The world’s enduring image of Marilyn Monroe — standing over a New York City subway grate, white halter dress billowing suggestively around her legs — comes from a scene in the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”
Billy Wilder, who directed the movie, actually filmed the famous scene twice: Once on a street in midtown Manhattan, and later again, on a Hollywood sound stage. The movie used the sound stage take, and Wilder’s on-location footage was lost long ago. But as it turns out, there’s another recording of the famous Manhattan take, and it has a story of its own.
The film spent decades tucked away in the New York apartment of Jules Schulback — furrier, amateur filmmaker and teller of superb (if tall) stories. His granddaughter, Bonnie Siegler, explains how the footage came to rest in a plastic supermarket bag, and was brought to light again.
Schulback escaped to America from Nazi Germany in 1938, as a young man. According to Siegler, he actually had to make the journey twice — first traveling alone to America, where he “pretended to be really rich” to get the signature of a sponsor, then returning to Germany for his wife and daughter.
On his way back to Berlin to gather his family, Schulback was stopped by one of Hitler's SS guards. Siegler says he quickly came up with a glamorous-seeming excuse for his travel:
“‘It Happened One Night’ had been released in Germany, was a huge hit, and he knew they loved Clark Gable,” she says. “He was a furrier. But he went with the emotional story. So he said he was representing Clark Gable, and if he didn't get back to Berlin, the next Gable film wouldn't make it to Germany. And the guy bought it.”
On the wings of that fictive brush with celebrity, Schulback and his family made it safely to America, settling in New York. There, Siegler says her grandfather carried his hand-crank Bolex film camera with him everywhere. Late in the summer of 1954, the Schulbacks were living on Lexington Avenue and East 61st Street, just around the corner from the townhouse where “The Seven Year Itch” was set.
“So he saw they were shooting that day, and he went out and filmed them filming,” Siegler says.
She thinks someone on set that day tipped him off about the upcoming late-night shoot. In any case, Schulback was at Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street in the early hours of Sept. 15, 1954 — a middle-aged man in a dark sea of others, all hoping for a glimpse of the famous Marilyn Monroe.
Or, rather: “I think he was actually more excited about being close to Billy Wilder, who was also a Jewish immigrant from Germany,” Siegler suggests.
Schulback’s footage is taken from just behind Wilder’s shoulder, in true proximity to Hollywood. “That's what he always told us — ‘I was standing right next to Billy Wilder.’” Siegler recalls. In the reel, Monroe’s dress blows up around her legs, over and over. It’s a risqué alter ego of the shot used in the movie, which focuses shyly on Monroe’s ankles.
The late-night Manhattan shoot is famous for other reasons as well — it’s the night when gossip columnist Walter Winchell dragged Monroe’s husband Joe DiMaggio to the set. There, DiMaggio was upset by the crowds of men, the revealing dress and the gusts of air.
“He had already objected to her sort of exhibitionism,” Siegler says. “And then this was too much for him.” He and Monroe fought that evening, and he hit her. She filed for divorce a few weeks later, and Wilder’s film from that night never made it onscreen.
Siegler says she heard about the other footage from her grandfather when she was growing up, but she never saw it. “He just bragged about it,” she says. “He went out one night and did this thing and the footage was oh, somewhere.”
The film could easily have remained personal to Schulback. But in 2004, Siegler and her husband were helping Schulback, who was then in his 90s, move out of the apartment he’d been in for more than three decades. They found a plastic supermarket bag filled with film, “a total mess,” she remembers.
“Some were on reels and some were off reels, and we were like, maybe that Marilyn film he mentioned is in this,” she says. Siegler’s husband was a filmmaker, and he carefully put the film back on reels.
“And then he screened it all on a reel-to-reel at home and, you know, was looking at different family events — which is amazing,” she says. “New York City Kodachrome footage from the '40s and '50s. It was all incredible. But all of a sudden, there was Marilyn, with her skirt floating up in the air.”
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