Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley
As I once again find myself on the Western trail, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the perfect title to return to. Many of the titles in this Westerns marathon were films I had not seen before, but this is an exception. The rare western musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is notable for a couple different reasons that I will try to speak to in this review, but suffice it to say, it’s a little controversial, but also legendary and incredible, making for an interesting conversation. It’s a film I love: fun, but maybe not so wholesome. Partially based and referencing “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, it’s a film that is problematic, but it’s also interesting to examine how the film handles these “not so great” scenarios. The last thing I’ll say about this film before getting more into it would simply be that this is a frontier western, not a traditional boot spur and revolver western, making it an even rarer breed.
Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) is the eldest of 7 brothers living in the mountains in frontier Oregon Territory. Looking for a wife, Adam ventures into town and finds Milly (Jane Powell), Adam’s perfect match. She’s strong, independent, and willing to stand up for herself. When she discovers the Ponipee brothers’ homestead, she finds she has her work cut out for herself. Milly puts her foot down immediately, forcing the brothers (Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise, Mark Platt) to practice common sense hygiene and manners, two things that were seriously lacking. Taking to Milly so well, the brothers ask her to help them find wives, which leads to barn raising party where they each meet wonderful girls they wish to court. But Adam quickly undermines Milly, suggesting the men sneak into town and carry the women away. During the kidnapping, the mountain pass is blocked by avalanche, forcing the girls to adjust to life with the Pontipee’s throughout the winter until the pass thaws and they can be rescued.
Let’s just start right off with it: the Pontipee’s kidnapping the women and “forcing” them to fall in love with them is unforgivable. It’s horrible. It was horrible in 1850s Oregon, it was horrible in 1950s Hollywood, and it’s still horrible today. There really is no other way to address this. It’s morally reprehensible however you cut it. Sure, you can make arguments about them being in love already, about how they treated them once they were on the farm, it could have been worse, but that’s more terrifying than it is relieving to say. I’m not sure how I can best reckon with this part of the story because it’s not easy and I can fully understand any viewer being too turned off by this plot point to even consider anything else in the movie. And I’m not going to insert a “but” here. It’s not great, and in fact it’s worse than “not great”.
So what about the rest of the film? Well, as a musical, it has some really good numbers, including the opening song from bass-baritone Howard Keel, and the beautifully synchronized number from the brothers as they chop and saw wood. The choreography is what really stands out as remarkable in this film. The barn raising sequence, which comes in three parts, is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen set to film. The rhythm and staging of the gymnastics, dancing and fight scene are breathtakingly great. Each performer is given an opportunity somewhere in the film to show off their physical abilities. It’s just a very easy film to bring a smile to my face with its ridiculous behavior (kidnapping notwithstanding), fun musical numbers, and incredible choreography. It doesn’t hurt that the Oregon frontier looks great in Technicolor too. The middle section of the film really carries this film to be a great film.
But we do have to reckon with the kidnapping part, and that’s very hard. I have, ultimately, dinged the film a full star for this, not that the punishment really resolves anything, or absolves the film of its crimes, but the rest of the film is too dang gone good for me to ignore. Again, I can debate away the morality of the characters: Milly set the boys straight; they were in love already anyway. Anything I can say is only an excuse, not a viable reason. For that reason this rests right below my favorite films of all time, because honestly, without it, it’d be one of my all-time favorites, which makes this so hard.