Obituary: Tom Ewell
Wednesday 14 September 1994
GO INTO any of the memorabilia stores along Hollywood Boulevard and you will find the same handful of icons: Mae West, Gable as Rhett, Bogart as Rick but always Marilyn Monroe with her skirts blowing up. It is a haunting image, but much more so when you can see Tom Ewell's bemused expression as he watches her in this scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955).
There is wit in the film's very title. Ewell's wife has left for a vacation and after seven years' marriage he is fantasising about a bit on the side while she is away. And that is all he does till the blonde upstairs (Monroe) drops a tomato plant from her balcony and is invited down for a drink. 'Hi] I'm the tomato. Remember?' she asks, as if he could ever forget. The most that transpires is a tumble off the piano stool. 'This is the first time this sort of thing ever happened to me,' he says. 'That's funny, it happens to me all the time,' she replies, apparently unaware that she has to be any man's ultimate sexual fantasy.
Ewell was not a box-office name, but when Billy Wilder saw him in George Axelrod's original play The Seven Year Itch on Broadway in 1952 he knew that nobody else could match Ewell's catalogue of leers, cunning grins and harassed deadpans, he all fumbles and she - in the film - all innocent logic. Incredibly, the New Yorker found the Monroe character 'too substantial for dreams' - but then, so did Ewell.
He had been a salesman in Macy's, in New York, before getting his first Broadway break in 1934. In his own words he was in more flops than seemed humanly possible, but he had established a sound stage reputation by the time George Cukor chose him to play Judy Holliday's husband in Adam's Rib (1949). She has attempted to murder him because he is two-timing her with an equally ditzy Jean Hagen. Spencer Tracy is prosecuting and his wife, Katharine Hepburn, decides to defend Holliday. Ewell, in a beautifully judged performance, doesn't know what to make of any of them. In 1950 Ewell played the head of a model agency who hires Lana Turner in A Life Of Her Own for Cukor and Bing Crosby's valet in Mr Music.
But for the Axelrod play he might have remained a character actor in movies. After the film version he returned to Broadway in The Tunnel Of Love (1957) with Nancy Olsen, from Peter de Vries's comic novel about a couple with baby-fever, and again in A Thurber Carnival (1960), a pastiche enjoyably cobbled from the great man's stories. He came to London with this and returned in 1968 in You Know I Can't Hear You When The Water's Running, four one-act plays by Robert Anderson, in the different roles taken by Martin Balsam in New York.
Ewell also did much television, including The Tom Ewell Show in 1960. Other movie roles include those in Henry King's version of Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night (1962), with Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones as the Divers and Ewell as the always slightly drunk composer Abe North, a character loosely based on Donald Ogden Stewart; and Alice Faye's husband, the pair of them the parents who take their children to the State Fair (1962), Jose Ferrer's remake of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
Both these films were fairly disastrous, but Ewell was luckier in two other movies in which he starred, both written and directed by Frank Tashlin: The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1955), as a television writer whose wife, Sheree North, re-enlists when he has to; and The Girl Can't Help It (1956), as a theatrical agent down on his luck who is hired by a mobster, Edmond O'Brien, to turn his moll into a star - Jayne Mansfield, who at that time was able to burlesque both herself and Monroe.
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