The career-defining image of Marilyn Monroe standing on the subway grate, her dress billowing upward from the rush of a passing train, is the rare kind of iconic moment that swallows its surrounding movie whole. It’s easy to forget that this scene is just the most memorable example of a running theme in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch: the diligent efforts of Monroe’s character to keep cool in a sweltering New York July, careless of the effect her body has on middle-aged married man Tom Ewell. Even easier to forget is how this scene begins: with Monroe and Ewell exiting an air-conditioned movie theater showing Creature from the Black Lagoon. A latter-day Universal creature feature released the previous year, the film might have attracted Wilder with its mellifluous, pulpy title alone. The reference is just a tossed-off gag in a movie that also contains of-the-moment references to Riot in Cell Block 11 and From Here to Eternity. In considering Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Seven Year Itch for a “Double Feature” post, I honestly wondered how much I would have to say. But I submit that there’s at least a little more to link these films than meets the eye.
The primary similarity is that these films are both about buried desires, in classic 1950s Hollywood fashion. The Creature and Tom Ewell’s Richard Sherman are both leering, awkward, and ultimately doomed suitors. They represent two somewhat different categories of male lust. The Creature has been described as an adolescent, bewildered by his body’s new power and inarticulate about his drives. Sherman, as per the movie’s title, has been married for seven years and has grown restless and bored with his stable family life. The censorship of the Production Code had something to do with thwarting these characters’ wishes, but audiences of the time would have had reason to accept the conventional approach anyway. The Creature dies because that’s what happens to monsters in movies. Sherman fails to commit adultery with the reigning screen goddess of the time because, as played by Ewell, he’s a bumbling, neurotic drip. Still, the inamoratas in these movies, whether played by Monroe or Julie Adams, are not without sympathy for their pursuers.
It must be admitted that the Creature is a bit of knockoff of monsters that came before it, at least in terms of its function in the story. The two titans, 1931’s Frankenstein and 1933’s King Kong, with their essential insight that perhaps the monster is victim rather than villain, inform his every move. Adams’ character, Kay, only half-understands that maybe this guy isn’t so bad — then again, he tries to violently abduct her twice. Even so, if we take just a short step back from the film, things look pretty clear. The Creature is minding his own business when a bunch of people barge into his home and, almost immediately, try to kill him. He couldn’t begin to explain his interest in Kay, but if the other two main male characters weren’t so fixated on knowledge and money, respectively, they might figure it out on their own. As the lush underwater cinematography by Charles Welbourne testifies, the film understands the Creature better than the other characters do.
For the most part, The Seven Year Itch takes the opposite approach to its protagonist. The entire running time is devoted to contrasting Richard Sherman’s inflated self-image with the more embarrassing reality. Wilder delights in dangling Monroe in front of this character and seeing him flail about in response. Still, there’s more than a little indulgence for Sherman’s benefit as well. The allusions to Creature from the Black Lagoon follow an interesting arc. They begin in Sherman’s guilt-stricken fantasy life, as crude self-deprecation. (Wilder at least understood the Creature as a warped romantic interest.) That Sherman later decides to take the unnamed girl to the movie in real life is another jab at the character, but then Monroe delivers a pivotal monologue. The girl, appropriately, feels sorry for the Creature and grasps that he’d been misunderstood. At film’s end, she’ll expand this thought in Sherman’s direction, professing that sensitive, outwardly unimpressive men are actually her favorites. In a sense, this is one final twist of the knife into Sherman, the idea that she absolutely could have gone for him, in spite of his obvious defects. But he gets to put this knowledge in his pocket and also take the high road, reuniting with his family.
There’s a distinct, and perhaps not wholly intended, snobbishness on the part of The Seven Year Itch toward an entertainment like Creature from the Black Lagoon. The sci-fi-/horror/thriller and the romantic comedy have obvious differences in emphasis, but Wilder in particular takes active delight in expressing himself verbally in his films. Creature doesn’t really have all that many clunky lines, but certainly the dialogue is focused on setting up crises and showdowns, or else reassuring the audience that there’s important cultural significance at work in this story of a fish-man. The opening scenes in the two films are illustrative. They’re both prologues set in the distant past. In Creature, it’s a pyrotechnic creation-of-the-universe primer, setting up the monster as a groundbreaking scientific finding. The movie has distended ambitions, making vague comparisons between deep-sea exploration and space exploration, traveling from the beginning of time to A.D. 1954 and back again. (The protagonist’s journey into the misty cave at the end is really something to see.) The Seven Year Itch deflates exactly this kind of pomposity by making a historical reference just for the sake of another throwaway gag. Richard Sherman sends his wife and son away to cooler climes as part of a Manhattan summertime tradition that, we are led to believe, predates the settlement of Europeans there. Verbal irony is the dominant force, an explicit rejection that what follows will have any “importance.”
In their opposing ways, these films reflect the anxieties of their times. On the level of form, the anxiety concerns the fading cultural dominance of cinema, and so there’s 3-D for Creature and Technicolor CinemaScope for Itch. And of course there are cultural anxieties, with all the protagonists returning to safe, traditional relationships by the end. From one angle, it’s easy to see the idyllic and conformist stereotype of 1950s America in these studio-set, somewhat hidebound productions. But if we look more closely, we can see the fear of imminent change. To Creature director Jack Arnold, in line with the conventions of his film’s genre, this fear is good. It can sober us up and prepare us. To Wilder, it’s a bit silly and clueless. From his perspective, all that a man like Richard Sherman (or the Creature for that matter) needs to do is see himself clearly for once.