October 16, 2015

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | That Marilyn Monroe Subway Picture, 60 Years Later

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The most iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe, and perhaps in cinematic history, is a still of her standing over a subway grate with her dress blown up from the passing train underneath; this image comes from the movie The Seven Year Itch. 60 years later, the picture stands the test of time. Since its conception, it has become famous for its backstory and has been reproduced thousands of times. It is everywhere, from Miss Monroe becoming a statue in Chicago to hanging on a wall in college students’ dorms (myself included).  So in honor of the film turning 60 years old, let’s take a look at the movie this iconic scene is enveloped into.

The film is an adaptation of a play of the same name written by Billy Wilder. It explores a psychological illness called, well, the seven-year itch.  This condition is caused by the restlessness a husband may feel after being married to someone for several years, and with it comes a sense of, well, exploration and discovery. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) finds himself falling for his upstairs neighbors’ summer tenant (Monroe) and blames the seven year itch. Referred to as “the girl” in the credits, Monroe brings her girlish charm and sexual magnetism into the Sherman’s life, making him question his marriage as she enchants him over some Rachmaninoff and martinis.

The story behind the subway grate scene still is almost as famous as the image.  Some have compared this scene to a bit from the silent film, What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (1901).  In the 1945 Betty Boop cartoon, “Betty Boop’s Lifeguard,” Betty finds herself experiencing the same thing as Miss Monroe will 12 years later. In the cartoon, a gust of wind blows her skirt over her head. Even though the iconic subway grate scene is considered original and inspired many other moments throughout history, this bit wasn’t the first time a skirt was blown over someone’s head. Nevertheless, Monroe’s actions remain the most famous.  

However, there was much more going on behind the camera than the film allows us to see. There was actually so much commotion going on that the director insisted on another, less public take.

The shot was filmed twice.  The first time took place right outside the 52nd Street Trans-Lux Theater (on 586 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan), surrounded by a crowd. It was September 15, 1954 around one in the morning. The scene was then redone on a soundstage. Shots from both takes made their way into the film, and photographer Sam Shaw caught the iconic photographs on his camera.  

Among the crowds of thousands of photographers and spectators that were watching the scene’s shooting was Monroe’s husband at the time, Joe DiMaggio. Director Billy Wilder recalls, “It was becoming embarrassing, and DiMaggio didn’t like his wife putting herself for display.”  Allegedly a huge fight broke out in the hotel room they were staying in after the shot. Less than a month later, the famous couple would be divorced.  This iconic image could serve as a potential catalyst for the decline of their marriage.    

The Seven Year Itch has been immortalized in various ways.  Many TV shows and films reference the subway grate scene. Monroe has also been the subject of several statues that feature the famous pose. One of them, called “Forever Marilyn,” is 26 feet tall, located in Chicago, Illinois, and has been very popular among tourists who like to go and pose with Marilyn. Another is in Manhattan on 40th and 8th Avenue in the Garment District (this one is more life-size than not).  

60 years after the iconic shot, women avoid subway grates like the plague, yet secretly hope that when they pass over them they will, even for a second, become Marilyn.

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox