Oh Explainer of All Things Mysterious:
You know that famous scene in The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn Monroe stands on the subway vent and enjoys the warm air blowing up her dress? Well, she's wearing high heels, and the openings of the grate are plenty large enough to make walking and standing on it risky business. But I've looked at stills of the movie, seen publicity shots of the filming, and it appears that her heels are right on the thin metal. There's no sheet of plastic or glass, else the air would not pass through the grating. So how did they do this? This has been bugging me for years.
-- Michael Elliott, Vista
I'm not sure what that says about you, Michael. I guess one thing it says is that you haven't spent much time walking around in heels. This is a good thing. And we'll leave it at that. Anyway, we consulted with Ma Alice, then the elves clomped around the city in some of her stilettos, and we've determined that if you slightly shift your weight onto the balls of your feet, even in heels you could negotiate a subway grate no problem. High-heeled shoes tend to throw your weight forward anyway. When Seven Year Itch was filmed (1954), New York was full of old subway gratings and women in heels. We don't recall an epidemic of women's feet stuck in the city's sidewalks. So it can be done.
But could Marilyn do it? Here's the story of that famous scene. The one you see in the movie was shot in a Hollywood studio. Director Billy Wilder tried for hours to get the scene on film on Lexington Avenue from 1 to 5 a.m.; but the public knew about the event, and crowd noise and interference was a problem. And Marilyn's dress kept blowing up over her head, which wasn't the effect he wanted. (Marilyn actually wore two pairs of panties in case the first pair was see-through.) In the end, Wilder decided he couldn't use the New York footage, which now seems to be lost.
After 40 takes in the studio, Wilder was satisfied, having used a wind machine as a stand-in for the Lexington subway. And I can't confirm this, but anybody who's ever sat on a New York subway bench after one or two in the morning waiting for a train knows they're few and far between. It's likely Wilder used wind machines in the New York footage as well, rather than standing around waiting for the next train to appear.