Throughout the next four weeks I’ll be reviewing various musicals in support of TCM’s newest interactive online course, Mad About Musicals.
Any classic film lover will tell you mitigation is the key to enjoying the classics. From Hollywood’s interest in blackface to its changing views of women, movies aren’t perfect but reflect the things we once valued. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the perfect example of a “problematic film” that advocates for kidnapping women as a means of finding romance. However, and this is a big however, the film’s utterly charming cast, catchy music, and sumptuous sets do a lot towards balancing the real-world problems which lie within the plot itself. I absolutely hated Howard Keel in it, though.
Adam Pontipee (Keel) is determined to get a wife to care for him and his six brothers. He quickly meets the effervescent Milly (Jane Powell) and the two marry. But when Milly discovers Adam just wants a nursemaid she’s understandably upset. The two eventually mend fences and start their life together, but problems arise when Adam’s six single brothers decide they want wives too!
Let’s get the all singin’, all dancin’ elephant out of the room: there’s a very skewed idea of courtship here. Howard Keel’s Adam arrives in town hell-bent on getting a wife, but not for love; he wants someone to cook, clean, and care for him and his siblings. Milly is the Snow White in this outfit, caring for the seven
dwarfs Pontipees. Adam’s first song, the appropriately titled “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” lays out what Adam wants in a woman – specifically that she’s pretty and not fat. When he meets Milly, he likes that she’s pretty, skinny, and “sassy.” Powell’s performance drew comparisons to Debbie Reynolds Unsinkable Molly Brown for the brief minute Milly works at the saloon, but that’s where the comparisons end. Milly meets Adam, and though he speechifies about his unwillingness to court her because ain’t nobody got time for that – ending with the reminder that she’s not getting any younger and won’t have time to fall back on her “pride” – Milly falls in love with him anyway.
Jane Powell deserves all the praise because she’s the lone voice of reason. When Adam brings her home and she comes upon the six other Pontipees she’s downright mad! She realizes why she’s been brought there and goes so far as to kick Adam out of their bedroom. Later, when the other brothers come back with their six female kidnap victims Milly gives them the business. She’s horrified that they believe throwing a woman over their back is the way to go. Romance, communication, and personal connections mean nothing. I’ve enjoyed Jane Powell in everything I’ve seen her in so far and it’s fun seeing how her diminutive frame is paired next to the tall, imposing Howard Keel, allowing for further appreciation of how she stands up to him.
This brings us to Howard Keel……Keel personified the big, hulking lumberjack figure who played characters living in times where women were the subordinate group. Adam Pontipee is the apotheosis of the Keel aesthetic. For everything Milly teaches the brothers to make them civilized human beings, Adam immediately contradicts. When the whole family arrives at a barn-raising – where the boys meet their eventual brides-to-be – the brothers decide to be civil and not retaliate with violence when the local men start throwing things at them. (The interplay of dancing and violence is pretty ingenuous here. Watching hammers and punches thrown in time to the music is particularly inventive.) But Adam chastises the men for being weak. The eventual fight between all the men ruins any chance at courting the women properly. So, technically they wouldn’t have had to kidnap women if it weren’t for Adam…..just saying. Adam eventually disappears from the entire third act, moving out to an isolated cabin due to an argument with Milly. When Milly gets pregnant and has a baby, Adam’s pride – the thing he critiqued Milly for in the beginning – leads him to think it’s a “trick” by Milly to bring him home.
But I’m complaining too much. What’s surprising about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – aside from the fact that it borrows the plot from “The Rape of the Sabine Women” – is that it can be so stinkin’ fun in spite of its obviously troubling plotline. Warner’s recently released a glittering two-disc Blu-ray for the film and it’s on par with the 4K restoration of Oklahoma (1955) that’s out there. The jewel tones of the men’s shirts just sparkle off the screen, the white snow during their crossing of the pass looks crisp and clean, even the beautiful faces of Powell, Ruta Lee and Julie Newmar are even more beautiful than you’d expect. Everything just has a colorful brightness to it that’s proof of how in-depth this restoration went.
Michael Kidd’s choreography is also worth watching. His dance movies are a combination of ballet – where arms and feet are in perfect unison – and a galloping, jaunty mix of country movement that’s just exhausting to watch and beautifully presented. Even watching the men’s performance of “Lonesome Polecat” is beautifully rendered, with the men engaging in simple gestures like a raise of the knee that’s balletic in how deliberately it’s executed. It’s enough to make you ignore that line about “sleeping with sheep.” The rest of the Pontipees are also worth pointing out, especially Russ Tamblyn as youngest brother Gideon. He’s the one with the clearest conscience and is more than willing to stand up to Adam when he’s being a prat. And we also have to give a bow to Tommy Rall, always my favorite dancer to see in a movie. He may have an ugly red dye job going on here but that can’t hide his beautifully sculpted features, and he’s easily the best dancer in the group (can you tell I’m biased?).
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers won’t work for everyone, but if you understand the transitions of film and society it can be mitigated. The film’s cast are all top-notch and the dancing is stellar. Thanks should go out to Warners for giving us a fantastic restoration.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.