Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
This was not on my list to watch for this year’s “A Movie a Week,” but I know it’s a favorite of my wife and her family. I had never seen it before, but my wife recently ordered it from Best Buy, and it just arrived last night, and she wanted to watch it. Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it, though, I thought it would be nice to switch things up on this year’s roster and look at the film critically.
If there’s one thing I absolutely loved about “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” it was the musical numbers. The music was by Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul and the lyrics were by Johnny Mercer, and despite the Western setting, there is a very distinct quality to the songs that separates it from an “Oklahoma!” or other similarly-set film. The specific tone and feel of many of the musical moments, especially “Lonesome Polecat” (which has the most distinctive choreography, as well) and “Goin’ Courtin’,” feels unique for the era, and is something that stood out quite clearly as we were watching it last night. Mercer, in particular, comes from a jazz background, and in his lyrics and the vocal movement, that comes through quite clearly. The distinct voices of the brothers also give the music a fresh quality that doesn’t really come through in a lot of musicals of the era. The two numbers I mentioned earlier are musical standouts, but there are plenty others that are fun and add a lot of heart to the story, such as “June Bride” and “Spring, Spring, Spring.” In researching the film, I found that it won the Oscar for Best Scoring in a Musical, and I can’t say that I’m surprised by that, nor can I say that I’m disappointed by it, either.
I suppose the story should be discussed sometime, but looking at the title, you probably already know what it is, anyway. The script by Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet called The Sobbin’ Women, and it starts with Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), the oldest of seven Pontipee brothers, going into a nearby town in the Oregon Territory (as it was in 1850) for supplies. There’s one supply in particular that he’s looking for with great interest, he says, and that’s a wife. He’s laughed out of the general store for such an absurd notion, but he has the last laugh when he comes upon Milly (Jane Powell) in a local tavern. He is immediately smitten with her, and he asks her to marry him, which she agrees to despite only knowing him for a few hours. He hasn’t told her about his six brothers she’ll be cooking and cleaning up after, as well, which makes their arrival together at the Pontipee house a particular shock. After they reconcile when Milly expresses her concerns to Adam, she comes into her own in being able to handle being around these seven brothers (each with a name from the Bible), although it’s not long after that each brother finds themselves wanting a wife of their own. Milly decides to take it upon herself to prepare them to be gentlemen towards woman, and be able to court them, which works at a local barn raising, until the brothers’s competitiveness and tempers lead to a brawl (in the film’s sustained, entertaining centerpiece) that turns the town against them, seemingly putting their prospective brides to be out of reach. Adam has an idea, though the logical soundness of it is up for debate, or it would be in the real world. In a Hollywood musical, though, it serves a distinct dramatic purpose.
If the music immediately won me over about the film, the romantic notions of the film were less successful for me. Of course, for a ’50s musical set in the 1800s, it’s very much in line with it’s times, but kidnapping women to be brides has never been a good idea, and going from “never met” to “let’s get married” in a manner of hours has never seemed like a healthy foundation for a relationship. That’s where the actors come into play, and Keel and Powell make an enticing pair as Adam and Milly. Milly, in particular, won me over, because while she makes a questionable choice to get married to Adam in the first place, she makes her presence known as the “voice of reason” in the Pontipee house right away, and is a good guide for the brothers (Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank and Gideon) as they realize, because of Milly, that they want wives, as well. She also teaches Adam a thing or two even after they are married. It’s hard to imagine having another character as a favorite in this film. As the brides to be, Julie Newmar (Dorcas), Nancy Kilgas (Alice), Betty Carr (Sarah), Virginia Gibson (Liza), Ruta Lee (Ruth) and Norma Doggett (Martha) don’t have as much of an impression as Powell does, although in the second half of the film, when they find themselves “trapped” at the Pontipee ranch for the winter, we come to know them and see why the brothers were smitten with them. That doesn’t make the whole idea that the musical turns on any less suspect, though.
The film was directed by Stanley Donen, who also did “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Funny Girl,” so he had a gift for musical comedy with heart, and that is on full display here. Yes, it’s easy to see the painted backgrounds and use of rear projection, but it’s the story and the way it’s told through song that matters most in a musical, and Donen (who also did the classic thriller, “Charade”) tells this one with panache and energy and fun. I may laugh at the absurdities of it’s notions of “courting a woman” and how Adam sees a bride, but I laughed at the moments the film wanted me to laugh at more. I understand why people love it, because there’s a big part of me that loves it, as well.