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August 22, 2012

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BLH

I don't quite agree with your central premise here. For one, despite its flat lighting and comparatively reserved colour palette, The Seven Year Itch strikes me as basically perfect in a formal sense. Sort of a textbook example of how to block and compose a single-set film of this variety. Although perhaps that plays into the point you're trying to make: that Tashlin wouldn't have had any interest in a textbook.

I like (love) both films more or less evenly. The Wilder is sharper and funnier, but the Tashlin has Edmund O'Brien and a bunch of immortal music. Regardless, by the time of The Apartment and One Two Three, I think Wilder was one the greatest Scope artists in Hollywood. And he kept getting better. The Fortune Cookie is more compelling with the sound turned off.

Petey

I DO agree with your central premise here.

David Ehrenstein

I don't agree -- though you make a reasonably good argument.

"The Seven Year Itch" was clearly a compromise for Wilder in many ways. The original material wasn't his and production code was breathing down everyone's neck re adultery. That same year in the film version of "Tea and Sympathy" it was required of Deborah Kerr's character that she write John Kerr a letter expalining that "what we did" (have sex to prove he wasn't gay) was "wrong." This letter didn't appear in the original play.

In the long run Marilyn saved the day for Wilder. She and Tom Ewell couldn't have sex, but she did something evern better -- her warm sexiness gave him his mojo back.

Plus there's the subway grating scene. After all these years it's as overwhelmingly iconic as ever. It's only rival is Anita Eckberg in the Trevi fountain in "La Dolce Vita."

I aodre Tashlin but his treatment of sex was wildly cartooish. Marilyn is a dream girl but she's not Minnie Mouse with tits -- as Mansfield was. "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter" are mad masterpieces, but thy're worlds away from Billy Wilder.

jbryant

I'm a bit torn here--Tashlin certainly seems like the better fit, and I have no doubt he'd have made a fine film of the material. But I've always liked ITCH a lot, flaws and all. Even the flaws are diminished when you consider the film as a time capsule of certain 50s attitudes toward sex.

As much as I love Walter Matthau, I think Ewell is great, having honed the role for three years on Broadway, winning a Tony in the bargain. Ewell's lechery is tempered by his everyman vibe; I think Matthau might've taken a less likeable approach that could've killed the laughs (or maybe I'm just having a hard time forgetting his suburban sexual predator from STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET). Ewell grew up about half an hour from my Kentucky hometown, so maybe I'm a bit sentimental about him as well.

Monroe is so delicious and funny in ITCH it's easy (maybe too easy?) to overlook the sexist conception of her ditzy character. Can't imagine anyone not loving her in this. Even hardcore feminists often give Monroe a pass, probably she was doing the best she could with what she was allowed to do.

So yeah, Wilder wasn't a great fit. But even Sonny Tufts couldn't ruin this movie for me.

David Ehrenstein

(All together now) SONNY TUFTS???!!!!!!

Peter Nellhaus

I was able to see "The Seven Year Itch" theatrically in a double feature with "How to Marry a Millionaire". Negulesco's film held up better for me.

I have some affection for Tashlin's dig at "From Here to Eternity", in his "Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell", with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller as the couple on the beach.

lipranzer

I don't know what Matthau would have done with the part - I appreciate jbryant's concerns, but I do think Matthau was capable of a more likable persona, as he showed in movies like A FACE IN THE CROWD, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE and MIRAGE - but I have to agree with Wilder about Ewell. To me, he really doesn't project much of anything, and he, along with the garishness of the look, is the reason why this is one of my least favorite Wilder films, despite Monroe and that iconic subway shot. Ewell wasn't any great shakes for me in THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT either, but at least there was more going on that I liked. I don't know if Tashlin would have done a better job with ITCH, but it's an interesting thought?

However, I do have to ask; when you call STALAG 17 and SABRINA "problematic", does that reflect on how you feel about both (I know the making of the latter certainly was problematic)? Because those are two of my favorite Wilder films.

Tony Dayoub

"I think Matthau might've taken a less likeable approach that could've killed the laughs (or maybe I'm just having a hard time forgetting his suburban sexual predator from STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET)."

"...I appreciate jbryant's concerns, but I do think Matthau was capable of a more likable persona..."

I agree with lipranzer. I think Matthau would be fine in this part. Wouldn't it essentially be the same role he played in A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN. Admittedly, it's been a while since I've seen GUIDE, but I don't remember Matthau being as unsympathetic a lech as his co-star, Robert Morse.

CSkinner

It's certainly interesting to speculate on what Tashlin would have made of the same material. I really rather like The Seven Year Itch but something about its levity and the many dream sequences never seemed quite right in the hands of Wilder, like it was perhaps too much of a strain to hit those moments in the right way.

Tashlin does seem a better fit in a way than Wilder for the material.

Not sure if you've seen Nishi Ginza Station but it's essentially Imamura's take on the same material. I mentioned it here in case you're interested - http://www.bleedingcool.com/2012/02/21/masters-of-cinema-monthly-march-2012-insect-woman-nishi-ginza-station-more-monte-hellman-and-an-interview-with-alex-cox/

It's nowhere near as good as The Seven Year Itch but it's incredibly interesting to see him tackle this kind of material too, especially so early in his career.

skelly

Great Post. Speaking of Fox Cinemascope comedies and (an uncredited) George Axelrod, I also think Tashlin would have been a better call as director than Leo McCarey for RALLY ‘ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! (Notwithstanding McCarey's producing and screenwriting credits).

D

1) I must agree with Glenn: T7YI is visually undistinguished. Growing up, Billy Wilder was my first and primary auteur (Mankiewicz was in the top three). But as I have aged and learned more (I hope), I have found along with Glenn that Wilder’s visuals are in most cases dependent on who is photographing his films. There is nothing terribly wrong with his framing or editing – serviceable is the word that comes to mind – but there always seems to be a deficit of visual expressiveness in his work. I find his late films, especially AVANTI!, to be the richest in terms of visual meaning.

Also, in many of his films, Wilder brings his European sensibility to an American subject, but Axelrod’s play is so thoroughly American, that it would have taken a complete overhaul to make it truly Wilderesque. Wilder seems to have added accent touches to a work he could not/was not allow to dismantle and reconstruct on his own terms. The play seems like Wilder material, but Tashlin would have would have been perfect for the American het male smuttiness of the material (and I say this as an admirer of Tashlin’s work).

From an auteurist bent, T7YI seems like a property Wilder took on in order to work – it is also the first film he made away from Paramount after he left the only Hollywood studio he had ever known (except for a picture or two), having worked there for 20 years (maybe another possible source of anger?). The post-Brackett/pre-Diamond period has the superb SABRINA (a film that is visually all about glass and transparency and the only comedy I know that includes an attempted gassing), but there is a lot of treading water in this period – Wilder needed not just a collaborator, but the right collaborator.

Lastly, Wilder was too much of a realist to ever be the bridge to postmodernism; Mankiewicz and others would be left to take on the task of transitioning from late modernism to postmodernism (one of the reasons JLM’s films are so rich is that he keeps the heft/texture of modernism while jettisoning its snootiness).

2) Milton Krasner also did incredible work with Mankiewicz on four films. The cinematography for ALL ABOUT EVE is among the best things he ever did.

Stephanie

In my experience feminists, hardcore or otherwise, are usually not hard on Monroe at all (and often as not women tend to respond protectively to her). I think she does a lot with a nothing part in The Seven Year Itch. Ewell's casting was probably unavoidable considering that he'd played the part on Broadway and was technically a star at this time, I guess, but he was one of those supporting actors who is better in smaller doses and doesn't have the variety or depth to carry a picture. He doesn't give Marilyn much to play against - would have been fun to see her with Matthau.

Often it can be enough just to have Monroe to gaze upon, but she really doesn't look that great here, even in that smashing white frock - partially the cinematography, but she's also heavy. The movie was probably doomed to date badly because of the material, but sure, it might have been better.

Stephen Whitty

Yes, Ewell is a drag and the jokes are poor. But Monroe is transcendent (not to evoke Lex G here, but heck, even her TOES are sexy in that first screen cap).

I think the film is also the first to show a side of her -- a warm, oddly maternal side -- that came out even stronger in "The Prince and the Showgirl," "Some Like it Hot" and "The Misfits."

The men may think they're in charge (of course), but she's really the one with the power. And that may have been the real key to her appeal -- an all-forgiving sex symbol who only wanted to tuck you into bed and take care of you...

Shamus

1. Wilder is often misunderstood as a director who never cared for the image but I find his a lot of his films (like KISS ME, STUPID) and especially in his superb late films, to be wonderfully expressive. D already mentioned AVANTI! and I want to put in a good word for PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Cinematographers for these films- Luigi Kuveiller and Christopher Challis (who they?).

2. Wilder did need a good collaborator but he is still the dominant personality behind most of his collaborated scripts. (Compare any Wilder-Brackett script with slightly shopworn quality of genteel "literariness" to the scripts Brackett signed alone, such as TO EACH HIS OWN.) Another major, major Wilder film made Brackett-less and Diamond-less - ACE IN THE HOLE.

4. I always thought that the Rachmaninoff was meant to evoke / satirically comment on certain aspects of BRIEF ENCOUNTER (a perennial analogy for Wilder).

4. But SEVEN YEAR is hardly Wilder at his peak and there is little trace of Wilder's usual themes and usual vitriol. That so-called "iconic" scene with the subway grate is the biggest goddamn letdown in the movie. But then again I could never understand the ecstatic praise for Monroe (transcendent? Or boring and ridiculously overrated?). Who finds her unrelenting stupidity to be interesting, anyway?

5. Tashlin joyously reveled in the vulgarity of his characters, without (mostly) restraint or reservation; Wilder did too, but he did equivocate at times. A small moralizing streak, perhaps.

6. So, totally agree with Glenn here, re Tashlin. Strange to say, but the movie needed more vulgarity. Wilder could not provide it.

7. A small typo:
"...The Girl Can't Help It, in which an in-his-cups Ewell imagines ex-girlfriend (and client; he plays a music agent in the film) Julie London chastizing him with "Cry Me A River" will hint at the fluidity and vitality of what WILDER brought to his assignments..."
Shouldn't that be TASHLIN?

Johan Andreasson

There actually is a Tashlin version (or rather parody) of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH in THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS:

http://youtu.be/PCGCrPvLfAo

Not David Bordwell

"her unrelenting stupidity"

I don't know how any reasonable person could attend to Monroe in ALL ABOUT EVE, DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK, NIAGARA, RIVER OF NO RETURN, THE MISFITS, or, for that matter, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and make that statement.

Unless, of course, you're a total asshole.

jbryant

Stephanie wrote: "Often it can be enough just to have Monroe to gaze upon, but she really doesn't look that great here, even in that smashing white frock - partially the cinematography, but she's also heavy."

Wow, couldn't disagree more. Monroe in '55 is only "heavy" in comparison to the stick figures we're supposed to find sexy these days.

Re Matthau: As I said, I'm a big Matthau fan. I was just idly speculating that maybe that early in his career he hadn't perfected the sly, off-center charm we associate with his 60s and 70s roles, and therefore might not have been as great a choice in '55 as he would have been a few years later. I also think that at 6'3" he might have been too imposing physically for the part as conceived. Your idle speculations may vary, of course.

Fredrik Gustafsson

Shamus wrote "Cinematographers for these films- Luigi Kuveiller and Christopher Challis (who they?)."

Considering Challis has one of the most impressive line-ups of all cinematographers I suppose you were kidding? For starters he worked with Powell and Pressburger after Jack Cardiff. Gone to Earth and The Tales of Hoffman are among those he shot. He also did several films with Stanley Donen, and he worked with Anthony Mann and Blake Edwards.

I haven't seen much of Kuveiller's films but before Avanti! he had worked for a long time in Italy, with Elio Petri and Mario Monicelli among others. His most famous film is probably An Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.

Shamus

Fredrik G., I guess an apology is probably in order but I'd never heard of Christopher Challis before (or since) I saw SHERLOCK HOLMES, let alone seen any of his other films. As opposed to, say, Joseph LaShelle or John Seitz.

Moving on- thanks, Not David Bordwell (sic), for indicating the Wittgensteinian intellect implicit in the character of Lorelei Lee. Yeah, I really missed that.
You stupid prick.

Glenn Kenny

Commenters: I understand that there are strong contrary opinions being expressed here and some seem to be expressed in an objectionable way by the lights of others, and I get that, but now that a few names have been called and all can we simmer down a bit and cease with that kinda stuff as we continue? It would be much appreciated. Thanks.

D

Shamus:

1) I would say that Wilder is a major moralist and not a minor one. It is why T7YI fails -- he could not make it realistic enough to incorporate his usual moral critique. The material was too cartoonish for his sensibility, but the only way the subject could be broached at all in the 1950's was through cartoon stylings. Wilder said in an interview at the end of his life that he wished he had that material now to work with.

2) I agree that from KISS ME, STUPID onward the visuals in his films are much more expressive (with the exception -- sorry BLH -- of THE FORTUNE COOKIE. I watched it last night and it was still as awkward as I remembered).

3) I agree that Wilder was the dominant partner in the collaboration, but somehow Brackett and Diamond brought out the best in him. I will have to dissent about ACE IN THE HOLE since, once again, the images fail on more than a few occasions.

BLH

Eh, my favorite Wilder is A Foreign Affair, so what the hell do I know? But other than that one film, I strongly prefer the Diamond years. Give me Love in the Afternoon or One Two Three over Ace in the Hole or Stalag 17 or The Lost Weekend.

Also, you guys are all assholes.

D

BLH:

In the Brackett years, A FOREIGN AFFAIR is my favorite also, and I do think his work with Diamond is stronger and wonder if it was because (in part) the collaboration went from Brackett's patrician airs smoothing Wilder's coarseness to Wilder's moral critiques softening the scathing cynicism of Diamond.

Shamus

BLH, thanks, you made me feel better. Maybe "unrelenting stupidity" is a tad harsh (although, honest to god, that's exactly what I feel after I've finished watching one of her films) but she plays both dumb and ingratiating- a deadly combination- we're supposed to be charmed that her character is so stupid.

D., I agree with you re the moralizing of Wilder but what is ONE, TWO, THREE, if not a cartoon? And it is generally a successful film, despite some broad humour: the pace and ferocity (and Cagney!) makes it hilarious. I also like FORTUNE COOKIE more than you do (although that is not exactly a politically correct film, is it?) but when someone says that they hate it... I sympathize.

By the way, have you seen Michel Ciment's interview of Wilder, where he compares Wilder to his Sherlock Holmes?

Shamus

Also, D., why do you say Diamond is more cynical than Wilder?

J. Priest

'Plus there's the subway grating scene. After all these years it's as overwhelmingly iconic as ever. It's only rival is Anita Eckberg in the Trevi fountain in "La Dolce Vita."'

I wonder if the publicity photo deserves more credit than the actual scene. I didn't see any films with Monroe until I was in high school in the '90s, but going back to grade school, most kids I knew and myself included were very aware of that image of Marilyn holding down her skirt. (It was one of the most common images published of Monroe.) When I finally saw "The Seven Year Itch," I was surprised that the actual scene had little resemblance to that photo.

D

Shamus:

1) ONE, TWO, THREE has never struck me as a cartoon -- a frantic farce in the European tradition -- yes -- but never a cartoon. Tashlin for me represents movies-as-cartoon (or at least the start of the trend which has now seemingly taken over all types/genres of film).

2) The character of Boom Boom Jackson is problematic. I give Wilder credit for trying, but time has not treated TFC well (which is the exact opposite of what time has done for KISS ME, STUPID). In some of the scenes between Boom Boom and Harry, BLH's approach of turning off the sound might be the best course of action.

3) I think I read the Ciment interview, but cannot remember for sure. Is it in the "Billy Wilder: Interviews" volume?

4) Wilder has said in interviews that Diamond was the real cynic between the two of them, even though it was he (Wilder) who got all the blame and scorn. I think his partnership with Diamond was a profound relationship for him, and both PRIVATE LIFE and THE FRONT PAGE are expressions of the intense homosocial relationship that existed. Maybe BUDDY, BUDDY is about (on one level) the indissolubility of the relationship (for both good and bad. Wilder did part with Diamond for a time when he was preparing AVANTI!, but could not get on track with anyone else and re-joined with him).

It is interesting that Wilder at the end of his career should focus two of his films on the nature and intensity of the homosocial bond -- first broached in STALAG 17 in an oblique fashion where the ability of Price to form a bond with the other prisoners allows him to be effective as a spy. Only Sefton -- the outsider who does not bond -- everything for him is transactional rather than relational -- is able to determine the truth about him (and here Wilder's visual sense does not fail him -- the reveal is visual and the audience is aware of the intense camaraderie that is taking place just off-screen. Sefton's exclusion which results from not bonding is what saves the day).

D

From the Department of Brian Does Not Have Enough on His Mind:

From the films LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON to FEDORA (12 titles), Alexandre Trauner was credited ether as Art Director or Production Designer on eight occasions with the following exceptions: THE FRONT PAGE (Henry Bumstead); AVANTI! (Ferdinando Scarfiotti); SOME LIKE IT HOT (Ted Haworth) and THE FORTUNE COOKIE (Robert Luthardt).

Maybe Billy Wilder's visuals were also only as good as his Production Designers as well.

Shamus

D.,

1. I cannot think of a lot of European films that are anything like ONE, TWO, THREE, but I assume that you are referring to stage farces. (If you know if it, could you direct me to the source play / anything similar?) Wilder may be in the European Tradition but the central actor, in whose antics he is reveling in, is played by an actor who is unmistakably and irreducibly American; the film itself owes a great deal to Cagney's pre-code and immediately post-Code films like FOOTLIGHT PARADE, the wonderful JIMMY THE GENT and his gangster films, naturally. Given the multitude of allusions in ONE, TWO, THREE, it is fair assumption that Wilder was perfectly aware of these influences (his screenwriting roots, in a way). This may not be a fair guess but I would venture to say that with ONE TWO THREE, Wilder was attempting some form a 30's film on the Cold War.

2. The best parts of TFC is with Matthau and the private dick anyway. The Lemmon scenes are more pathos ridden and, well, boring.

3. It's packaged as an extra for Criterion's ACE IN THE HOLE.

4. Sadly, those are just about only the three films of Wilder I'm yet to see. One detail, though- a lot of Wilder's early films assimilate and reproduce Murnau iconography of the City Girl and the Village Girl (and everything that signifies) with the male protagonist oscillating between the two. The homosocial relationships (as you put it) between the two men (say, Keyes and Neff) provide the structure for the plot. But Wilder increasingly reverses and softens this construction in favour for a female character between two strikingly different male types (from SABRINA onwards but especially in SHERLOCK HOLMES, APARTMENT, FORTUNE COOKIE, and even, in a way, KISS ME STUPID), so the focus of Wilder's gaze seems to shift to fiercer examination of the men (and male vices) and a more sympathetic look at the women (TFC, naturally, excluded). I wonder if this male camaraderie you refer to, is some form of byproduct of Wilder's shifting concerns.

D

Shamus:

1) The first playwright who comes to mind is Ferenc Molnar who (upon checking) was the author of the source play for ONE, TWO, THREE. Wilder Americanizes his Hungarian source material with Cagney and the pace of 1930's Warner Bros. films. I would also recommend Georges Feydeau.

2) I had forgotten about Keyes and Neff (bad cinefile!). I think you are right about Wilder shifting his focus - which may explain why I prefer his later films. Wilder's best subject is men and their desires/complications. You can also see it in the difference between SUNSET BLVD. and FEDORA -- SB is about Joe and Norma with Norma getting the edge (though it may not have started out that way script-wise). FEDORA's focus is Detweiler -- Fedora (or should I say her incarnations) is ultimately the mysterious object that Detweiler never succeeds in unraveling. As Wilder allows himself to focus on men rather than women, homosociality and its manifestations takes center stage.

In his book, Crowe asks Wilder if he is a misogynist and Wilder responds that he doesn't know while Wilder's wife says yes.

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