Stanley Donen’s ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954)

16Dec08

Seven Brides for Seven BrothersThe men look bad. The women look bad. Only Jane Powell escapes this movie unscathed.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is hardly an evolved movie, but my feminist sensibilities weren’t nearly as offended as I thought they would be. Even though I don’t like them, I can’t really fault Stanley Donen for the film’s representations of gender and gender roles reflecting the dominate social constructions of the 1950s. The enforcement of gender roles is definitely integral to the plot, but this film is largely an exploration of class.

The film begins in Oregon in 1850 with Adam Pontipee arriving in town to sell his beef, buy some supplies, and find himself a wife. Ignoring warnings that all of the women in town are spoken for due to the high ratio of men to women in the West, Adam takes a stroll around town and runs into Milly, the cook for the local bar. Adam sees a practical, pretty woman who can cook and clean, but Milly falls in love with Adam at first sight. Milly’s idealized notions of wedded bliss are immediately confronted with reality when she arrives at her new husband’s farm to be greeted by his six brothers, whose manners and hygiene are somewhat different from the townsfolk’s to which she is accustomed. Milly quickly begins to teach her new brothers-in-law how to “act like gentlemen” so that they can court some wives of their own.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers lends itself well to a Freudian interpretation. The town and the “deep woods,” where the Pontipee brothers live, act as opposing forces, representing the superego and the id. Having grown up in the deep woods, the Pontipees lack a developed ego, due to little exposure to the superego (the town). Moving from town to the deep woods, Milly acts as an agent of the superego and exposes the Pontipees to the cultural structures that have regulated her behavior.

As in much of American storytelling, women appear here as the socializing force, with Milly and “the brides” possessing a little more “super” in their egos. All of the men, even the townsfolk, are portrayed as ids barely held in check by the ego, as the brawl at the barn raising demonstrates. Some men simply suppress the id better than others.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
The scene I find most interesting, and embarrassing, is the one in which the women result to catfights after insinuating that some amongst them had been mooning over the brothers. The fights come after they had been stranded in the deep woods for two months, two months during which the girls only had contact with the id (the deep woods) and no connection with the superego (the town). Even though they are women possessing better-developed egos, prolonged exposure to the id affects their behavior, causing them to behave much like the brothers at the beginning of the film.

As musicals go, Seven Brides is fairly entertaining. The songs are catchy enough, but quickly forgotten once the credits roll. Michael Kidd’s choreography is the highlight and, arguably, the focus of the film, given that all of the actors, with the exception of only a few, were hired for their dancing abilities. Kidd creates unique musical numbers out of mundane frontier tasks, such as chopping wood and, most famously, barn raising. (Note: I don’t think I’d really understood what a barn raising was until I saw this movie. I thought it was just a dance, a metaphorical “raising” of the barn.)

Jane Powell deservedly receives top billing for her portrayal of Milly, which grounds the film. A young, pre-West Side Story Russ Tamblyn also stands out as Gideon. I was happy to see Tommy Rall, though disappointed that his marvelous hoofing skills weren’t able to be showcased in this film. I was surprised to learn young Julie Newmar, the original Catwoman, played the unfortunately named Dorcas. I have seen Howard Keel twice now as a leading man — first in Kiss Me, Kate — and I have mixed feelings about his ability in this arena. Milly spends more time with the brothers than with Adam, so Keel is missing during large chunks of the film and frankly I don’t really miss him. Keel is a fairly generous actor and freely allows other actors to make the most of their screen time, which sometimes results in his failing to make more of an impression. With the case of both Kiss Me, Kate and Seven Brides, I’m left remembering more of the secondary characters than Keel’s.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Seven Brides. I’m too much a feminist to enjoy the story too much, but I was fairly surprised that the women have as much agency as they do in this film. If the film had concluded with the women explaining to their fathers that they choose to marry the Pontipees instead of a mass shotgun wedding I would have been more mollified. However, as a piece of entertainment, Seven Brides, with the help of Michael Kidd’s unique choreography, does satisfy.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
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