Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
TCM couldn’t celebrate the talented Miss Jane Powell for a whole month without playing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)! To put it simply, this film is AWESOME. A bit silly, quite unrealistic, but nevertheless, nothing but FUN from the second the strapping Howard Keel steps on the screen!
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a film you remember: I first saw it at a friend’s house when I was about seven years old. I remember thinking Jane Powell (well, I didn’t know her name at the time) was sooooo pretty, the costumes were beautiful, and that the dancing was just about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. And I still feel the same way!
This classic musical has a simple plot: seven backwoodsmen in 1850s Oregon try to convince seven girls to marry them. BOOM. That’s it!
In their quest to find wives, these mountain men learn some manners, do some dancing, singing, and kidnapping. If you haven’t seen the film and are wondering what place kidnapping has in a 1950s musical, all I can say is go watch the film!!
Our Star of the Month, Jane Powell, plays Milly, the gorgeous working girl who marries the oldest of the brothers, Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), and then teaches the remaining six brothers all the things they need to know to find girls of their own in town, and then convince the girls to marry them. Milly’s greatest lesson to the Pontipee brothers though, particularly the one she marries, is that you can’t take love for granted.
Jane’s Flawless Milly: Her Last Great Screen Role
I can find absolutely no fault with Jane’s portrayal of the spunky, sassy, confident, loving, caring, and kind, Milly. If you read my introduction post on Jane, you may remember that she felt Milly was a landmark role in her career:
“I certainly had no idea, when I was working on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, that the charmingly sensible pioneer girl Milly would be my last really wonderful role in a film.”
Milly was indeed a great role, and Jane NAILS it. But she’s right, it was her last substantial screen role. And it absolutely kills me!! By 1954, when Seven Brides was released, Jane was in her mid-twenties and a phenomenal singer and dancer. But big movie musicals where going out of fashion. Unlike stars such as Doris Day—you know how I feel about Doris!!—Jane for one reason or another didn’t make the transition to the way films were moving. Truly a loss for us, her fans, and Classic Hollywood fans in general.
MGM pairs Jane with Howard Keel
Ok, so Milly was Jane’s last really great screen role. And again, that was kind of indicative of how her studio, MGM, felt about many of its musical stars and productions. Howard Keel, another musical star, was also experiencing a bit of a career slump with the decreasing popularity of musicals.
So what did MGM do? They put these two stars in a movie together! The logic being, in Jane’s words, that
“Howard and I had professional problems, but together we made a marvelous package—we were good box office.”
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: MGM’s “B” Musical
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was considered a “B” picture, meaning that MGM wanted to make the movie, but didn’t want to spend a lot of money doing so. Instead, MGM decided to use their funds and resources on what they deemed “A” pictures, like the ultimately inferior Brigadoon (1954). Little did MGM know that Seven Brides, its “B” musical of 1954, would end up being leaps and bounds more popular, profitable, and memorable than their “A” budget films that year! As Jane proudly shares in her autobiography,
“Of course, Seven Brides was a big hit, a real sleeper, and Brigadoon seemed to disappear. We all felt pretty smug about that.”
Settling for the Backlot
MGM was so set on keeping Seven Brides on a strict, cheap budget, that all requests by director Stanley Donen to film at least a portion of the movie on location in Oregon were repeatedly denied. As a result, Seven Brides was filmed on the soundstages of the MGM backlot. So all those outdoors-y scenes—because you know, when you make a film about mountain men who live in the woods, you’re going to have a lot of outdoor shots—were actually filmed in front of canvases painted with trees, flowers, and whatnot. !!!
Yeah. CHEAP. But it really just speaks to how wonderful Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is, that we the viewers completely overlook and forgive what could have been an utterly distracting element of the film: painted sets! The film more than rises above this limitation.
The Costumes of the Seven Brides
If you’re anything like me, one of the very first things you admire about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the beautiful costumes, particularly the dresses that Jane and the other six girls wear. These gorgeous gowns were designed by the legendary Walter Plunkett.
Over his nearly 40-year career, Plunkett designed costumes for more than 150 Hollywood productions. In addition to Seven Brides, you’ve seen Plunkett’s work in such classic films as Gone with the Wind (1939),Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and An American in Paris (1951).
If you remember, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, many of the girls’ dresses look like they were made out of quilts, as was the fashion in the 1850s, when the film was set. Well, the dresses that Plunkett designed for the film didn’t just look like they were made from quilts: they were made from quilts! According to Jane,
“It would have been easy to whip up dresses that looked like quilts—but instead…Walter Plunkett went to the Salvation Army and found old quilts, and turned them into marvelous, authentic dresses for all the brides.”
Ok, how cool is that?!!! Wardrobe can totally set the tone of a film. Walter Plunkett, with his attention to detail and quest for authenticity, ensured that the proper, rugged frontier tone of Seven Brides was set in a very realistic, yet stylish way.
I can’t close my post on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers without addressing the spectacular dancing!
The Pontipee brothers in the film were quite varied in their backgrounds and dance training—or lack there of! Two of the brothers had no dance training whatsoever—Howard Keel (Adam) and Jeff Richards (Benjamin). Keel’s forte was obviously singing, and Richards actually played baseball for the Portland Beavers before becoming an actor! Both, quite conspicuously, do very little dancing in the film.
Jacques d’ Amboise, Ephraim in the movie, was a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet. Marc Platt, who plays Daniel, is a familiar face from several musicals of the era, including Oklahoma! (1955).
Russ Tamblyn, Gideon in the film, best known for playing opposite Natalie Wood as Riff, the leader of the Jets in West Side Story (1961), was another Pontipee brother who, quite surprisingly, was not a trained dancer at this point in his career. If you notice, much of Tamblyn’s contributions to the dance numbers in Seven Brides involve acrobatics of some sort—back flips, aerials, etc. This is because Tamblyn’s background was gymnastics!
My two favorite brothers in regards to dance skills are Caleb (Matt Mattox) and Frank (Tommy Rall). If we are going strictly on dance technique, Matt Mattox outshines all the brothers. He is the brother I find my dancer’s eye going back to time and again. Next time you watch Seven Brides, note how fluid, yet controlled Mattox is with every move. He’s just a beautiful dancer. Trained in classical ballet, Mattox went on to choreograph a few Broadway shows before inventing and teaching “freestyle dancing,” a precursor to what we now call jazz. Mattox was one of the fathers of modern jazz dancing! In the barn raising scene, look for him! He’s the brother in the yellow shirt.
Tommy Rall!!! You may remember Tommy from Kiss Me Kate (1953). (Read my post on that delightful film here!) Tommy is the flashiest dancer in the group by far. As I mentioned in my Kiss Me Kate post, this guy can JUMP! If we are judging by pure flash dancing—that is, dancing that is really eye-catching, full of tricks, and well, flashy—Tommy wins, hands down! But don’t misunderstand me, I’m not belittling his technique! After Mattox, in my opinion Tommy Rall is the next best dancer in the bunch. Don’t miss him in the red shirt in the barn raising scene!
Seven Brides choreographer Michael Kidd, the first choreographer ever to win five Tony Awards, does a superb job emphasizing each of his dancers’ respective strengths.
What I think is most impressive about Kidd’s choreography is that he manages to work in really intricate steps and stunts without compromising the realism of the film: you won’t find the Pontippee brothers doing Swan Lake ballet moves, or Gene Kelly taps in the movie. Kidd made sure his choreography was believable for the characters and their circumstances. In Kidd’s own words,
“I had to find a way to have these backwoods men dance without looking ridiculous. I had to base it all around activities you would accept from such people…work movements like ax wielding…it couldn’t look like ballet. And it could only have been done by superbly trained dancers.”
Kidd more than succeeds here, and the dancing in Seven Brides, particularly the barn raising scene, has been hailed by critics as some of the very best ever put on screen.
Watch the barn raising dance below!
Did You Recognize Catwoman? Oh, and I’m Finally Done
Wow, did I really go on that long about this film? So sorry! If you made it to the end of this post, thank you!
I just need to ask really quickly, though, did you find that Dorcas, the most beautiful of the remaining six brides in the film, looked a little familiar? That’s because Julie Newmar, who plays Dorcas (what a name!!!), went on to create the role of Catwoman in the original Batman TV series (1966-1967)!!
And with that, I finish my last post for the month on the incredibly talented and loveable Ms Jane Powell. I have so enjoyed watching her films this month, and learning more about this beyond adorable woman!
Stay tuned for next week when I introduce our July Star of the Month, one of the greatest portrayers of the average man with a moral code on screen, Glenn Ford! I have so many interesting facts and anecdotes from Ford’s life that I’m sure will surprise you!