Jul 25, 2018

On Blu-ray: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

I’ve always been a bit iffy about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), as I feel anyone should be about a film that takes an essentially light view of kidnapping innocent young women from their homes. Perhaps that is why so much time has passed since the last time I saw this musical which, subject matter aside, is one of MGM’s greatest artistic and box office successes. Though I am always going to have a sense of unease about this production, it is nevertheless one of the great dance films and it is that element that I enjoyed the most while revisiting the production on a new Blu-ray double-disc set from Warner Archive.

In a busy frontier town, sharp-witted settler woman Milly (Jane Powell) is briskly wooed by burly backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel). Unfortunately, he neglects to mention to his new bride that in addition to her husband, she will be cooking and cleaning for his six brothers. Milly understandably revolts, but she is also in love with Adam. She makes the best of her situation by tutoring the other brothers in proper courting behavior.

The boys get a chance to try their new skills at a barn raising, but the afternoon ends in fistfights with their romantic rivals. Shut out of the town society where their intended brides live, they resort to kidnapping the women they wish to marry. Their escape is made complete by a valley-blocking avalanche. Now Milly must keep the frightened women “pure” until they can escape home in the summer thaw.

Brides was based on the short story The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t, which was a parody of The Rape of the Sabine Women from Roman mythology. It’s a much rougher story than the film adaptation, with Milly not only suggesting the abductions, but also helping the men to abduct the women at rifle point. Of course mid-century moral conventions required that the film version of Milly have nothing to do with such a plot and show proper indignation.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the plot of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is that in the midst of the fifties, a mainstream film featured a woman who prevailed over seven men in a war of wills. As much as the men in the film do to deceive, overpower and dominate the women they meet, it is Milly who ultimately controls what happens. She takes Adam to task over his trickery, changes the slovenly habits of a house full of men, and sets the terms for a long winter in which she must care for and protect six young women. Though she is content in playing a traditional caretaking role, every major decision made in her marriage and on her homestead is heavily influenced by her wishes.

As with many musicals though, the plot doesn’t get the bulk of attention, and rightfully so. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is most famous for its athletic and physically challenging dance choreography, performed by the seemingly fearless dancers Tommy Rall, Marc Platt and Matt Mattox, with added gymnastics and tumbling feats from Russ Tamblyn. These men are the core of an astonishing barn-raising scene, featuring dozens of male and female dancers, which is understandably one of the most famous dance sequences to be put on film.

In a relatively small space, the Pontipee brothers face off with an equal number of rival suitors from the town as they try to woo the most eligible young ladies in the settlement. This sizable group of dancers leaps and twirls through the barn worksite. Recalling her time as one of the brides, Julie Newmar remembered the intensity of the atmosphere on set, where the peril to the performers was ever present. Each leap onto a sawhorse, every cartwheel or fast-paced turn, even stepping between beams on the open foundation could lead to a life-changing, or even fatal, injury. That all this raw athleticism was translated into such a visually beautiful number makes it all the more remarkable.

All told, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers works because it appears effortlessly entertaining. The songs are hummable, the stars and their supporting players pleasing, and everything moves at a brisk, breezy pace. It would be legendary for the power of its dance sequences alone, but it really sings because it works on all those different levels. I will probably always feel queasy about the kidnapping, but there’s no denying the MGM magic at play here.

The two-disc Blu-ray includes two versions of the film (which have been made available before in DVD): one made in Cinemascope, the other in standard format, so that MGM could ensure its desired level of quality whatever technical equipment a theater had. I’ve heard of big fans of the film noticing different inflections, etc. between the two versions. I haven’t seen it enough to catch those nuances, though I did notice that the standard version was in dramatically better condition.

Special features on the disc include the 1997 documentary Sobbin' Women: The Making of 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' which was hosted by Howard Keel and features interviews with several of the key cast members. There’s also a newsreel, a vintage short and a setting that gives viewers the opportunity to browse the songs in the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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