Film: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
I suppose if I really think about it, I knew what I was getting into when I decided it was time to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It is, after all, a musical from that classic era of Hollywood when every other film seemed to be a musical. And that means giant dance numbers, people singing what they think to each other with a full orchestra background behind them, color-coordinated outfits, misunderstandings, and stereotypical division of the sexes. But, I’m committed to it, so I may as well push my way through it.
Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) rides into town one fine day to trade for some goods and to find himself a wife. And, wonder of wonders, he finds one. That very day he meets, proposes to, and marries Milly (Jane Powell). He fails to tell her that he lives with his six brothers and that he fully expects that she’ll take care of all of them. Fortunately for her, the brothers are conveniently named alphabetically and Biblically. After Adam comes Benjamin (Jeff Richards), Caleb (Matt Mattox), Daniel (Marc Platt), Ephraim (Jacques d’Ambroise), Frank (short for Frankincense and played by (Tommy Rall), and Gideon (Russ Tamblyn). Of course, she’s having none of this and she sets to civilizin’ those boys right quick.
Everything comes to a head at the barn raising where the six unmarried brothers meet six girls from the local town and are immediately smitten with them. They are, paired up the same order as above, Dorcas (Julie Newmar), Ruth (Ruta Lee), Martha (Norma Doggett), Liza (Virginia Gibson), Sarah (Betty Carr), and Alice (Nancy Kilgas). Of course, in the Oregon Territory, there are more men than women, and each of the six already has a suitor.
What we get is a dance-off, essentially as five of the brothers in particular (Benjamin was played by a non-dancing ex-baseball player, evidently) battle it out with the girls’ dates, and it’s evident that the girls prefer the tall, red-haired, and studly Pontipee men to their current beaus. Those beaus take it out on the Pontipees by physically attacking them in small ways as the barn sides start going up. Eventually, the Pontipees react and a huge fight breaks out (which is actually quite entertaining) and at the end, the entire barn comes crashing down. Naturally, everyone blames the brothers and they are essentially run out of town on a rail.
But now the brothers are distraught over their missing girls. So, when winter comes, Adam relates to them the story of the Sabine Women (which he mistranslates as the Sobbin’ Women) and convinces the boys that their best course of action is to ride into town and kidnap the girls. They do, and on the way back to their farm, they cause an avalanche so that no one can follow them, at least until spring. Unfortunately, they’ve managed to forget to bring the pastor with them, which means no marriages. This is to say nothing of the fact that the six girls are naturally quite upset about being dragged off into the wilderness by six large and horny men. The actions also cause a rift between Adam and Milly, and Adam goes off to the trapping cabin.
Big sigh. The brothers are forced to live in the barn and the six girls vent their frustration on them through the winter until by the spring it turns out that (of course) they’ve fallen for the strapping young boys. And, because it’s a musical, everything works out in the end just like you knew it would from the first moment Howard Keel started singing.
My biggest complaint here is not that everybody sings and dances. It’s that the women are so compliant in the whole thing. This isn’t a movie about love or marriage, but the Stockholm Syndrome, complete with a frontier underwear catfight. It’s actually pretty insulting. Milly complains that Adam doesn’t understand her, or women, or love, but it seems like he’s got it pretty much on target for what this film tells us. Capture a woman like a caveman, drag her away from everything she knows and keep her prisoner for a few months, and just like that, you’ve got a bride who will be completely devoted to you. Better romance through criminal behavior.
Another issue is that with a couple of exceptions, the brothers are pretty much interchangeable. It’s easy to spot Adam because, well, he’s Howard Keel. And Russ Tamblyn is considerably smaller than the other brothers, so he’s pretty easy to spot as well. But the other five may as well be given numbers instead of names for as much sense as I could make of them. Even the fact that the brothers end up conveniently color-coded from the barn raising on, I still couldn’t really tell them apart.
It’s also evident that wherever they are in Oregon, the woods get snowed in for a good seven or eight months per year. It’s cozy!
It’s interesting that it’s taken me this film to really understand what my problem is with many classic musicals. It’s the sexual politics of these films. Women have no meaning or purpose without men, and seem to be willing to endure any sort of mistreatment from the men in their lives simply because they are the men in their lives. It’s not the sort of lesson I’d prefer my daughters learn from things that they see. I understand why people like these films and I even understand why this message was there in 1954, but it doesn’t mean it’s a lesson that belongs in the world any more.
Why to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: Because the barn raising scene is really worth seeing.
Why not to watch: Stockholm Syndrome is not a healthy basis for a marriage.