Friday, August 31, 2012

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats: The Worst Possible Title For This Entry: The Seven Year Itch and Sabrina

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, right up there with Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but there are still a bunch of his movies that I haven't seen yet. Yes, I've seen The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot, but there are still some big ones (and little ones too) that I never got around to. In the last month or so I began to notice how many Billy Wilder movies were piling up in my Netflix Instant queue, so I decided to make up for lost time and watch them. Here are the first couple.

The Seven Year Itch
, 1955

Part of the fun of watching a Billy Wilder comedy is seeing how much he can get away with, in the context of the time the movie came out. Even his raunchiest comedies had a smartness and sophistication to them, though he wasn't afraid to go low-brow for a laugh. Of course, today most of these raunchy comedies seem positively chaste, but at the time, he was getting some pretty shocking stuff through the system.

The Seven Year Itch is one of Wilder's dirtiest movies. It stars Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman, a man with a wife, a kid, and an overactive imagination. He sends the wife and kid away on vacation while he stays behind to keep working, promising his wife he won't get wild while they're gone. He really means it to, but as he settles down at home for a quiet night in, he meets the new upstairs neighbor: Marilyn Monroe. Well, not really Marilyn Monroe, but they never say her character's name, and she's even jokingly compared to Marilyn Monroe at one point.

Richard now must resist the temptation of cheating on his wife of seven years with the woman who is generally considered the sexiest of all time. He talks to directly to the audience when he's alone, and through this and cutaways to his imagination, we see that he believes himself irresistible to women (his wife correctly laughs this idea off), and we see all his neuroses and fears that maybe his wife is cheating too. Will schlubby Richard sleep with Marilyn Monroe, or will he resist his urges and stay true to his wife?

Marilyn Monroe is actually really funny in The Seven Year Itch. She is basically playing the broadest possible version of her on-screen persona. There's some self awareness in her performance, though her character is always oblivious to the fact that she's radiating sexuality. Pretty much everything she says and does has some sort of sexual implication and she's completely unaware of it. Like that famous scene where she walks over the grating in the city and the wind blows her dress up. The only Marilyn Monroe movies I've seen so far have been this and Some Like it Hot, and you know, I totally get why she's a sex symbol and everything, but I'm always kind of grossed out by that baby talk thing she does. I don't really know what to call it, but you probably know what I mean.

The Seven Year Itch is a very funny 50's sex comedy, but it's too bad they couldn't push things further. I know Wilder wanted things to go past where they ended up, but was restricted by the Hays Code that still had a stranglehold on Hollywood. Still, it's a testament to his talents that he could turn in such a good product even when he's being held back. It's also fun to watch his movies get more and more daring as the years go on and the Code's hold on things starts to crumble. This movie surely played some small part in chipping away at it.

Sabrina, 1954

Of course, Billy Wilder didn't just make boundary-pushing sex comedies. He had a rich and varied career, and made all sorts of movies. Sabrina is a simple, charming, romantic comedy. In fact, it's one of the best ever made. I can't believe I didn't watch this sooner.

Sabrina stars Audrey Hepburn in the title role, the daughter of a chauffeur for the extremely wealthy Larrabee family. Hopelessly in love with the playboy son of the family, David (William Holden), a despairing Sabrina attempts suicide. Her concerned father sends her away to a culinary school in Paris to help her get over her troubles. She never gets over her infatuation with David, though, and instead hatches a plan to return from France the most sophisticated beauty she can be, with the hopes that he'll finally notice her.

And notice her he does. David flips for Sabrina the moment he sees her. The problem is, he's been promised to the daughter of another corporate head, in order to cement a merger between to companies that would earn everyone millions. To make sure the merger happens, the elder brother, career-minded Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), attempts to sweep Sabrina off her feet and keep her away from David. Of course, Linus, too, falls for Sabrina.

While this movie isn't all sex jokes like The Seven Year Itch, Billy Wilder still touches upon some taboo topics. Suicide, for instance. Even though it's made clear that Sabrina's suicide attempt is more a teenager's cry for help than a serious suicide, Wilder still treats it with compassion. He would explore suicide more in depth six years later in his Oscar-Winning (and my favorite) The Apartment.

As with Marilyn Monroe above, I haven't seen too many Audrey Hepburn movies. Just this one now and the one where she's a blind lady being terrorized by Alan Arkin (Wait Until Dark, which is AWESOME). I think I like her more than Marilyn, she was classier and a better actress, though I don't think that has ever really been up for debate.

One thing I'm noticing more and more when I watch these old movies is how the leading men get older and older, but the women keep getting replaced with young ones. I was a little weirded out by the fact that a 20-ish Sabrina was so in love with 37-year-old David, but then when 50-something Humphrey Bogart is thrown into the mix, and is validated, that's just crazy! Not that Holden and Bogart weren't great in their roles, but the movie would have been more believable and less creepy if these guys were no older than 30.

What a fun movie. It's so smart and genuinely romantic, but also instilled with a healthy dose of Wilder's trademark cynicism. I really wish they still made romantic comedies like this, instead of the formulaic, machine-made "chick-flicks" we've been getting for the last 25 years or so. Romantic comedies used to be date movies, and told stories that both women AND men could enjoy together. If they were still that way, they might actually be my favorite genre.

Hey, everybody, check out the Polish poster!!!


That's all for now, everyone! I've got more Billy Wilder movies to review in the coming days, and even more still to watch when I get the chance, so expect me to sow more of my "Wilder" oats (UGH) in the near future.

Also, if you're interested, follow these links for previously written reviews of Wilder's Ace in the Hole and The Front Page.

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