Sunday, February 5, 2012

And the World's Happiest Caterer

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.


  1. It looks like I have to pay extra attention when I watch it.Stockholm Syndrome is a interesting mention.

  2. Not so much. The "falling in love with their captors" thing is pretty obvious. All it takes is a few musical numbers for the girls to fall head-over-heels for the guys.

  3. I also had a real problem with this movie for the very same reasons, and what makes matters worse is that I recall my mother saying that this was one of her favorite movies of all time (and that she had seen it 10-12 times in the theater when she was a teenager!) I also purchased a DVD of this film before i'd seen it - figuring that it had to have some value if: a) it was on the list; and b) that it was one of my mom's favorites. I know what i'm sending to her for her next birthday!

  4. We've had discussions before about how realistic or non-realistic to expect musicals to be, so I won't get into that again.

    I don't have a problem with this movie for its attitude toward women. If I did, I would have to have a problem with almost any movie made prior to the 1970s.

    The song Keel sings about the Sabine/sobbin' women definitely feels out of place nowadays. The entire tale is an ancient one about The Rape of the Sabine Women. While there is, of course, no sex let alone any rape of the kidnapped women, the idea of using that tale as the genesis for taking them certainly raises eyebrows nowadays.

    Of course, nowadays things get interpreted differently from how they were intended. I realized this while watching My Fair Lady years ago. A suitor for her is singing about his love for her being enough as long as he is "outside on the street where you live." It was all about the wonders of romance, but to a modern eye he is singing about stalking her. Secret admirers used to be about the most romantic thing there was. Now the first thing many people think of is that the person is some kind of creep or deviant.

    People prefer the more innocent times, which is why the older movies often are liked. They bring back a sense of nostalgia. Yes, if they thought about it most women would not want to live in those times because of their attitudes toward women, but no man or woman would want to live then because of their lack of medical knowledge and sanitation. Movies gloss over those uglier facts, too.

  5. Yeah, I don't want to get into the whole "musicals aren't realistic" thing here. And I also understand that the way women are treated in this film is much more a function of the timing of the film and the era it came from. I can be aware of this, but I still live now, in the current world. A part of what I'm trying to do here is see these movies from both perspectives--when it was made and now. For this film, the "now" just doesn't carry over as well.

    Strangely, I had much less of a problem with this in My Fair Lady. This comes down to intent. I know the "intent" in Seven Brides... is innocent and sweet, but it's harder to rationalize kidnapping than walking past someone's house and sighing.

    Ultimately, I just call them as I see them, and I saw this as Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical.

  6. I know what you mean about then and now. I had to review 49th Parallel from both perspectives when I posted on it a couple months back because I didn't feel that it would be fair without that. Back then it received an Oscar nomination for writing, but nowadays the propaganda in it is very heavy handed.

    On a happier note, as one of my favorite blogs, I have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award. Check out my post for details:

    Feel free to accept or decline. No pressure.

  7. I have accepted (obviously), and I thank you. I'm not sure I deserve it, but I'll take it anyway.

  8. I actually thought that there was a clause in the Hayes codes that required criminal acts to be punished and that the bad guys cannot win. Yet these guys get away with mass abduction and the crime is even described as excusable because this is what the girls really want. If the Hayes codes were set up to protect the public from corruption from movies the failed blatantly here. You are right, this is not a message I would give to children either.

    1. Well...I think the justification per the Hays Code would be that criminal charges would not be pressed if the girls decided to stay. I don't really know, though. This is still the musical that I have the biggest problem with, although Guys and Dolls is in the running in the way that it treats women.