside for the publisher. The Ewell character is considering bringing out a book on psychoanalysis by a typically stereotyped German professor. Similarly, in The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks) Humphrey Bogart investigates the death of Geiger, an antique books proprietor, or an underworld figure. In neither case is the book trade interesting enough to carry the plot. Though there is an incomparably great literary exchange with Lauren Bacall:
Bacall: ‘I thought you worked in bed like Marcel Proust’
Bogart: ‘Who’s he?
Bacall: ‘French writer, you wouldn’t know him’
Bogart: ‘Well, come into my boudoir’.

Of course the best scene between Bacall and Bogart has Bacall explaining to Bogart how to reach her: ‘you remember how to whistle Steve, don’t you? Just put your lips together and blow’. No-one can condemn Bogart for having no possible comeback to that line.
Some Like it Hot – another great film, this time with amazing scenes of the gaze, but cross dressing galore, and an ending that even today most film production houses cannot come close to.

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  • John Hutnyk  On 18/10/2007 at 6:58 am

    Two great quotes from an edited version of Last Talk With a Lonely Girl: Marilyn Monroe by Richard Meryman, first published in Life magazine, August 17 1962

    Friday September 14, 2007
    The Guardian

    “you’ve read there was some actor that once said that kissing me was like kissing Hitler. Well, I think that’s his problem. If I have to do intimate love scenes with somebody who really has these kinds of feelings toward me, then my fantasy can come into play. In other words, out with him, in with my fantasy. He was never there.
    It’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies but you also like to be accepted for your own sake. I don’t look at myself as a commodity, but I’m sure a lot of people have. Including, well, one corporation in particular, which shall be nameless”

    “I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of!”

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