Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
directed by Stanley Donen
(Warner, 1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a musical for everyone, even people who normally hate musicals. If the word "musical" conjures up a treacly mess of overstaged song and dance numbers that have scant relation to the plot, or even worse, a plot that is little more than an excuse to showcase some overblown song-and-dance talent, this movie might just change your mind. The film opened in 1954 as a sleeper, filmed mainly on a back sound stage in Hollywood (and it looks it in spots), and turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year, nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

Loosely based on Stephen Vincent Benet's The Sobbin Women and transported to Oregon Territory in 1850, so the opening screen tells us, Seven Brides brings us Howard Keel (and that gorgeous baritone) as Adam Pontipee, a backwoodsman who comes to town looking for a wife. The film starts off with a rousing number called "Bless Yore Beautiful Hide," in which Keel tells the audience "I'd swap my gun and I'd swap my mule, 'Tho whoever took 'em would be one big fool, To pay your way through cookin' school, if'n you would say I do." After rejecting a few prospects ("Purty and trim, but kinda slim, Heavenly eyes, but oh, that size"), he sets his eyes on Milly, winningly played by the young Jane Powell (and her lovely soprano), and it's love at first sight. Back she goes with him to his homestead, little reckoning that keeping house for him and his six rowdy, unwashed brothers is part of the package deal. In no time at all she has them out of their moldering longjohns, washed, shaved and presentable, and they're off to a neighborhood barn-raising, where they fall in love with six local belles; trouble is, they're already spoken for. It looks like a long, lonely winter ahead (as one of the brothers sings, "A man can't sleep, when he sleeps with shee-e-e-eep").

Not to worry; Adam tells his brothers the story of the Sabine women, from no less an authority than Plutarch ("Rough 'em up like them there Romans do," he advises them, "Or else they'll think you're tetched"), and they're off to town to fetch the girls. The ensuing kidnap scene is hilarious, but returning home with their prizes, they discover a major boo-boo: somebody forgot to kidnap the parson. But after being snowed up on the hills for the whole winter (the brothers thoughtfully set off an avalanche to block the pass behind them in order to prevent any rescue party from reaching the girls till spring), by the time spring finally comes, marriage is on everybody's minds, and the brothers are married off to their women in a mass shotgun wedding. As in all good musicals, we can imagine they all lived happily ever after.

OK, so it's a corny plot, and if plot were all, there wouldnt be much to this movie -- but the characters are so delightful you can't help being charmed by them. Chief of them all is Milly; she was married to be little more than a wife/servant, but she soon shows what she's made of. When the brothers wolf down the first meal she cooks them like pigs, she overturns both table and dishes on their heads. She gets them out of their malodorous winter underwear by sheer coercion, threatening to barge into their room and rip it off them by force. She'd probably do it, too. And once she has them cleaned up and learning good table manners, she takes on the major task of teaching these louts some civility so they can compete for the local ladies. She's a perfect combination of wife/housekeeper/big sister. The song "Goin' Courtin'," where she teaches the brothers how to spark a lady, is hilarious.

The casting for the six brothers was excellent. Given biblical names by their mother in alphabetical order, after Adam they are Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank(incense) ("'cause he smelled so sweet") and Gideon. They're all handsome, hunky and personable, and except for Benjamin, they all dance up a storm. Benjamin, played by the late Jeff Richards, doesn't dance, sing or do much acting, either, but he's so gorgeous all he has to do is look good. Matt Mattox (Caleb) and Marc Platt (Daniel) were already personalities in the dance world before they were cast in this film. But the three to watch are the three youngest brothers, Ephraim (Jacques D'Amboise), Frank (Tommy Rall) and Gideon (Russ Tamblyn). D'Amboise, only 20 when this film was made, was already a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and Rall had performed in several musicals as well as being a featured dancer with the American Ballet Theater. Tamblyn, who later starred in the film version of West Side Story, had a background in gymnastics rather than dance, but some of his dancing in this movie is so incredible he seems to defy gravity.

Which brings us to the dancing in the film. Holy moly, the dancing! The musical numbers in most musicals, no matter how well they are done, are often a major irritant; it's as if the director is saying "Stop the story, it's time for another song/dance." But in this film, Michael Kidd's breathtaking choreography is woven so seamlessly into the story that it's an integral part of it. One of the most hauntingly beautiful song/dance numbers I've ever seen in any film is "Lonesome Polecat," when the six unmarried brothers, chopping wood in a snowstorm, lament the long lonely winter ahead of them; the movements are so precise and so intricate they are almost balletic. The major dance production is the barn-raising scene, featuring five of the brothers, the local girls and their townie boyfriends dancing up a storm. They look like they're having the time of their lives and we have a ball watching them.

As for the rest of the casting, the actresses playing the six girls are all pretty and talented; look out for the young Julie Newmar, later of "Catwoman" fame, as Benjamin's girl Dorcas; but this film is definitely the brothers' movie. They throw themselves so exuberantly into this film that they're a joy to watch. My favorite scene in the whole movie is when they burst out of the barn on their way into town to kidnap the girls, bellowing at the top of their lungs:

"Oh, the women were sobbin', sobbin', sobbin tears by the ton,
But remember what Robin, Robin, Robin Hood woulda done:
We'll be just like them there Merry Men
and make them merry once again,
And though they'll be a-sobbin' for a while,
We're gonna make them sobbin' women SMILE!"

Only a total grinch could keep from smiling as well.

by Judy Lind
4 March 2006

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