STORY OF THE SHOT
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH
MARILYN MONROE, STANDING on a subway grate, cooing in delight as her white, pleated skirt billows around her hips. It’s an image so iconic that it’s been riffed on by everything from Pulp Fiction to The
Tigger Movie. Other tributes have been more elaborate. In 2011, artist Seward Johnson created a 26 foot-tall, 34,000lb statue of the moment which has been displayed in New Jersey, Chicago and Bendigo, Australia. More bizarrely in Japan, villagers from Inakadate, a prefecture of Aomori, paid homage to it in 2013 with a 140 by 100m recreation in a rice field made from nine different types of rice.
Yet, when he captured the moment while shooting The Seven Year Itch on 15 September, 1954, Billy Wilder took a while to realise just what he had. “I was so stupid, because we were looking for a representative ad,” he told interviewer and superfan Cameron Crowe, “and it did not occur to me that this thing, where she’s kind of trying to keep the dress down, that this is it!” The set-up: having just seen The Creature
From The Black Lagoon, married Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) and The Girl (Marilyn Monroe, whose character is never named) exit the Trans-lux Theater in Manhattan on an illicit date and, as a subway train passes below, a breeze blooms her skirt. Yet, rather than rushing to cover her modesty, she boldly revels in the moment. “Isn’t it delicious?” she asks, perhaps rhetorically. The result is multi-faceted: a provocative encapsulation of Monroe’s appeal, a totem for a 1950s Hollywood (male) fantasy, and a fleeting depiction of onscreen joy that belies the pain coursing through Monroe’s offscreen life. And, of course, it graces the film’s poster.
The shot was initially captured in the earlymorning hours on the corner of Lexington and 52nd Street. Some 1,500 spectators and photographers watched Wilder put Monroe through 14 takes. “At first it was all innocent and fun,” recalled Monroe. “But when Billy kept shooting the scene over and over, the crowd of men kept on applauding and shouting, ‘More, more Marilyn — let’s see more.’ What was supposed to be a fun scene turned into a sex scene.” Monroe took steps against inadvertent exposure — she doubled up on two pairs of white underwear — but all for naught: legend has it the loud cat calls ruined the sound recording and led to the scene being re-shot under controllable conditions on the Fox lot.
The iconic white dress — actually ivory-coloured rayon acetate crepe, because white registered grey on film — was created by Monroe’s go-to designer William Travilla, who dismissed it as “that silly little dress”. In 1971, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds bought the dress for $200. In 2011, when Reynolds auctioned it off to stave off bankruptcy, it went for a silly little $4.6 million. Some itches, it seems, never go away.
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