Friday, September 23, 2011

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (MGM, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For some reason, the San Diego Public Library scheduled as their “Schlock Cinema” item on Wednesday, September 21, not one of the cheap horror or sci-fi “B” movies that usually get shown under rubrics like that, but Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a highly regarded 1954 MGM musical Western that was a big box-office hit “in the day” and actually outgrossed other MGM musicals made that year, including Brigadoon (MGM had skimped on the budget for Seven Brides to have more money to spend on Brigadoon, which had the pre-tested value of being based on a stage hit and also had a more prestigious male lead, Gene Kelly instead of Howard Keel). It was produced by Jack Cummings (generally considered the least of the three major MGM musical producers — the others were Arthur Freed and Joe Pasternak) and directed by Stanley Donen, who’d done his best work to that point co-directing with Gene Kelly on On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain and directing Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding. Seven Brides was based on the old Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women as told in the biography of Romulus, the supposed founder of Rome, in Plutarch’s Lives. 

Having set up their new city in territory already occupied by the Sabines (plus ça change, plus ça meme chose), Romulus and his other male followers realized that they weren’t going to be able to continue their community past their own lifetimes unless they got some women in there and had sex with them so they could create a future generation of Romans. The Sabines wanted to keep their womenfolk away from the Romans to make sure they didn’t get to found a competing community, so the Romans planned to kidnap some of the Sabine women and staged a fake “festival” to lure the Sabines and some of the other local clans out of their own cities so the Romans could take their women. Though the incident has gone down in the history books as a “rape,” the Roman historian Livy insisted that none of the Sabine women were ever forced to have sex with Roman men; instead, time, proximity and the success of the Roman men in fighting off the Sabines when they tried to recapture the women worked its way, the Roman men and the Sabine women eventually paired off and Rome was on its way to its historical destiny, but only after a few more brutal battles with its neighbors. This story was a favorite subject of artists, including the Italian sculptor Giambologna, the French painter Nicholas Poussin, Peter-Paul Rubens, Jacques-Louis David and Pablo Picasso.

It also attracted the American writer Stephen Vincent Benét, who produced a short story called “The Sobbin’ Women” (a truly awful pun) parodying it. Benét set his version in 1850’s Oregon and, as adapted for the screen by the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, with Dorothy Kingsley, it turned the Romans into the seven Pontipee (an oddly scatological character name for a Production Code-era film!) brothers: Adam (Howard Keel), Benjamin (Jeff Richards), Caleb (Matt Mattox), Daniel (Marc Platt), Ephraim (Jacques D’Amboise), Frankincense a.k.a. Frank (Tommy Rall) and Gideon (Russ Tamblyn). The brothers are rowdy, uncouth and filthy, leaving huge piles of dirty clothes and dishes everywhere, and of course this being a 1950’s movie none of the men can cook worth a darn, so Adam sets out for the nearest town determined to bring back a wife who’ll set his house in order and keep it running smoothly. (This part of the plot line seems to have been inspired, shall we say, by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which the first thing Snow White does after she crashes the dwarfs’ cabin is give it a thorough cleaning.)

The sight of Howard Keel striding down the streets of an Oregon frontier town bellowing the song “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” by Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer and cruising every female he sees, whether she’s married, otherwise “spoken for” or even alive (in a gag the filmmakers might have borrowed from Calamity Jane, released the previous year, one of the “women” he’s cruising turns out to be a mannequin), is one of the most joyous openings a musical has ever had — and shows off Keel to his best advantage. Keel was a striking screen presence and an excellent show singer, but he also had a macho swagger about him that made him difficult to cast, especially as the sort of romantic male lead of most musical stories back then — one thinks of him as the sort of man who’d just grab a woman he wanted instead of approaching her slyly and seducing her as his Show Boat character does (one of many reasons why MGM’s 1951 Show Boat, despite some good elements — notably color, Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead as the show boat’s proprietors, William Warfield as Joe and Ava Gardner as Julie, even though her voice was dubbed and either Judy Garland or Lena Horne could have played it far, far better — is so far inferior to the 1936 version from Universal with Allan Jones, Irene Dunne, the incomparable Helen Morgan and the equally incomparable Paul Robeson). What’s good about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that the macho swagger that made Keel hard to take in softer, more romantic musical roles works beautifully for him here: one sees him striding down those streets, literally believing that acquiring a wife is no different from buying a bag of flour, and one joys in the sheer obliviousness of his machismo while also waiting for him to be taught some valuable life lessons, including that one about women being people.

Anyway, Adam Pontipee gets his wife, Milly (Jane Powell, top-billed), when he sees her chopping up a log for firewood and also serving a huge number of people in the bar where she works and also lives, since her parents own it. Milly accepts Adam’s proposal partly because it means she doesn’t have to marry any of the bar regulars, all of whom have been hitting on her, and partly because she assumes that her new life will be just her, Adam and any children that might come along later in the natural course of events. She’s quickly disabused of those notions and finds herself still being worked to the bone, and she insists that the Pontipee brothers shave off their beards and dress in clean clothes, including their underwear (the scene in which she forces them to take off their long johns so she can wash them is a delightful bit of Code-bending). She also won’t let Adam sleep in the same bed with her until he cleans up his act. The other Pontipee brothers decide they like the idea of a wife so much that each wants one for himself, and so they go to town looking for women — only their boorishness turns off every one they approach. Milly tries to teach them to court properly before the next big event, a combination barn dance and barn raising, and the Pontipee boys actually get some of the local girls interested in them — only the hostility of the townspeople towards them leads to a huge fight in which the newly raised barn collapses again, and the Pontipees’ reputation among the townspeople is back to less than zero.

It’s already been established that Milly brought two books along with her, the Bible and Plutarch’s Lives, and the boys read the story of the Sabine women and decide to do the same thing: they go into town, kidnap the six girls they’re interested in and use the conveniently located “Echo Pass” to trigger an avalanche so the townspeople can’t get to them for four months, until spring comes and the pass thaws out again. What they didn’t do was kidnap a minister to marry them — the original plan — and so Milly forces the men to sleep in the barn and runs the main house as a women’s safe space. She also gets herself pregnant (so she must have let Adam have sex with her at least once), and when the spring thaw arrives and the townspeople prepare to invade the Pontipee homestead and take back their women by force — and the audience wonders how on earth the writers are going to write themselves out of the hole they’ve written themselves into and still stay within the Production Code — Adam’s and Milly’s newborn baby (a girl, which has softened Adam’s heart and made him realize that he wouldn’t want his daughter kidnapped, so his brothers should let the townswomen go) cries, the townspeople ask whose baby is it, Adam’s brothers answer in unison, “Mine!,” and so a mass shotgun wedding is held and all seven brothers have their seven brides as we fade out.

The main reason the San Diego Public Library seems to have shown this as “Schlock Cinema” (though we actually watched it on a DVD at home) is the outrageously “politically incorrect” character of the story, though what could have been a rancidly sexist tale is actually well balanced: Milly, as played by Jane Powell, is tough, spunky and quite willing to order the menfolk around if that’s what it’s going to take to protect the rights of the women, and though based on her work in Calamity Jane Doris Day might have been even better in the role, Powell is certainly good enough despite an odd mismatch between her speaking and singing voices (she sounds like she has a voice double even though she doesn’t!). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers works partly because of the excellent chemistry between the leads (despite MGM’s attempt to make a star team of Keel and Kathryn Grayson, he and Powell play off each other a lot better than he and Grayson ever did) and partly because of the stunning ensemble dances Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd designed.

Though some of the Pontipees were cast with ballet-trained dancers (Ephraim was played by Jacques D’Amboise, whose opening credit announced he was on loan from the New York City Ballet!), Donen told Kidd from the get-go that the one thing he didn’t want the dancing in the film to have was any hint of ballet. What Kidd gave him was the famous barn-dance sequence, which probably owed a lot to Aaron Copland’s similarly “Western” ballet Rodeo (choreographed by Agnes De Mille and premiered in 1942) and is irresistibly athletic and stunningly staged to take advantage of the wide CinemaScope screen format. (Though this sequence is used by Turner Classic Movies as one of the examples of the harm done by panning-and-scanning widescreen films for the home TV format, Seven Brides was actually filmed twice: in the morning the cast and crew shot with a CinemaScope-equipped camera and in the afternoon they shot with a regular-format camera to create a version that could play in theatres that hadn’t yet installed the wide screen, stereo sound system and CinemaScope projector lenses needed to show CinemaScope films. By the time the movie was ready for release, though, so many theatres had set up for CinemaScope that the alternate version wasn’t needed, and it moldered in the MGM vaults until the 1990’s, when TCM showed it and it eventually ended up as a bonus item on the official DVD.)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the sort of movie that was probably a guilty pleasure both for its makers — the writers, director Donen, choreographer Kidd, the cast and songwriters DePaul and Mercer all clearly relished the thought of letting their hair down and creating something rustic and homespun instead of something sleek, sophisticated and urban — and for its audience: it’s the sort of outrageous movie you shouldn’t really like, but you do.