1001 Classic Movies: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). June is the traditional month for weddings so throughout the month I'll write about four diverse movies with "bride" in the title. This week's selection is the innovative musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers tells the story of Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), the head of a pioneer family in 1850's Oregon. Adam decides that he needs a wife to do the cooking and cleaning around the farm, so he marries a beautiful, but lonely young woman named Milly (Jane Powell) on the same day that he  meets her. After Adam's brothers meet some lovely young women at a barn-raising they begin to pine for families of their own, so Adam comes up with an outrageous scheme that is based on an ancient Roman story.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was the dream project of MGM producer Jack Cummings, who finally obtained the rights to Stephen Vincent Benet's short story, Sobbin' Women, in the early 1950's. Cummings and director Stanley Donen had plans for making a lavish musical that would be filmed on location in Oregon, but MGM's front office had other ideas. They gave Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a B movie budget because they were spending a great deal of money on director Vincente Minnelli and star Gene Kelly's adaptation of Brigadoon (1954), which meant that most of the movie was shot in the studio. Despite this setback, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a huge hit with both audiences and critics.

 While Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is in no way, shape, or form an accurate depiction of pioneer life, the movie does capture some of the harsh realities of marriage on the frontier. Many people married as much for necessity as for love: Men often needed someone to help with the cooking and cleaning, and marriage was often a way for women to escape the drudgery and boredom of their daily lives at home.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Viewer's Guide: This joyous movie is one of old Hollywood's great dance films. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Plot. Benet's short story is based on the ancient Roman legend, The Rape of the Sabine Women (in this case rape means abduction without any violence), in which a group of lonesome polecat Roman soldiers kidnap some local women to be their wives.
2. Dance. Ballet sequences were a popular trend in the early 1950's, but Michael Kidd's innovative choreography moved dance in American film from high art to everyday life in rousing sequences like the barn-raising dance and the dreamy "Lonesome Polecat" number.
3. Songs. Cummings originally intended for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to use only American folk songs for the score, but that idea was scrapped in favor of a toe-tapping original score from composers Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. 
4. cast. The large cast included several notable names like ballet legend Jacques d'Amboise as brother Ephraim (he's the one who dances with the ax in the "Lonesome Polecat" number), Russ Tamblyn as youngest brother Gideon, and future Catwoman Julie Newmar (billed as Julie Newmeyer) as bride Dorcas.

Other critics: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has an 88 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and Leonard Maltin calls it a "rollicking musical [that] perfectly integrates song, dance, and story" in a four star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1954 were over the moon about this innovative musical.  The Hollywood Reporter accurately noted that the film was "historic for being the first completely successful marriage of ballet and movie comedy" while the Variety critic compared it favorably to past MGM blockbusters, calling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers "the liltingest bit of tunesome lollygagging to hit the screen since the same studio brought forth An American in Paris."

Jacques d'Amboise makes a fantastic leap in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
The bottom line: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a bit corny by modern standards, but it is still one of the most joyous movies ever made. Try not to to tap your toes while Howard Keel is belting out "Sobbin' Women" (although don't listen too hard to the lyrics).

Availability: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers will air at 10:30 p.m. July 2 on TCM. It is also available on DVD and video on demand.

Next Monday, I'll continue the brides theme with a look at the horror film, Bride of Frankenstein (1935).