Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
In the early days of Rome, there’s a story about the men, struggling to populate their young community, who negotiate with a neighboring village to marry their daughters. When it fails, they fight off the Sabines, steal their women, and Romulus eggs the ladies into taking on Roman husbands by promising them equal property rights and the historical spot of being the mothers of all free men.
Sounds like a great basis for a musical! Let’s set it in Oregon Territory.
By 1954, director Stanley Donen had already planted his flag in Hollywood as the master of the musical – delivering both Royal Wedding in 1951 and Singin’ In the Rain a year later. However, he was still young at the helm, and had to fight considerably to get Seven Brides for Seven Brothers made the way that he wanted.
That way included having trained dancers in the roles. What seems like common sense was fought by MGM because of the belief that singing, dancing frontiersmen would be a laughingstock. This begs the question of why they would greenlight a film that featured singing, dancing frontiersmen in the first place.
Apparently some at the studio also wanted to go with old country songs like “Turkey in the Straw” instead of having a score written. Essentially, you might guess that they didn’t particularly care to create a quality film. Considering they also openly took funds from Seven Brides’ budget and gave it to the production of Brigadoon, it would appear as though that’s a safe bet.
However, dance fanatic Donen won out. He got the score he wanted. He got the all-singing, all-dancing cast that he wanted. This included Howard Keel as Adam, the eldest brother. This had to have been the main draw for the film. At the time Keel was a megastar in the musical world, appearing in Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, Calamity Jane, and Kiss Me Kate. His co-star (the first bride of the bunch) is Jane Powell, whom Donen had paired with Fred Astaire just years before in Royal Wedding.
Adam Pontipee heads to town a’singing and looking for a bride. He finds one in a strong woman named Millie (Powell) and brings her back home with him where she meets his six brothers – and realizes that she’ll be cooking for and cleaning for all of them. Deciding to make the most of the situation, she teaches the brood manners, how to dance, and how to not punch everybody every second of every day. They go to meet the townsfolk, fall in love with several girls there (one who’s named, no kidding, Dorcus), and the suitors in the town force the Pontipees to fight – which gets them banned from the civilized world yet again. Lonesome and heartsick, they devise a plan to get the girls – they’ll steal them.
There’s something insane about all musicals. It’s an art form that sees apparently normal people bursting out into song and become imbued with the knowledge and skill to pull off highly choreographed dance numbers. However, there’s something insane about this entire movie. The premise, to be fair, is that six guys from the mountain steal six daughters from the town and hold them hostage over the winter until they are all in love and feeding the chickens together.
For some reason, this story (based off the short story “The Sobbin’ Women” which was based on that Roman tale The Rape of the Sabine Women) was somehow more believable than the idea of a lumberjack singing. I’ll repeat that. Stealing a bunch of women and coercing them into marriage, reasonable. Seeing a burly guy in plaid sing, an absurdity.
MGM during the 50s must have been a crazy place to work.
Most of the film will probably seem ridiculous to a modern audience. Not only are the sexual politics of the film set squarely in the 1950s, it’s how people in the 1950s would have interpreted the rough and tumble ways of 19th century, untamed Oregon. Fortunately, no oxen die of dysentery during the making of the film. However, there is a blend of the over-the-top central story and the role of Millie – who makes her own concessions but ultimately plays out as the strongest, most commanding voice in the entire film. She tames the men and puts her husband in his place (the barn). Does it balance the rest of the behavior? I have no idea. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around all of the person stealing.
Beneath the strange story and in front of the absurd matte paintings of fake mountains, the film is at its heart a showcase of inspired singing and dancing talent. Keel begins the movie with a solo that could strip wall paper from your entertainment room, and there have been few examples better than the Barn Raising Dance Scene (which eventually devolves into an awesome fight scene) when it comes to matching innovative choreography with highly skilled dancers.
So, yes, there is some technicolor ludicrousness presented in Vista Vision to deal with, but the film is gauranteed to have you smiling by the end. Probably because of how preposterous it is. There’s some truly great acting talent on display alongside mindblowing dance numbers and some piercing crooning sessions. Isn’t that really all you need in a musical? Add in a story about pretending to be a cat so you can throw a blanket over the face of the girl you love while you’re stealing her, and you’ve got something not to be missed.
Hopefully MGM learned that lesson after the success of the film, or at least after it was nominated for 5 Oscars and won for Best Score. They were probably glad they didn’t go with “Turkey in the Straw” when they were holding gold.
Enjoy it. Celebrate it. But please, please do not take any life cues from it. Trust me – women are much, much harder to steal this days.
Read about more wife theft with even more Old Ass Movies.