Sunday, August 28, 2016

Growing Up in America: American Movies in the 1950s (Part 2)

Billy Wilder, itchy and hot for Marilyn

By Rolf Dumke

The Seven Year Itch (1955). This film must have excited millions of adolescents and men in America and in the world in the last sixty years. It has an iconic scene etched in my memory. Marilyn Monroe is standing on an iron grate before a shop in New York City when a rumbling subway thrusts its way through the tunnel below, causing cool air to explode upward through the grate to swirl up her wide, white summer dress. She tries to push it down, to contain the swirling skirt and limit exposure of her thighs, smiling and giggling in delight, because the cool blast is so pleasant on a hot day.
    She also enjoys the scene, enjoys dancing before the appreciative working men in the street. It was a few seconds of unashamed, natural enjoyment, and an innocent erotic scene. I am sure many men searched long to find a similarly carefree, amorous woman, a veritable dream. Repressive religion and conventional morality prohibited any such freedom in the States until the 1970s.
    Actually, The Seven Year Itch is a film about how to survive on hot, humid summer days in the urban canyons of New York before general air conditioning. Billy Wilder knew how Europeans suffered the beastly heat in the city. He craftily designed Marilyn Monroe’s strategy to survive, like cooling her panties in the ice box, or to cool off by descending down the stairs through an opening in the floor, to the neighbor below who had a wonderfully functioning air conditioner in his apartment.

I remember hot summer days when our family visited New York in August 1958, on the way to Connecticut to visit relatives who had immigrated a couple of years after our family landing in 1952. It was incredibly hot! There was only one escape, to vanish into the refrigerated bars and restaurants, or movie theaters. Lobbies of expensive hotels were also air conditioned. But most of the working class inhabitants lived and worked in this hot oppressive environment.
    One afternoon we visited a German immigrant family in their small apartment on the fifth floor of a public housing complex on the lower East side of Manhattan. It was unbearably hot. The wife was distressed, not only by the heat, but also by the failure of her husband and children to adjust and cope with the trials of life in New York. Her eldest son had gone insane as a result. We joined her to see the young man in a mental hospital on a green campus in a town north of New York. Her son was exuberant to see her, but incapable of understanding where he was and why he was contained. When we and his mother left he was crying. We last saw him, calling, sobbing, and screaming out of a second floor window, clutching its iron barriers as we walked back to our car.
    We returned to Manhattan in late afternoon to our separate lodgings in the large Manhattan YMCA, the cheapest clean lodging my father could find near our mother’s inexpensive women’s hotel. Soon after taking showers we were sweating again. Luckily, the theater of Radio City Music Hall was air conditioned and one could be free of the oppressive heat and enjoy the Rockettes, a giant line of girls, kicking up their heels to dancing music.
The Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall,
Rockefeller Center, 1950 [source: Daily Mail]
    The gay dancing girls were a shocking contrast to the day’s grim reality and suffocating heat. Wilder never handled the down and out in his films. There was no way of making them fun.
    This was my second experience of New York City after our first visit of New York Harbor in June 1952, when we were astounded by NYC’s grandeur and monumental power. In the meantime, we had learned to survive in a less monumental, but also difficult environment in Cleveland’s Hough District.
    A year later, I drove our family in our new car to NYC and to our relatives in Watertown, Connecticut. As a new driver, I had to face irascible New York taxi drivers and people switching lanes with abandon. As soon as I came out of the Holland Tunnel from New Jersey, incensed car drivers behind me started honking furiously at every turn because I gave pedestrians too much time to cross the street. I stalled the car in the middle of my first right turn and earned a rousing symphony of critique.
    We also learned that there was an established German town around E. 87th Street, with shops, restaurants, butchers offering German food, good bread, and unsalted, fresh butter. We stayed in a German-owned, reasonably priced hotel with decent rooms. In the evening we went to a dining hall with a ballroom to eat German food, drink beer, and dance. All of a sudden, living in the City was manageable and fun.

The Seven Year Itch’s preoccupation with the possible philandering of a man, an editor of a press, who remains home in the city in the dead heat of summer to work, after sending wife and son to a summer camp, seemed quaint even then. Nevertheless, with his wild imagination and hopelessly complicated overtures, Tom Ewell plays a good, bumbling partner for Marilyn Monroe’s unconcerned sexuality. Ewell’s scheme, to seduce her by playing Rachmaninoff’s sultry piano concerto, is simply brushed off by her. The real men in the film are the apartment janitor and the editor’s psychologist, who show undisguised interest in the new blonde tenant. Billy Wilder was disappointed not to be able to make a more complex man of his protagonist and free him from his adolescent limitations, but motion picture censorship of the fifties stopped it. (“The Making of the Seven Year Itch” – available on YouTube – is a good description of how the film was made, with interviews of Billy Wilder, who describes the incredible Hollywood movie censorship, especially of the scene with Marilyn Monroe's billowing dress. And, for more information about Wilder’s career in Germany, see the German Wikipedia article on him.)
    The film is, thus, a harmless American comedy of errors, but one that allowed Marilyn Monroe to shine. The title, “The Seven Year Itch,” reflects psychologists’ presumed experience of a rise of infidelity in male patients after a marriage becomes stale, but that assessment sounds like useless folderol. However, it allows a bemused expert opinion on the silly character’s conundrums: Ewell’s psychologist and director Wilder both argued, go for it!
    Nevertheless, a search in official statistics of the US Census Bureau’s study, “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009,” by Rose M. Kreider and Renee Ellis, published in 2011, shows, in Table 8, “Mean Duration of Marriages for People 15 Years and Over by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2009,” p.18: “Duration of first marriage for those whose first marriage ended in divorce: duration of 7.8 years for white men, 7.9 for white women.” For black persons and other ethnic groups, first marriages last a half year or one year longer.
    Fox News was one of the first to point out the interesting fact, “Census: Divorces decline but 7-year Itch persists.”
    A recent study by Helen Fisher, “Is there a biological basis for the 7-year itch?” in Scientific American, January 1, 2015, actually finds a four-year itch, world-wide, if you look at the most frequent result, not the usual average, which was seven years:

I began studying world-wide data on marriage and divorce and noticed that although the median duration of marriage was seven years, of the couples who divorced, most did so around their fourth year together (the ‘mode’). I also found that divorce occurred most frequently among couples at the height of their reproductive and parenting roles – for men, ages 25-29, and for women, ages 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 – among those with one dependent child.
    In contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, Fisher states, women bear children about four years apart. In those societies, after a child is weaned, at around age four, there is a care structure by older siblings and relatives. This allows unhappy couples to break up and find more suitable partners with whom to have more children. “Serial bonding” produces offspring with greater genetic diversity, an advantage.
    Fisher’s thesis is that “the four-year peak among modern humans may represent the remains of an ancestral reproduction strategy to stay bonded at least long enough to raise a child through infancy and early toddlerhood. Thus, we may have a natural weak point in our unions.”
    At the beginning of Wilder’s film, the Indians of Manhattan see their wives and children paddle off in canoes to cooler islands each hot summer and then to chase after the young women who have stayed. It is an ancient social pattern, which may not have been copied exactly in today’s world, setting up an enticement that hounded the meek publishing executive in the film, and for which there is now scientific proof.

Some like it hot (1959). This film is one of the best American films of the 20th century. Billy Wilder’s humor and bizarre, playful ideas make fun of American mobster history and of sex roles, where men are dressed as women and are, in part, taken seriously by a persistent suitor. There is a great plot, and many excellent scenes come to mind. (A 25-minute short film available on YouTube provides an informative view of the movie’s best scenes.)
    The casting is superb. Jack Lemmon, as “Daphne,” the lugubrious bass player, the suave saxophonist Tony Curtis, and a wonderful Marilyn Monroe as “Sugar Kane,” lead singer in a ladies’ band, are tops. The mobsters look evil and real, gunning down opponents in the historic Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929. Later in a seaside Florida hotel, they are both evil and wily, when a second group of mobsters is massacred at a birthday party by a machine gunner rising out of the giant birthday cake. The mobsters’ search for the two musicians who witnessed the 1929 massacre put them in a bind. They must hide and disappear. What could be better than to dress up and join a women’s band for the Florida season?
    The second great scene shows the two dressed-up men in wigs, walking ashamed and unsteady on high heels, carrying bags and instruments, wobbling alongside the train they are supposed to board. They pause, look at each other and decide wordlessly, this is too demeaning, even to save our lives, and turn around to leave. Then they run straight into Marilyn Monroe as “Sugar Kane,” the ukulele player, who is late and fetchingly out of breath. Curtis and Lemmon pause again and look at each other. In less than a second Marilyn’s beauty sways their judgment. When they see her run to board the train, wiggling between two hot blasts of steam, neatly avoiding both, they turn and run after her, the steam locomotive already bellowing – a great hint of the scene of Monroe’s swaying and staying in a blast of cool air in The Seven Year Itch. What an immaculate, well-crafted scene!
    The next series of scenes put the drag bassist and sax player in a top, curtained row in a sleeping compartment with all the ladies of the band in the same railway car. They hasten to get a place next to “Sugar,” both of them vying for her attention, especially when the girls haul out bottles of liquor and a merry pyjama party takes off. Given their curious disguise, it is funny to watch them try to top each other with mannered stories in falsetto and with wild gestures. A massive tickling attack on Lemmon by the girls provides an inescapable predicament: enjoy it and be found out to be a man with an erection and be thrown out of the orchestra, or what? He pulls the emergency brake, which stops the train and ends the scene. Excellent!

    I would dearly have joined them in that pyjama party, like hordes of other teenagers and men.
    I think that all men became enchanted by Marilyn Monroe singing “I want to be loved by you, only you.” She sings well in her breathy way and moves to the music enticingly. See the wonderful YouTube version, recently seen by over two million men!

    Marilyn’s sexy and breathy singing is a prelude to her later celebrated song, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” at John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday party, in Madison Square Garden in March 1962, the year before he died. Marilyn was 35 years old, only months away from her own death, on August 5, 1962. The birthday occasion was enjoyed by half of America’s population, and can still be enjoyed on YouTube. (Note the huge birthday cake that is carried in for the President: it is very similar to the big cake from which the mobster emerges in Some Like It Hot.)
    In Florida, Sugar says she is searching for a rich man to marry, after her past disappointments with saxophone players. A real millionaire with an anchored boat, Osgood Fielding III, is in the audience when the band plays in the hotel. He falls for “Daphne,” the bass player, and showers “her” with flowers and presents, which Tony Curtis steals to secretly give to Sugar  with a greeting from him, as “Junior, of Shell Oil.”

    When Osgood invites “Daphne” to visit his yacht and have dinner, Tony Curtis persuades “Daphne” Lemmon to stay on land and dance tango with Osgood all night, to keep him away from his yacht. A wonderful dancing skit follows later. Curtis, as Junior on the yacht, makes a fine impression on Sugar. He tells her a sorry tale: he has lost all feeling for love and would marry the first woman who could reinvigorate his spirits. Sugar takes up this challenge eagerly with heavy kissing and caresses – a dream for all men! Curtis is finally persuaded and both are very happy. (Unfortunately, in this scene Marilyn Monroe looks a bit clumsy.)

    The next day in the hotel, the attending Fellows of Italian Opera, the Chicago mobsters, discover Curtis and Lemmon, who flee to Osgood’s yacht with him and Sugar. Sugar has found out Curtis’s real identity and philosophically accepts her future with yet another “phone player” while Jack Lemmon tries to dissuade Osgood from a future with him. To Lemmon’s strong arguments, “I smoke” and “I can’t get children,” Osgood responds, “You’ll learn to stop” and “We’ll adopt some.”
    Then, to make his case with the strongest possible argument, Lemmon dramatically pulls off his wig and states, “I’m a man.”
    Osgood is not nonplussed and his reply is stellar, “Nobody is perfect”!

Still to come:
Part 3. Hitchcock thrills with North by Northwest
Part 4. US and German postwar movies compared
Links to previous installments in approximate historical order of contents:
Copyright © 2016 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Two super movies and super reviews.


    1. I also enjoy two other great comedies directed by Billy Wilder, The Apartment, 1960, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and Irma la Douce, 1963, also with Lemmon and MacLain. They are precious, funny films.

  2. Rolf has brought to my attention yesterday’s BBC article by Nicholas Barber, “Why Some Like It Hot is the greatest comedy ever made,” from which I give the opening paragraph:

    In 1958, Tony Curtis was at a Hollywood party when Billy Wilder took him aside. Wilder was planning a film about two musicians who dress up as women to join an all-girl band, and he asked Curtis to play one of the musicians. Curtis was overjoyed, but he wasn’t sure why such an illustrious writer-director would want to use him. “You’re the handsomest kid in this town,” said Wilder. “Who else am I going to use?”