Marilyn Monroe, and her most famous photo that caused ripples, generated a media wave previously unheard of in Hollywood. The image captured is a part of a scene that was meant to be fun and innocent. What transpired, in reality, was far from it.
When I first looked at this photo, I was in my teens and instantly captured by Marilyn Monroe’s aura. After watching nearly all her movies, many years later, I got to know her via books and documentaries. I realised there was a story, a pivotal one, that would change her life in totality.
There comes a time in one’s life when you have to pick a direction while at the crossroads. For Marilyn Monroe, the Seven Year Itch was the movie as the events unfolded during the making paved the path she would take in her remaining years.
The movie’s success took Marilyn Monroe to the peak of her powers as an actress and made her Hollywood’s most significant sex symbol. This meant Marilyn no longer had to rely on ‘dumb blonde’ roles. She had the liberty to choose her career path, an opportunity Marilyn didn’t let pass.
The movie ‘The Seven Year Itch’ was based on George Axelrod’s 1952 famous Broadway play about a married man who has an affair with an attractive upstairs neighbour. The play was a hit, and it was slated to run continuously for three years. Many in Hollywood were eager to cash in the play’s popularity and make a movie out of it.
The movie industry in the 50s did not enjoy artistic freedom and was overlooked in the theatre. The plot of Seven Year Itch in its original form would have been rejected by the Hays Office (censor board for Hollywood). The play was a success yet provocative enough for many Hollywood studios to back out and not risk the Hays Office’s wrath.
Billy Wilder, the Oscar-winning movie maker, was known for his skills to circumvent the Hays Code and yet make mass movies on controversial topics. Remember the film, The Major and the Minor, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard?
He purchased the play from George Axelrod, and the game was set to motion. Twentieth Century Fox won the bid to produce the movie as they had Marilyn Monroe in their roster.
On the back of successes such as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire, Marilyn was touted as Hollywood’s most famous sex symbol. Among others, she was featured on the cover of the first-ever Playboy magazine.
The selection of the character ‘Richard Sherman’, who was to appear opposite Marilyn Monroe, was a tricky one. The name was quintessential, and even man, straight, average, and not necessarily handsome. A lot of A-list Hollywood actors were not considered as a result.
Tom Ewell, who had successfully played Richard Sherman on Broadway, won the role. The odd-pairing of Ewell and Marilyn was to be showcased as the ultimate man’s fantasy.
Sam Shaw, a world-famous photographer-producer and friend of the famed Hollywood director Billy Wilder, came up with the famous skirt lifting scene. He approached the producer, Charles Feldman, who agreed the idea would be sensational – giving great publicity and zest to the movie. Feldman discussed it with director Billy Wilder, George Axelrod, the screenwriter, and Marilyn Monroe. They all said, “Let’s do it!”
When the Seven Year Itch began filming in September 1954, Marilyn Monroe was no longer the movie industry’s greatest sex symbol. She was the world’s most famous newly-wed. Her marriage to baseball’s icon Joe DiMaggio made global headlines. His career with the New York Yankees was over while Marilyn’s career had just started.
“Joe had understandable, somewhat old-world ideas about women staying at home, having babies, and dressing rather demurely. But that isn’t what Marilyn wanted. Marilyn wanted a career.” – said Donald Spoto, one of the many biographers of Marilyn Monroe.
On 15 September 1954, due to an advance issue released by Fox’s publicity team, many fans and photographers had lined up to witness the proceedings. Little did anyone know, they were about to see history being made, Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic scene and a signature shot that is revered to this day. On the flip side, the unfolded events also drew curtains to her marriage with Joe DiMaggio.
The now-iconic scene was scripted this way: Tom Ewell and Marilyn came out of the Trans-Lux movie house on Lexington Avenue. It was a night scene. It was a warm September evening, and they stopped on a subway grating; when a train would pass by, the air could cool Marilyn off.
Marilyn was wearing a sheer-white, billowy sleeveless dress. When the subway train roared by, it would send up a blast of cool air. There was a subway grating there all right, but everything else was make-believe. No train passing by, but the air blowing up was done by the special-effects people stationed underground with a wind-blower machine. This sent Marilyn’s dress flying waist-high, revealing her legs and white panties. As a precaution, she wore an additional layer of underwear.
A crowd had gathered even though it was early in the morning. They consisted mostly of men who somehow had heard about the late-night film-making. Among the crowd was Joe, Marilyn’s husband, and his famous friend, Broadway columnist Walter Winchell.
At first, it was all innocent and fun, but when Billy Wilder kept shooting the scene over and over, the crowd of men kept on applauding and shouting, “More, more, Marilyn – let’s see more.”
Joe became upset, mostly when the director’s camera kept coming in, focusing only on Marilyn’s privates. Luckily, she had been wearing two pairs of panties, hoping nothing would show through.
The whistles and the yelling from the male audience became too much for Marilyn’s husband. It was like a burlesque show. What was to be a fun scene turned into a sex scene, and Joe, angry as could be, turned to Winchell, shouting, “I’ve had it!” And the two men took off.
Once those retakes were done, Marilyn turned to Wilder and said, “I hope all these extra takes are not for your Hollywood friends to enjoy at a private party.” Marilyn couldn’t imagine them showing such a scene, especially such a close-up of her private area, in a comedy film made for the family audience.
Marilyn was right. When they returned to Hollywood, the scene was re-shot at the studio in a more refined way. The footage that was shot on that night in New York never saw the light as it had issues with the sound recording.
The posters and publicity created hype around the scene; however, the Hays Office had the final say, and the end product was nowhere close to the sensation it made on the wee hours of 15 September 1954. Watch the re-worked scene here
Apart from the Hays Code, other organisations such as the National Legion of Decency had the power to influence millions of church-goers (Catholic) not to watch movies that were condemned by the Legion.
Gerald Gardner, an author and film historian, explained their behaviour – “People like Marilyn Monroe are always a threat to the moralists and establishment who were trying to protect their fellow men against an excess of passion.”
He added – “There is no doubt that when you can cast a charismatic, appealing and sensual personality like Marilyn Monroe, you are bringing a lot to the film. True, he (Billy Wilder) lost the adulterous relationship, true he lost Axelrod’s wittiest lines – but in place of that he did have Marilyn Monroe.”
Although the movie became a success, the famous skirt lifting scene proved fatal for Marilyn’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio. Joe admitted he still loved her but Marilyn being a movie star was too much for him to take any longer. He became impossible to live with. At that time, there was nothing left for them to do but get divorced.
The movie wrapped up the shooting in November and was released on June 1, 1955, on Marilyn Monroe’s 29th birthday. On the back of even bigger publicity, any Hollywood movie had ever received up until that point, the massive success of the film catapulted Marilyn’s career to newer heights.
Sam Shaw’s idea was great publicity for the film. The photo of Monroe’s dress flying sky-high made every newspaper, every magazine in the world. For the film’s premiere showing at New York’s Loew’s State Theatre, its four-story building facade was covered by an artist’s rendition (52 feet) of that famous dress-blowing scene.
The blonde image of Monroe was all people thought about her. She didn’t like it, and in the next few years, she was involved in more serious projects that showcased her versatility. Marilyn had achieved a stardom that granted her the right to pick the directors and a say in scripting.
It has been close to 54 years since Marilyn’s abrupt death. I was born three decades after her death; I have remained a big fan of hers for over a decade. Her manner of death has divided opinions to this day and the real story, well, I believe it went with Marilyn. And, all we are left with are those beautiful memories.
Happy 90th, Marilyn!