The Seven Year Itch, by Albert W. Vogt III

One of the more iconic moments in cinematic history features Marilyn Monroe in an alluring white dress standing over a subway vent, the breeze of a passing underground train sending the fabric aflutter.  When I was studying for my Ph.D. at Loyola University Chicago, there was a larger-than-life statue of this scene on Michigan Avenue near the National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) building.  I bring up this piece of public art to illustrate the way in which society remembers culture, and specifically Monroe.  There is much that seems to escape these sorts of cursory tributes to bygone figures.  For example, the original blonde bombshell was not entirely the ditz we take her to be, though she played the part because in her day she was entrapped by male sexual desires that made her rich and famous.  It is a part she played in life and in movies, and she perhaps played it too well.  One of her roles that helped solidify this carefully crafted image is the movie that most people forget about, but is the source of the aforementioned sculpture: The Seven Year Itch (1955).

The Seven Year Itch is about a stupid concept invented by men to explain and externalize their extramarital philandering.  Before I go further, I should mention that this is presented as a comedy, but I will talk more about that later.  To further entrench the notion that wandering male affections are perfectly normal, there is a slightly racialized scene of Manhattan native peoples, with wives going away with families in the summer, and husbands chasing after the first shapely form that walks by as soon as the others have left in their canoes.  The suggestion is that this tradition continues in the modern day.  Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), a publishing company executive, is determined not to fall victim to his base desires.  After taking his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and son Ricky (Tom Nolan) to the train station to begin their vacation in Maine, Richard heads straight home.  He is full of advice from his wife to calm his overactive imagination, which involves not smoking or drinking, though he is tempted from the start due to their ready availability.  What adds to his struggles is the appearance of an unexpected upstairs neighbor, a model and commercial actress referred to simply as “the Girl” (Marilyn Monroe).  Almost immediately, he has to fight fantasies about her.  Trying to get them out of his head, he opens a manuscript his company is thinking of publishing from renowned psychiatrist Dr. Brubaker (Oscar Homolka).  Richard also receives a phone call from his wife telling him that she and Ricky made it to Maine safely.  Tacked onto this brief call is the fact that one of his company’s current writers, Tom McKenzie (Robert Strauss), is also there and spending a lot of time with Richard’s family.  This emboldens Richard, though only in his dreams, to tell his wife how irresistible he is to women.  In real life, a tomato plant accidentally knocked off from the floor above jars him out of his reverie.  The Girl apologizes, and he invites her down for a drink.  The fantasies keep coming, and he pictures her in an exquisite evening gown, him playing Rachmaninoff at the piano, and her being so overtaken that they begin to make love.  In reality, they have champagne and potato chips and they end up banging out “Chopsticks” on the keyboard.  Nonetheless, this proves too much for Richard and he makes an awkward pass at the Girl.  He is quickly overcome with guilt and asks her to leave.  The next day at work, with every married man seemingly having the time of their lives with their families away, Richard meets with Dr. Brubaker to discuss his book.  It is about the supposed naturalness of men to have an affair around the seventh year of marriage, and this is the year Richard has reached.  Between this meeting, what he is seeing from his peers, and the constant imaginings of what his wife is up to in Maine with Tom, Richard resolves to give in to the “itch.” Later that evening, he takes the Girl to the movies, which is when you have the iconic scene mentioned in the first paragraph.  Yet, when they get back to his place, she cannot resist taking her ease in front of his air conditioning, a feature she does not have in her apartment.  She quickly falls asleep.  That night, Richard dreams of Helen returning home and exacting deserved vengeance on him for his flirtations.  The next morning, with the Girl having arisen and preparing breakfast, he resolves to leave for Maine, telling her that she can stay in the apartment for the rest of the summer.

It will probably not come as a surprise that, as a practicing Catholic, I take issue with the supposition in The Seven Year Itch that cheating on wives is “normal.”  The Church has some pretty serious words it associates with marriage, like vocation.  Vocation is not something you do on a whim, like an extramarital affair, here today and gone tomorrow.  It is a lifelong commitment, and with it is the promise to help your spouse get to Heaven.  That is eternity, by the way, not a weekend spent with the model upstairs.  Still, I understand the theme.  While I do not believe this is solely experienced by men, having sexual desires is perfectly natural.  Our eyes can even wander to gaze upon those to which we are not committed.  What matters is how we act on those impulses.  Though Richard does, to a certain extent, triumph over his desires, the suggestion is that men are essentially animals in their instinct to pounce on any pretty girl that happens their way.  Movies like this, and I would argue pornography today, feed into this incorrect way of thinking.  It is not how God created us.  Catholicism views God as a Trinity, one in three.  As we are called to reflect God as much as we can, marriage is meant to do the same thing.  Who would be the third person?  God, of course, and as these unions are supposed to be procreative, the act of producing children seals the bond.  Such ideas seem positively lofty in comparison to the near miss in the film.

The Seven Year Itch is presented in a light-hearted fashion, and there are moments at which I chuckle.  At the same time, there are aspects of it that I take seriously because of my Faith.  Men (and women) are not animals.  We are human beings with an intellect that, if properly aligned, can give us victory over the things that connect us to other organisms capable of independent movement and sex.  As such, chalk this one up as simply a bit of trivia whenever Marilyn Monroe’s name is mentioned.

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