Reality says she's way out of his league. Entertainment tradition says she isn't.
Above you see a poster for the Marilyn Monroe comedy The Seven Year Itch, which we're taking a close look at today because it's a pulp movie. No, really. It isn't a pulp movie in a standard way, but how can we ignore a film, even though it's a comedy, that happens to be about the pulp industry? Perhaps some of you have forgotten this detail, but co-star Tom Ewell plays an editor at a 25¢ publishing house, where among other important duties he repackages literary classics with sexy, good-girl-art covers. If you look just below, Ewell's secretary Marguerite Chapman displays the company's latest reimagining—a racy makeover of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. They've featured scantily clad women in the art, and added the tagline: “The secrets of a girls dormitory.” So even though thousands of online scribes have written about The Seven Year Itch, its setting in the pulp publishing realm demands that we discuss it too.
But of course, pulp is merely the backdrop; the movie is really all Monroe. We know it comes across as anachronistic to some viewers, but this film is completely modern in at least one important way. The trope of a schlubby everyman scoring with—or at least turning the head of—a woman much more beautiful than him is still a linchpin of American entertainment. Let us count the examples: There's Something About Mary, Big Bang Theory, King of Queens, She's Out of My League, Night Shift, Forrest Gump, Bewitched, Superbad, Knocked Up—in fact, anything with Seth Rogen in it—and not to be forgotten, both Beauty and the Beast and Lady and the Tramp. In all of those, the female love interest, whether human or cocker spaniel, is objectively too beautiful for the lead male. It's a trope that has always worked, and probably always will because it's primarily males who are marketed to in cinema and television.
In The Seven Year Itch the hot girl/ugly guy theme is doubly funny because Ewell's wife is played by Evelyn Keyes, and she's supposed to be, we guess, not out of Ewell's league. Uh huh. Hollywood, right? Keyes is plenty hot, though of course she's no Monroe. Cue eyeroll from our girlfriends. They aren't clear on why so many men find Marilyn attractive. To them she's a little fat, which is no surprise from the perspective of our pint-sized better halves, but the weight of actresses varied greatly during the mid-century era, from the zaftig Jayne Mansfield to the reedy Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn was somewhere in the middle of the voluptuous range—i.e. not fat. However, her weight did fluctuate. In Something's Gotta Give she was thin enough to be about perfect for current sensibilities. She made any level of poundage look good though, because, first and foremost, she was impossibly cute. This look right here:
Those blue eyes of hers that are pointed in slightly different directions. That's hot. That look also captures Monroe's go-to instrument as an actress—an expression that conveys an expectant, scrubbed, and somewhat (but never totally) naive sex appeal. Having watched her dramas as well as her comedies, there's no doubt her gift was for the latter. Her comedies are unimaginable without her, and she was in her own class. Bardot played the same kittenish character at times, and Demongeot, and other actresses, but Marilyn was simply the best. The Seven Year Itch showcases an eternal star shining her brightest, as she plays a twenty-something aspiring actress who moves in upstairs from the klutzy Ewell, whose wife is away for the summer. Monroe proceeds to unknowingly fuel all sorts of male fantasies that—surprise—start to come true, as the lack of air conditioning in the upstairs flat has her increasingly avoiding it in favor of Ewell's. The way the script is built, with each encounter between Monroe and Ewell another line on the way to potential infidelity is crossed, until the crossed line becomes literal when Monroe discovers that the apartments—which had once been a single two-level residence—are reconnectible by pulling some nails out of the floor where a staircase had been closed off. The possibility of actually living with Marilyn is a delicious dilemma, ingeniously lifted right out of the male id by director/writer Billy Wilder and co-writer George Axelrod. The movie obviously isn't totally wonderful. Some see it as sexist, and certainly its opening sequence of actors painted up like a native American tribe is pure minstrelry, but just like people, movies can harbor out-of-date ideas without being malicious. As long as that line isn't crossed, we can appreciate both The Seven Year Itch, and how far we've progressed since it was made. It premiered today in 1955, and you can see a couple more excellent posters here and here.
The clock strikes trouble in Dick Powell crime thriller.
Above is a beautiful poster for the vintage film noir Johnny O'Clock, which starred Dick Powell at the height of his fame, and was probably greenlighted due only to his presence. The plot and script could be better, but Powell and his co-stars Evelyn Keyes, Thomas Gomez, Ellen Drew, and Nina Foch are all excellent, and the result is a twisty little noir that starts with power games inside a casino operation, but evolves into the suicide of a casino hatcheck girl, and an investigation by a cop working from a mistaken set of assumptions. Keyes plays the showgirl sister of the unfortunate suicide who jets into town, her arrival nudging casino manager Powell from indifference to curiosity about the death. Not that Powell has much of a choice in the end—the cops become extremely interested in him when the suicide turns out to be murder, his main rival turns up dead, and he's suspected of both crimes.
So the movie eventually falls into the familiar pattern—Powell needs to uncover the truth even as the cops are trying to put him behind bars; Keyes has the hots for a gangster though she's presumably old enough and smart enough to know better; Powell has gotten along fine without a conscience for years, but now Keyes is pressuring him to make the right choices; and finally there's that old film noir obstacle jealousy, ultimately the deciding factor in so much. But familiar as these ingredients may be, Johnny O'Clock manages to mix them into a decent movie. It isn't the best from the film noir cycle, but it's worth the time to watch it. As a side note, you know those old cartoons where a gangster flips a coin over and over, flipping it and catching it with the same hand? This is probably the movie where it originated. Powell is a master with that coin. And he's a master of film noir too. Johnny O'Clock premiered today in 1947.
Evelyn Keyes goes from jewel thief to disease vector in The Killer That Stalked New York.
Above are a couple of excellent posters for the drama The Killer That Stalked New York, one of which features Evelyn Keyes on a high ledge. The movie is sometimes classified as a film noir, and we really don't mean to act like pain-in-the-ass purists, but we don't consider it a film noir. Plotwise, it deals with a jewel smuggler who unknowingly brings smallpox from Cuba to New York City. Keyes smuggled the jewels in for her boyfriend, but when she turns them over to him the sneaky fucker absconds. Keyes knows he has to sell them in the city, so she tries to track him down and prevent him from stiffing her, even as doctors notice that people are falling ill, manage to identify the culprit as smallpox, and try to decide how to stop the spread of the virus. Obviously, there are numerous parallels and ironies involved in watching this in the COVID-19 era. Carl Benton Reid as NYC's health commissioner: “Anyone not vaccinated is liable to get the disease. If they still refuse to submit, then tell them what they face.”
Of course, smallpox had a 30% per-case death rate compared to 1.6% in the U.S. for COVID-19, but mention that difference to people who've watched others die and see what reaction you get. What 1.6% represents, aside from a death rate, is a level of suffering at which tens of millions of adults shrug and refuse to take a shot to help save lives—at least 775,000 dead in the U.S. and counting, each of them a real person, not just a statistic. We've lost two close friends to this virus, neither in a so-called high risk category, and so has PI-1—whose friend spent weeks on a ventilator only to finally succumb to brain death. She had a six-year-old daughter. That kind of disaster kills not just the victim, but quite possibly forever harms families and loved ones.
Keyes reaches the point where her smallpox makes her like a dead woman walking, but she won't drop until she's found that chiseler of a boyfriend and made him pay for crossing her. What The Killer That Stalked New York ends up being is a crime procedural-turned medical thriller-turned double-layered chase movie. Keyes is a great, unsung star, and her willingness to uglify herself shows her commitment to the art of storytelling, but even so, the movie could be better. The two layers of story are required, because it's only Keyes' criminal status that causes her to run around dodging the cops—and by accident spreading the virus—however the film maybe should have done away with its framing narration and public service feel. At least it has Keyes. Nothing dims her luster for us—not even a mediocre script, dark rings under her eyes, and a layer of fever sweat. The Killer That Stalked New York premiered in the U.S. today in 1950.
Killer virus? Whatever. I'll take my chances. Hi, is it too late for big government to save my ass? Update: It's illuminating to lurk on the Facebook pages of COVID skeptics. The farther we get from the height of the epidemic—when there were literal mass graves in New York City—the more people seem to think they're smarter than doctors and virologists. Someone we know put up a photo of a convenience store with a plexiglas screen separating them from the clerk, and railed against the precaution, calling it dumb and all the rest: "What's the point? She touches my stuff anyway when she scans it! God, people are such stupid sheep!"
People in the comments agreed. It was illustrative of social media bubbles, and how self-centered people are, and how ego shapes their thinking. It never occurred to anyone in the thread that the plexiglas screen is not for customer, but for the clerk.
The customer comes and goes, and, in their genius, scoffs at the screen and determines that it's useless. But after this genius has left, the clerk they've forgotten is exposed to another customer, and another, and another, up to hundreds a day. Some of those customers probably carry COVID, but the screen will at least prevent them from coughing or sneezing on the clerk. The upshot of the entire Facebook thread was, “I don't see how this plexiglas screen helps me!” Well, it doesn't help you. It helps the person who does the essential work that keeps you fed—and skeptical. One has to marvel at people.
Social critique lurks in the dark corners of Evelyn Keyes film noir.
This unusual poster was made for the film noir The Prowler, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1951 starring Evelyn Keyes and cinephile fave Van Heflin. When a woman reports a prowler one of the cops that responds to the call becomes infatuated with her and decides to make her his own, despite the fact that she's married. The process of claiming her involves him forcing himself upon her, but this being a mid-century drama, after the fade to black we fast forward a few weeks and the two are now having an affair.
This is the set-up of the film, not its story arc, so we haven't given anything anyway in terms of major plot points, however we wanted to mention the preamble because it's uncomfortable viewing—though we should note that the film doesn't present this behavior as normal. It also seems clear that Heflin is able to pull this off specifically because a fizzled Hollywood career has made Keyes' character vulnerable, and she's unhappy in a marriage that she agreed to for reasons of security. So if you watch the film don't get your hackles up. In order to condemn behavior it's useful to show it, and that's what Heflin's manipulations are all about.
But there's more going on here than just a noir drama about a bad man and a targeted woman. The movie was written largely, if not wholly, by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and he always has a deeper message. Here's a notable line of dialogue concerning bad police officers: “It depends on what you think a cop's job really is. I figure that the job of a cop is to protect lives. Now some of these trigger happy guys, they think they have to protect things.”
Hmm. Relevant to today? Quite possibly.
Often you can identify a film noir by the simple fact that the lead male is screwed, and gets progressively more screwed as the movie unfolds. The Prowler reverses the formula and places Keyes in the screwed role and makes Heflin a sort of homme fatale, a sociopathic manipulator determined to get what he wants no matter the cost. What he wants is Keyes, and he'll destroy her marriage, her self respect, her mental stability, and any other pillar of her existence to have her. And of course, in so doing, he'll risk losing what humanity he has and descending into soulless desolation.
Evelyn Keyes was a talented performer. We've seen her several times now and she always kills it. Thanks to her and others The Prowler is a well acted movie. It's also beautifully shot. It was directed by Joseph Losey—soon to be blacklisted along with Trumbo, so presumably they were on the same page concerning social critique as cinematic subtext. Millions of average Joes made the same gripes as Trumbo and Losey, and millions of average Joes still do today. But when filmmakers weave a narrative tapestry that calls America broadly corrupt, trouble with the empty suits in Washington D.C. always looms.
Here's a parting shot from Trumbo: “So I'm no good. But I'm no worse than anyone else. You work in a store you knock down on the cash register. The big boss, [he cheats on] the income tax. [Politician] sells votes. The lawyer takes bribes. I was a cop. I used a gun.”
Don't criticize America like that! People will think you're a communist.
I have been re-educated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I am happy. America is perfect.
She's at the top of the scale.
We're big fans of return engagements, especially when they look like this. So here's Evelyn Keyes reprising her first femme fatale appearance, which was back in January of 2013. Keyes was a versatile actress, playing a mocking wife in The Seven Year Itch, an ambitious city girl in 99 River Street, and a quirky genie in A Thousand and One Nights, among many other roles. She's been great in everything we've seen so far, and has become one of our favorites. This excellent promo photo dates from around 1950.
A thousand and one nights with Evelyn Keyes is not nearly enough.
Above, the U.S. poster for A Thousand and One Nights, which we talked about in detail last year. The movie starred Evelyn Keyes as a wish-granting but mischievous genie, and Cornel Wilde as the lucky owner of her lamp and undeserving object of her affection. Terminally cute, this one, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1945. As a bonus, there's the magical Keyes below making herself disappear (behind a hat).
Is there anything worse than an itch you can’t scratch?
The Seven Year Itch is one of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic roles. She’s great in it, but the movie is stagey and clunky and some of its humorous elements haven’t aged well. But Monroe successfully personifies temptation as the upstairs neighbor of married schlub Tom Ewell, and her sexy-but-virginal interplay with him demonstrates once again that she was a uniquely talented comic actress. There’s also really no way to overstate her beauty, nor the ease with which she inhabited these sorts of oops-I-made-you-love-me roles. Simply put, she made everything better, and did it with skill and something more—pure magic. The promo shots below show her famed upskirt scene, which, by the way, never occurs in quite this form in the film. Onscreen we only see her legs twice and two reaction shots. Not sure why director Billy Wilder made that decision—the whole of Monroe is surely better than just a part, no? The German title of the movie was Das verflixte 7. Jahr, which means “the cursed seventh year,” and the poster you see above is from the West German re-release of the film in 1966. The Seven Year Itch, with Monroe, Ewell, and Evelyn Keyes, originally premiered in West Germany today in 1955.
When Evelyn Keyes comes out of a lamp, is there really any need to wish for more?
The unusually beautiful French language poster above was made for the Belgian run of Aladin et la lampe merveilleuse, which was originally produced in the U.S. as A Thousand and One Nights. Some of the other posters for this set-in-Baghdad musical adventure are excellent too, such as the one you see at right (presumably made for the French run), but the version at top is the best—and rarest.
The art also manages to convey the mood of the movie quite accurately—it’s ninety minutes of cheeseball musical numbers, Vaudevillian slapstick, and Cornel Wilde caught in the world’s silliest love triangle. All of this is slightly marred by the unfortunate sight of white actors hamming it up with brown shoe polish on their faces, but that's to be expected in a Middle-Eastern themed movie made during an era when actors of color were more-or-less barred from cinematic roles.
On balance, the movie is a real mood lifter, but the whole effort is just a little too stupidly sweet for us to truly call good, with a bit too much syrupy baritone crooning from Cornel Wilde (or more likely his voice double), and too much of the various love interests making cow-eyes at each other. But Evelyn Keyes as the troublemaking genie is a fun touch. She makes the movie worth it. Aladin et la lampe merveilleuse premiered in the U.S. in 1945, and played for the first time in France/Belgium today in 1949.
Evelyn Keyes puts the common handkerchief to uncommon usage.
American actress Evelyn Keyes started in film in 1938 and came to wide attention in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Later she appeared in movies such as Johnny O’Clock, 99 River Street, and The Seven Year Itch. This great shot pairing her with a haystack and wearing a swimsuit put together from handkerchiefs was probably made around 1950.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
1910—First Seaplane Takes Flight
Frenchman Henri Fabre, who had studied airplane and propeller designs and had also patented a system of flotation devices, accomplishes the first take-off from water at Martinque, France, in a plane he called Le Canard, or "the duck."
1953—Jim Thorpe Dies
American athlete Jim Thorpe, who was one of the most prolific sportsmen ever and won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football at the collegiate and professional levels, and also played professional baseball and basketball, dies of a heart attack.
1958—Khrushchev Becomes Premier
Nikita Khrushchev becomes premier of the Soviet Union. During his time in power he is responsible for the partial de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, and presides over the rise of the early Soviet space program, but his many policy failures lead to him being deposed in October 1964. After his removal he is pensioned off and lives quietly the rest of his life, eventually dying of heart disease in 1971.
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