The Making of an Icon

On a warm late summer night Marilyn Monroe stood atop a New York City subway grating to film a scene for “Seven Year Itch”. The photographs taken that night helped make the movie the biggest box office hit of 1955.

Sixty years later most people have never heard of the film, but the photographs of Marilyn and the ivory dress blowing in the wind are familiar to everyone and stand as one of the iconic images of the 20th century.

Script was perfect.

The “Seven Year Itch” was Marilyn’s 24th movie. By the time it was filmed, she had been long recognized as the paramount sex symbol of the era. Producer Charles Feldman, who was also Monroe’s agent, chose the script with her in mind. Marilyn herself thought that the script was perfect, and wanted to play the part of “The Girl” so badly that she fought 20th Century Fox over it.

In negotiation, she reluctantly agreed to do a movie the studio wanted under the condition that she then be allowed to film “Seven Year Itch”.

The original script had been a huge Broadway hit: married man with family away for the summer gets involved in an affair with the beautiful upstairs neighbor. Hollywood was interested in the story but was beholden to production censorship and the moral standards of the time, which made the stage script nearly unfilm-able.

Feldman and director Billy Wilder, though, thought that they could push the limits of restrictions. So, they set to work at sanitizing the original script for the big screen.

History was being made that night at the corner of 52nd and Lex. Among the group of photographers to witness and record it were Garry Winogrand, Elliot Erwitt and Weegee.

Dress shined intensely.

For the purpose of marketing the film, Fox chose to make the focal point a scene in which Monroe’s dress is lifted by a sudden gust created by a passing subway. The scene was filmed twice – the first filming done as a publicity stunt, on location in New York, where details were “leaked” to the press. As a result, the footage during the first shoot was done in front of a loud crowd of about 3,000 spectators.

The scene used in the movie was, in fact, re-shot months later, on a set in Hollywood replicating the corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd St.

Witnesses to the event recall being struck by the charged atmosphere generated by the crowd’s anticipation. Fans waited for hours for Monroe to get there. There were some apprehensions when arguments started to happen, as the crowd pushed ever closer to each other and the cameras.

But all concerns vanished when, around midnight, Monroe made her appearance, wearing the now-legendary white halter dress.

George Zimbel, then a twenty-five-year-old photographer for the PIX photo agency, keeps memories of that night undimmed by the intervening decades.

“Under the bright lights the dress shined intensely, and it did amazing things in the air as she moved.”

There are hundreds of photographs of Monroe’s and her white halter dress fluttering in the wind. But, it is the pictures taken by Matty Zimmerman and George Zimbel the ones that have been most reproduced helped maintain Marilyn present as a sex symbol through the years.

At the start, director Wilder ran Marilyn through a number of warm-ups to help her understand the physical aspects of the scene. It was during these rehearsals that the 20 or so photographers were allowed to take pictures. Monroe played to the onlookers as much as to the cameras. The crowd gasped in dazed delight each time the special-effects man under the subway grating started the fan and her dress flew up.

Over the course of three hours, crew and actors labored hard to shoot the scene 14 times. The difficulties of filming while encircled by a large crowd, combined with the overtly sexual quality of the footage, rendered it unusable. A few months later the scene was re-shot under the controlled conditions of a Hollywood soundstage. It took another 40 takes for Wilder to complete the scene the way he wanted. The scene that appears in the movie is toned down, with no full body shot of Monroe.

Her dress is never shown rising much above the knees.

Sam Shaw was the only photographer present at both location and the Hollywood studio shootings. It was one of his photographs that Fox chose for marketing the movie.

Front-page news.

Not surprisingly, the location stills are stronger images than those taken at the movie set. The combination of the warm night, the pushing and elbowing of photographers skirmishing for the better spots, the sex-charged atmosphere, Monroe’s exhibitionism – it all contributed to create a raw, palpable, energy captured in the photographs that was impossible to reproducible on the sound stage.

For the film’s marketing material, Fox chose to use the more suggestive, original location pictures. In retrospect, what a fantastic decision that turned out to be. The photographs created worldwide front-page news. Instant awareness that helped make the film the biggest box office hit of the year. Standing the test of time the images have held their ability to mesmerize.

60 years later, the image is instantly recognizable and utterly captivating: Monroe above a subway grate, dress shimmering in the warm summer breeze – a lasting and iconic celebration of unembarrassed sexual femininity.

50 feet cut-outs in front of movie houses were part of the promotional campaign. Flooded with complaints, 20th Century Fox was forced to take them down.

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