The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch (1955) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 04/09/2016

It may not be among Billy Wilder’s best films, but I became enamored of The Seven Year Itch and have long counted it among my favorite movies.  Of that hardly complete nor organized list of favorites is the other Billy Wilder/Marilyn Monroe movie, the superior and wonderful Some Like It Hot (1959), which, unlike The Seven Year Itch, was a favorite since my earliest years.  My first movie star crush was on Monroe’s Sugar Kane.  Either her or Julia Adams from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

I got hooked on The Seven Year Itch somewhere along the way in the 1980’s or 1990’s, catching it on AMC back when AMC played actual American movie classics uncut and uninterrupted by commercial.  It was one of those movies that I would stumble upon and wind up watching all the way through.  And I came to enjoy it more and more.

Tom Ewell is a lot of fun as the husband at home in New York City on his lonesome for the summer while his wife and “space cadet” kid are upstate on vacation.  His Walter Mitty-like fantasies run amok, imagining all kinds of affairs, both his and his wife’s, and other whimsies painted out.  But when Marilyn Monroe shows up as the sexy neighbor upstairs, in perhaps her most affable and iconic dumb blonde role, that seven year itch gets going.

Apparently, the film was tamed a good deal by the Hays office, stymieing the the sex into innuendo and declawing the story.  Still, Monroe is such a riveting screen presence, voluptuous and kittenish, a cartoon fantasy still alive in her reality.  I was a bit reminded of Tex Avery in the storytelling and style, like his T.V. of Tomorrow (1953), with the fantasy elements spreading out across the CinemaScope width.  Heck, even the joke in the film about CinemaScope.

One thing that annoyed me was the when the film opens, the version was in CinemaScope, featuring the animated credit sequence by Saul Bass (fantastic!), but then cropped down to a “normal” letterbox format.  Which was oddly bizarre.  Not fullscreen but still rectangular?  And the images were clearly all cropped with some really wonky bits.  Wilder was using the full scope of CinemaScope.  Super annoying in my humble little opinion.

This was a rainy day watch for me and the kids.  An unusual little streak of re-watching a handful of my favorite films and showing them to the kids for the first time.  I spend most of my time watching movies that I haven’t seen.

Still a favorite.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 02/15/2015

Was there ever a better American Hollywood filmmaker than John Huston?  John Huston didn’t quite measure up in the original auteur theory, but damned if it doesn’t seem like the most ripe peach for a hot debate on the topic.

A few years back, I began watching John Huston films in some earnest and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if they aren’t almost all entirely brilliant.

The Asphalt Jungle wasn’t Huston’s first noir, but it has become one of the original or most classic heist films around.  Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett , it’s a gritty ensemble film, with a slew of great character actors and tremendously effective cinematography and framing.  Rock-frickin’-solid.

You know, I don’t have a lot else to say.  Great movie.

All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve (1950) movie poster

director Joseph L. Mankiewicz
viewed: 10/08/2014

I began this year with a plan to see many of “the great movies” of all time that I had never seen.  And I was charging through this list until I got sidetracked with my parallel scheme to watch “the worst movies of all time.”

Well, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve started coming up in a variety of ways, highlighting that the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture 1950 was one of those movies that I just had never seen.  Not for lack of knowledge about it.  It’s one of those films that’s packed with lines and snippets that you’ve heard out of context throughout time.  And it’s also one of those films that I recall referenced in The Celluloid Closet (1995).

If you are like me, and haven’t seen it, here’s a brief recap of the story.  It’s set in New York’s theater world where Bette Davis is Margo Channing, middle-aging grand dame of the stage, surrounded by her coterie which includes Celeste Holms and Hugh Marlowe as Karen and Lloyd Richards, the latter of which is her top playwright, Gary Merrill is Bill Sampson, her boyfriend and director, and Thelma Ritter as Birdie, her maid.

Into this world steps conniving Ann Baxter (Eve), who seems to insinuate herself innocently enough, humbly enough, until she’s found to be trying to take over everything from Margo.  And with the help of the superb George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, influential columnist, she pretty much does.  It’s the dark side of show biz, ya know.

It’s a pretty impeccable film from an old Hollywood perspective.  Great performances, snappy dialog, and memorable moments abound.  Certainly worth its salt.

The homophobia aspect of the film is curious.  In 1950, the implied homosexuality of some of the characters is highly codified but nowhere outwardly explicit.  I would be willing to think a more modern audience might have that whole subtext pass them by. But it has long been a point of contention around the film, what it all signifies or was meant to signify.  I don’t know.  I think a reading that is oblivious to that aspect of the narrative wouldn’t necessarily harm the film at all.

At least I’ve got another film off my list of “I can’t believe you’ve never seen X”.

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/18/2013

I have fond memories of this movie from childhood, watching it with my mom.  I’m wont to say that it was one of her favorite films, but I’m don’t remember that specifically and she’s no longer around to ask.  But it’s easy enough for me to think that. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe.  Maybe it’s not Howard Hawks’ personal best but it’s still good fun.

Grant plays an absent-minded scientist, married to the lovely Rogers.  He’s working for a lab trying to evoke a sort of “youth formula”, a fountain of youth serum, which his elderly, eager boss, the hilarious Charles Coburn is keen to try out.

Testing on chimps has led nowhere.  That is, until a chimp gets into the act, mixes a serum and dumps it in the water cooler.  Then Grant takes a shot of his test serum (washing it down with the water cooler water) and suddenly he’s a vivified as a teen.  He runs off with Coburn’s sexy secretary, Monroe and plays hooky, buying a sports car, roller skating, and high-diving.  Getting into a lot of trouble.

When he comes down from his high, Rogers gets in on the act, testing the waters herself (still thinking it’s Grant’s formula and not the water doing the work).  She becomes playful and histrionic and more screwball silliness ensues.

And then, toward the end, drinking up a pot of coffee made with the water, Rogers and Grant revert to childhood, getting more and more silly and deeper into their shenanigans.

Clara wound up getting pretty into it.  Felix thought it was a bit “weird”.  I think it certainly has its moments.

Rogers is vibrant and funny and has a very amusing scene where she balances a glass on her forehead as she lies down on the floor and rises again without tipping it over.  Grant’s comedy is typically charming.  Besides Some Like It Hot (1959), I think that this was the only other film from which I was really familiar with Marilyn Monroe as a kid.  It’s a small role and the classic dumb blonde.  But she’s sweet and charming too.

Still, the best element of watching the film was recollecting seeing it with my mom.  It was very much of her era (she would have been nine when it came out).  And it was nice to watch it with my kids, rounding out the experience.

Some Like It Hot

Some Like it Hot (1959) movie poster

(1959) director Billy Wilder
viewed: 09/03/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It’s no secret that Some Like It Hot is a great film.  Heck, it’s one of those perennial placements of top film comedies of all time on notable lists throughout criticism.  It was selected by the Library of Congress back in 1989 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.  It’s a well-known and much-loved entity.

And I love it too.

For as long as I’ve been listing such things, I’ve put Some Like It Hoton my lists of favorite films, a list that I try to keep short, since it could be so long.  But the thing about the film for me is that I’ve liked it since I was quite young.  I’m not 100% sure how old I was when I first saw it, but I’m willing to guess around 7 or 8.  And it spawned for me my first movie star crush…on Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane, and oddly mainstream thing for me.  I thought Jack Lemmon was hilarious and I thought the whole thing great fun.

On those notes, not much has changed.  It had been years.  And I mean years since I’d last seen it.  In the interim, I’d developed a liking for another Marilyn Monroe/Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch (1955), which became one of those films that when I’d stumble on it on cable, I’d usually find myself watching all the way through no matter where I’d come in.  But I honestly couldn’t recall the last time that I’d actually seen Some Like It Hot.

When I first noted that it was playing at the Castro, I debated about taking the kids to it.  It had been so long before that I’d seen it, I wasn’t so positive how they would respond to it.  But at the same time, I had these twinging sensations about sharing a movie that I’d loved at their age and had continued to love and I was really curious as to how they would find it.  As things turned out, an early release from work before Labor Day weekend put me at the theater on my own, making the decision for me.  Though I may still screen it for them sometime soon.

It’s the funny thing about this day and age versus the day and age in which I was 8.  Thirty years makes a lot of difference in a lot of places, but perhaps it’s the more subtle changes in life that strike most poignantly at times.  I mean, at age 8, we had a television set that got at most 7 channels, no way to record or capture something to watch at your own leisure.  No way to go out and grab just any film in the world and watch either.  You basically watched what came on and were much more beholding to the whims of the schedulers.  And then I had my mom, who looked out for movies that she thought I’d like and helped me find what I might want.

My kids on the other hand, well, they have few channels too.  But that is only because their mother shuns cable and satellite.  But the channels that they have don’t play lots of old movies and television shows and actually, they don’t hardly ever watch it.  All of their watching is “managed”, “selected”, and supervised.  Luckily or unluckily, they have me selecting and screening a wide variety of films and talking to them about them in detail.  Perhaps then the big difference is self-discovery versus “planned exposure”.

Something else kind of funny is that when I saw it as a kid, the movie was not quite 20 years old, and I watched a lot of old movies back then, but it seemed like something from a perhaps far older era.  Perhaps that is just childhood myopia.  But now, it’s 50 years old, and it seems to still emanate from a time beyond beyond, a much different world (it does purport itself to be set in 1929).  When I think back to the temporal proximity of the film’s 1959 release and my late 1970’s viewing, that seems not such a long stretch of time.  And somehow, still, I watch it with partially the same eyes.

Well, that tangent aside (and my apologies for it), but seeing Some Like It Hot again for the first time in years was just as wonderful as before.  Perhaps I didn’t find it a constant comedy laugh-riot (it’s more spread out than that, though some scenes have the rat-a-tat quick verbal gags as any screwball comedy).  But it’s high points are sublime.  Jack Lemmon is pitch-perfect in every moment.  Marilyn Monroe is luscious and funny and somewhat if not greatly tragic and sad.  It’s funny as hell, lively, clever, and beautifully photographed.

It’s Billy Wilder.  And it’s Billy Wilder at his level best.

It’s a great, great, great movie.  And one that I’ll be sharing with Felix and Clara before too long.

The Misfits

The Misfits (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. John Huston
viewed: 12/19/08

Among many other tropes this year, I’ve been watching/rediscovering/discovering for real the first time director John Huston.  For some time I’d had interest in seeing The Misfits, both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe’s final film.  As with many things, I let the conversion of many tropes and interests meet and give opportunity where no opportunity had yet arisen in my life to see this film, and here we had it: The Misfits.

It’s kind of funny, but watching an actress like Marilyn Monroe is always a sort of multi-layered event in the present day and age.  Who doesn’t see her first and foremost as “Marilyn Monroe” and who could not be effected knowing that she would be dead within a year of this film?  It’s a meta-experience, if you have any sense of history or cinema or anything.  And while I grew up with Monroe in films like Monkey Business (1952) and Some Like it Hot (1959), I hadn’t seen all of her films, nor did I have a complete history of her.

She’s very good in this film, in a way that is different from her comedic roles, ones which seem predicated on her persona as much as her “character”.  Written by her husband Arthur Miller, the script of The Misfits, reeks of theater, of the stagey dramatic moments of dialogue and the way that emotional action takes place within a “scene”.  But at the same time, the film is very cinematic.  And Monroe’s character, a blonde, easily read as cheap and relatively ignorant, certainly carries more emotional depth and realism.

Gable is also excellent in this film.  I’d only seen him before in It Happened One Night (1934) and Gone With the Wind (1939), and I didn’t really have a full perception of how he could be as an actor.  His tough, manly, earnest yet limited cowboy Gay in The Misfits feels like a very real, believable character, more so than anything I’d seen him in before.

The casting is amazing.  With Monroe and Gable, you’ve got Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter as the primaries and secondaries in the cast.  Ritter gets a lot of the best lines as the wisened divorcee who seems to have assessed Reno and the world in a way that the other characters can only hope to achieve in later life.  And then with only half of the pithy-ness.

The film is a study of divorce, of the diminishing role of the American cowboy, American manliness, of America’s wild, true being, as so obviously represented in the wild mustangs that Gable and company head out to trap and sell for dog meat.  What once was a symbol of grace, majesty, power, and independence has been subjugated to that of fodder for machinery and grist of heartless mills.  The pride and power and energy of the men who once forced themselves and their wills on the American landscape are not lost flailing meaninglessly against a dying landscape, a way of life already dead, without having realized it.

Huston crafts an excellent film from this, with some tremendous scenes, like the one in which the partying crew heads into a Reno bar after a rodeo in which a drunken crowd becomes enthused by Monroe’s gyrating derriere as she proves her mettle on a paddle ball, showing how even good fun is readily turned into exploitation by the curdling masses.

It’s a sad film, though hopeful, as many films would have been at this time, even with their more pointed social critiques in Hollywood.  It’s a powerful thing, in knowing with the conversations about death and the significance of being alive that are passed so unwittingly of the coming deaths, so untimely of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.  And yet, as a final performance, both leave perhaps some of their most moving and interesting dramatic work.  No doubt why this film is well-known and appreciated.