Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) / Musical-Western
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running time: 102 min.
Cast: Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, Jacques d'Amboise, Julie Newmar (Newmeyer), Nancy Kilgas, Betty Carr, Virginia Gibson, Ruta Kilmonis
Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dorothy Kingsley (based on the story, "The Sobbin' Women", by Stephen Vincent Benet)
Review published July 31, 2008
Loosely adapted from Stephen Vincent Benet's story, "The Sobbin' Women", Seven Brides for Seven Brothers may not make for the most believable of tales, but it has endured as one of the more beloved musical films of the 1950s. From my perspective, it could only work as a musical, as the main story is not only weak, it's somewhat laughable by today's standards (feminist feathers will certainly ruffle), and probably too old fashioned even for the 1950s. That it was nominated for Best Screenplay shows how standards were certainly different in the mid-1950s.
Set in Oregon in the mid-19th century, Howard Keel (Kiss Me Kate, Calamity Jane) stars as Adam Pontipee, the eldest brother of seven. Adam goes into town to get himself a wife, and the very day that Milly (Powell, Royal Wedding) catches his eye, he tells her he's going to make her his wife. Off Milly goes to Adam's ranch in the hills, where she is surprised to learn that they aren't alone. Adam's six younger brothers also live in the house, and they expect her to be fixing the meals and cleaning up the place. Milly isn't happy, but she soon sets the agenda, getting the men to stop being so slovenly, and eventually helping them to shape up to eventually have a chance at getting women of their own. When their best efforts fail, the lads decide to do as the Romans do, and take the women by force.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers glides by on the several musical numbers, a couple of which feature some show stopping dancing that ranks among some of the best of its era. Heaps of disbelief must be suspended, as the boys are only shown getting one very brief dance lesson by Milly prior to the barn raising competition, where they put on moves that would take weeks to perfect from trained professionals. It may not fit the story, but you expect nothing less than the best from a Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain, Charade) directorial effort, and that's what you get with Seven Brides.
The cast is certainly game, and even if you don't approve of some of the heinous acts the men commit in order to gain their potential wives, there's still entertainment to be had in watching these actors, especially the burly Howard Keel as the giant who, even when committing several acts that would be considered felonies today, seems to always mean no harm. Jane Powell proves to be equally riveting as his spitfire wife, who goes a long way to balancing out the very misogynistic attitudes exemplified in the macho posturing by the mountain men.
The Johnny Mercer/Gene de Paul songs are known to lovers of musicals, but I wouldn't say they are much beloved perennial standards like many others of its era would become. "Bless Yore Beautiful Hide" and "Wonderful Wonderful Day" are catchy, but not exactly the kind of songs one would want to listen to outside of the context of the film. What really brings the songs to life is the fantastic dance numbers, superbly choreographed by Michael Kidd (Hello Dolly, Merry Andrew). Watching men balance and do acrobatic flips on giant wooden beams, or just fast-paced log rolling, is a real treat, even by today's standards. Don't even think about watching the film unless it's in widescreen format.
The film is rated G, and though I won't exactly quibble with that (although the barn raising sequence has the men trying to maim one another with hammers and the like), as most youngsters would never get some of the innuendo in the film, though it is there -- you just can't get quality catfights among women in their underwear anymore. One of the early scenes has Adam trying to cajole Milly into consummating their marriage, while the brothers are eagerly eavesdropping in prurient fashion to make sure the deed is getting done. Happenstance causes the bed to break later, completely innocently, but the sound of the frame coming apart gets the boys a-grinnin' that Adam is getting his groove on in fine fashion. There's also the sense that the men are getting blue balls from their lack of activity with women, and it makes certain scenes unintentionally humorous. They do sublimate their sexual urges by sawing wood, which I suppose one could read into as a metaphor for masturbation. This especially comes into play during their slow-moving choreographed scene while singing "Lonesome Polecat", where the men bemoan being alone while pulling saws and dropping axes with agonizing lethargy. If you're thinking what I'm thinking during this scene, you can't help but laugh when the song contains the lyric, "A man can't sleep...when he sleeps with sheep". Get these brothers a bride, pronto!
*SPOILER ALERT* (Skip this paragraph if you don't to know the ending, though the title alone is a spoiler I suppose). When it comes time for the men to get their women, they become inspired by, of all things, Plutarch's account of "The Rape of the Sabine Women" (the men call them the Sobbin' women, to denote their depair), where, to help the early Roman settlement get off the ground, the Romans forcibly abducted the nearby Sabine women after the other group refused to marry them off. The women eventually came to adore their abductors and bore their children. The Pontipees decide this is a great way to score with chicks, so they sneak into town and snatch the daughters right out from under their parents watchful eyes, making off with one screaming and crying woman for each brother while their families chase after them. In one scene, the men, who have been muffling the screams of the women to fend off a sure avalanche, allow them to shriek to their hearts content while mountains of snow come crashing down. Though the script suggests the Pontipee men did so to block passage so they can make their escape until the thaw, it's clear that there's no way they could have known that their pursuers would stop just before the pass, and would likely have been buried alive in the unforgiving ice, meeting certain death. By the time of the thaw, the younger brothers gear up their weapons in order to kill the families who come to claim their loved ones, though Adam is willing to just hand them over. The townees discover a baby on the premises, and when asked whose it is, all of the women, who've now taken a fancy to their kidnappers, claim responsibility, willing to entertain the notion that they've been sexually active with the men. experiencing accelerated pregnancies to boot. The film ends with the town fathers forcing the men at gunpoint (a shotgun wedding) to marry their daughters (the inclusion of the town priest in the posse serendipitously allows the proceedings) because they don't know whose kid it is. A heartwarming G-rated family film at its finest!
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, despite its Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 1954, is probably only recommended highly for the crowd that loves musicals, and it's hit-or-miss for most other audiences. The dancing is still very well done, but the story is dated and quite corny, to the point where it's antiquated in its beliefs, especially in the gender roles and its notions of the duration of pregnancy. Plenty of back projection and soundstage environs also detract from the spirit of the great adventure. However, when it's all said and done, you probably won't think back to the film and reminisce about the politically incorrect storyline and the typical big studio production qualities so much as the catchy song and dance numbers. Even if you watch it and catch yourself laughing at it rather than with it on occasion, it's an undoubtedly infectious good time.
©2008 Vince Leo