Stanwyck and MacMurray make a dangerous bet
There are still, after all these years, important classic films we've never discussed in detail. We can now cross Double Indemnity off the list. The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and we've looked at its West German poster, had fun with one of its promo images, and talked about its ingenious quasi-remake, but never actually gotten to the movie itself. Well, here we are, and now the question is can we tell you anything you don't already know? Possibly not, but let's start with the Australian daybill, which you see above. It isn't the usual poster you find online, so that's something, anyway.
The movie begins with MacMurray making a confession, then slides into flashback to explain his crime. He plays an insurance salesman for Pacific All Risk who quickly realizes that Stanwyck's interest in secretly purchasing a life insurance policy on her husband is for the purposes of murder and claims fraud. He resists the scheme at first but Stanwyck convinces him. How? All we see are a few kisses but the answer has to be sex. McMurray is a guy who has experience with women and is so confident with them he's almost glib. He wouldn't agree to murder a guy just because someone is a good kisser.
Thus, temptation nudges him, unseen sex tips him over the edge, and from there he and Stanwyck are off and running with their murder plot. Eventually Stanwyck's husband is found dead on a train track, presumably after falling off the observation car of the Los Angeles-Santa Barbara express, and the crime seems perfect, except the insurance policy that will pay $100,000 brings a tenacious investigator into the picture. That would be Edward G. Robinson in another great performance, and he immediately latches onto an anomaly—Stanwyck's husband didn't file an insurance claim when he broke his leg weeks earlier. Why would a guy who had accident insurance not make a claim? Maybe he didn't know he had accident insurance.
Robinson's role and performance make the movie. He pulls on the single hanging thread that unravels the entire murder plot, and when it starts to come apart it does so almost too fast to believe. There's revelation upon revelation, even reaching years back to the time that Stanwyck's husband was married to another woman, and Stanwyck was that woman's nurse. It's this latter half that makes Double Indemnity a top classic—though make no mistake, it's a film noir clinic even from its first frames, in terms of visuals, structure, music, and direction from Billy Wilder. But when MacMurray's situation deteriorates so quickly and so uncontrollably in the last half, you almost experience the same vertigo and helplessness his character must feel.
Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and as usual for the Oscars, was beaten in most of its categories by a film that ended up having far less influence—the Bing Crosby musical Going My Way. But time tells the tale. Nobody is calling Going My Way one of the best films ever made, but Double Indemnity was certainly a top ten film noir, and was influential far beyond its niche. The movie opened in the U.S. in the late spring of 1944 and finally reached Australia to dazzle and dismay audiences today, December 1, that same year.
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.
How can I be making your mouth water? I haven't even put the food in the pot yet.
This shot of superstar Kim Novak was made when she was filming Billy Wilder's 1964 comedy Kiss Me, Stupid. This was one of Novak's most memorable characters—Polly the Pistol, party girl with attitude, waitress at a roadhouse called the Belly Button, and sometime prostitute. The movie is worth it for her alone, but she happens to co-star with Dean Martin and he's always a bonus.
Monroe, Curtis, and Lemmon give jazz a swing.
On this promo poster for the Marilyn Monroe comedy Certains l'aiment chaud, aka Some Like It Hot, it looks like Russian illustrator Boris Grinsson went a little strong on Monroe's wink, making her look like she got a splinter of glass in her eye, but Monroe actually looked that way in the promo photo used as the basis of the art, which you can see at right.
You know all about this movie, so we won't bother to go over it. We'll just mention, if you haven't seen it, don't be surprised that it's in black and white. There are so many color production photos from this one—like the several we've shared below—that we even forgot. And we'd seen the movie several times, though not in about ten years. When it opened with documentary style footage of a car chase and shootout followed by a title card reading “Chicago, 1929,” we were thinking, “Ah, this is where it shifts to color.”
But of course it didn't, and we suddenly remembered that this was a later black and white production, made the same year Technicolor films such as Ben Hur and North by Northwest hit cinemas. According to our research, Monroe actually had a stipulation in her contract that all her films had to be in color, but director Billy Wilder wanted black and white because the heavy makeup worn by Curtis and Lemmon—who spend most of the movie disguised as women—looked green in Technicolor. He lobbied Monroe and she finally agreed her co-stars could not be green.
Does Some Like It Hot fit under our self-defined umbrella of pulp? Of course—there are gangsters, the aforementioned shootout, and it's about two jazz musicians on the run. And few Hollywood figures are more pulp in essence than Monroe. The character of nightclub singer Sugar Kane is one of her better creations. Sit back and enjoy. Some Like It Hot premiered in the U.S. in February 1959, and opened in Paris as Certains l'aiment chaud today the same year. Another promotional poster by Grinsson appears below, and you can see the very different West German promo poster here.
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.
In space no one can hear you cuss out your former employers.
One good Star Trek femme fatale deserves another, so here’s Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand during Trek’s first season in 1966. Whitney, whose character harbored an unrequited (perhaps) lust for Captain Kirk, was unceremoniously fired from the show when the producers decided Kirk needed to have a new love interest each week. Since Uhura was a major character (and could fly the ship in an emergency), and Nurse Chapel was married in real life to creator Gene Roddenberry, Whitney got the axe. She described herself as incredibly bitter over the decision, but bridges were mended when she appeared in the first Trek motion picture in 1979. Above she’s in character as Kiki the Cossack from the great Billy Wilder comedy Irma la Douce, 1963.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1916—Einstein Publishes General Relativity
German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity. Among the effects of the theory are phenomena such as the curvature of space-time, the bending of rays of light in gravitational fields, faster than light universe expansion, and the warping of space time around a rotating body.
1931—Nevada Approves Gambling
In the U.S., the state of Nevada passes a resolution allowing for legalized gambling. Unregulated gambling had been commonplace in the early Nevada mining towns, but was outlawed in 1909 as part of a nationwide anti-gaming crusade. The leading proponents of re-legalization expected that gambling would be a short term fix until the state's economic base widened to include less cyclical industries. However, gaming proved over time to be one of the least cyclical industries ever conceived.
1941—Tuskegee Airmen Take Flight
During World War II, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, aka the Tuskegee Airmen, is activated. The group is the first all-black unit of the Army Air Corp, and serves with distinction in Africa, Italy, Germany and other areas. In March 2007 the surviving airmen and the widows of those who had died received Congressional Gold Medals for their service.
1906—First Airplane Flight in Europe
Romanian designer Traian Vuia flies twelve meters outside Paris in a self-propelled airplane, taking off without the aid of tractors or cables, and thus becomes the first person to fly a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Because his craft was not a glider, and did not need to be pulled, catapulted or otherwise assisted, it is considered by some historians to be the first true airplane.
1965—Leonov Walks in Space
Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov leaves his spacecraft the Voskhod 2 for twelve minutes. At the end of that time Leonov's spacesuit had inflated in the vacuum of space to the point where he could not re-enter Voskhod's airlock. He opened a valve to allow some of the suit's pressure to bleed off, was barely able to get back inside the capsule, and in so doing became the first person to complete a spacewalk.
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