I'm not really one for speculative film criticism, or concocting alternative histories of cinema, but I have to own up to a thought that hit me while checking out the new Blu-ray disc of The Seven Year Itch, the 1955 comedy directed by Billy Wilder and starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. Which was that the film really would have been better off having been directed by Frank Tashlin than Billy Wilder.
Wilder, who'd later direct Monroe much more effectively (albeit under much tougher circumstances for the star) in Some Like It Hot, allowed to Cameron Crowe that he did not number Itch among his favorites. He didn't go into much detail, but admitted that he was under loan to Fox at the time. And Fox was Daryl Zanuck's house, and Zanuck was, among other things, all about the Cinemascope. As much as I admire Rudy Behlmer's essential book Memo From David O. Selznick, I rather wish that he had been able to do an equally exhaustive job with his similar book on Zanuck, then maybe I'd able to formulate a more supportable theory pertaining to the executive's ideas concerning comedy and Cinemascope. But it seems to me that just as early non-comedic Cinemascope pictures were all about Biblical pageants and historical drama (a cursory look at the largely abysmal 1954 Desiree, with Marlon Brando a Napoleon, reveals that, aside from snakes and trains and funerals, Cinemascope was a natural for coronation sequences), even to the extent that Zanuck himself got sick of it (writing to Elia Kazan with respect to some pitches the director had been obliged to send Fox, Zanuck passed on Oedipus Rex and allowed that he was "personally" "fed up with material of this sort"), Cinemascope comedy (and to a lesser extent, musicals) for Zanuck spelled S-E-X. Which of course seemed a natural fit for Wilder, except, let's say, for those capital letters.
Reviewing the Monroe Blu-ray set for the New York Times recently, Dave Kehr, never what you'd call a Wilder man, calls The Seven Year Itch "ugly and shallow" and notes disdainfully that Wilder "doesn't even bother to give her a name." This is not quite fair to Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay with George Axelrod, adapting Axelrod's hit play. Itch came after two problematic pictures, Stalag 17 and Sabrina, and doesn't seem like a comfortable next step when looking at Wilder's filmography from an auteurist bent. Wilder told Crowe: "I was angry there." One wants to read a little more into that, but it turns out he was angry for a specific reason: he wanted a young actor named Walter Matthau for the part of the would-be errant husband, and Fox made him go with Tom Ewell, who, by Wilder's lights, "wasn't a bad actor[...][h]e was Tom Ewell." Wilder also wanted a scene that would make clear that the infidelity flirted with was actually committed. But no.
But there's also the matter of the broad allusiveness of Axelrod's farce, which, cinematically, Wilder approaches from a huge remove. The picture opens with a mock history of Manhattan which posits the "hunting season" for Native Americans once inhabiting the island was taken up by, um, squaw-hunting. The treatment of the "joke" is studio-flat:
Similarly, as Ewell is later reflecting on his own imagined magnetism, a reminiscence of a beachside tryst is rendered as a spoof of the then-infamous legs-together passion-in-the sand scene in 1953's From Here To Eternity; the most amusing visual signifier here is Ewell's Mack-Sennett-era swimsuit.
Wilder never made any bones of the fact that he became a director so that he could protect the integrity of his own scripts, and the visual interest of his films is inextricably tied to whatever cinematographer he was working with at the time. Some might argue that John Seitz deserved a co-director credit for Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Five Graves To Cairo, films he lensed for Wilder that happen to be among the director's most visually arresting. The Seven Year Itch was shot by Milton Krasner, hardly a slouch, but also someone who seemed to take his cues from the director, doing his best work with guys who were generally strong visually (Minnelli, Ray, Preminger). In any event, it's telling that the one pastiche scene that takes off is more of an overt character transformation than a pop-culture spoof. When Ewell's character imagines the effect that Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto will have on his potential conquest (it is an interesting sociological note that the petit bourgeois middlebrow of '50s NYC is painted as being conversant with classical music to the extent that it's a lingua franca, and that mainstream audiences are expected not to be alienated by this) the room darkens and Ewell turns into a gray-templed longhair while Monroe becomes a vamp whose vampiness is hammered into helplessness by the swoony notes.
Later, when Ewell's character is confronted, in his paranoid fantasy world by gun-brandishing wife Evelyn Keyes (rather cruelly frumped up a mere four years after driving Van Heflin crazy with lust-rage in Losey's The Prowler), it seems as even the idea of giving the sequence some noir styling never even occured to Wilder and company. That sort of thing was just not his kind of comedy. Even the nudges togangster-picture genre conventions in Some Like It Hot were incorporated in an almost anti-pomo way. And when Wilder deploys some Vidor-quoting quasi-expressionism in the opening scenes of the widescreen black-and-white The Apartment, it's in the service of a pretty specific idea.
Which is not to say that Frank Tashlin's stylistic flourishes are empty. They are absolutely not, and in fact in a lot of cases they eventually serve the function of fleshing out the caricatures contained in his deliberately cartoonish movies. Kehr complains that Monroe is a "barely humanized set of body parts" in Itch, but then again, she's not a dislikable one. In any event, the one-dimensionality of Monroe's part can't be laid entirely at Axelrod's feet. Wilder told Crowe "the picture was good for the invention of that girl, The Girl who is always hot." In both The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? the oversized Jayne Mansfield is first made to serve that function in an exaggerated-beyond-credulity mode, AND revealed to be rather different from what he appearance suggests. It is no accident that both of those films represent the apex of the Fox Cinemascope-Technicolor comedies, which make it all the more frustrating that they don't figure in Behlmer's collection of Zanuck memos (Tashlin doesn't get a mention either.) Where Wilder, as a default mode, kept character and dialogue at the forefront of his filmmaking, Tashlin's vision incorporated character and color and geometry in the same ball of energetically creative wax. The screen grabs from 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. I certainly hope this film gets a Blu-ray treatment. (Speaking of which, the Itch screen caps are also from the standard-definition disc of the film; the new Blu-ray it quite an upgrade, and highly recommended).
UPDATE: I was hoping these musings would kick up a good discussion, so I'm gratified that they have. I agree on the transcendent powers of Marilyn Monroe, and much else. I'm also glad to hear from my old friend Joseph Failla, who offers these thoughts: