Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Seeking 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'

Milly (Jane Powell): Well, it wouldn't hurt you to learn some manners, too.

Adam (Howard Keel): What do I need manners for? I already got me a wife.

I think I must have seen "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" on TV when I was small. It is just the kind of movie that my grandmother loved, and it is not a reach for me to imagine her watching it with my mother.

I have no distinct memory of that, and I could be wrong. But some of the shots — and the music that goes with them — are so familiar, it is as if, whenever I watch it, the movie is tapping on some mostly forgotten memory buried deep in my brain.

It's more than that, I suppose. The images of 19th–century Oregon in that movie match my mental picture of the Old West. But, for some reason, my picture of a pioneer woman isn't of Jane Powell. It is of Debbie Reynolds. Strange. Perhaps I am confusing "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," which premiered 60 years ago today, with "How the West Was Won" in my mind?

Maybe someday I will remember — and it will all seem so obvious to me, as things often do in hindsight, why it has been lodged in my brain all these years. What was it, I would like to know, about "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" that stood out for me? Was it the music?

Actually, none of the music in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" struck me as exceptional. None of the songs made the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie songs of all time. The movie received five Oscar nominations; not one was for Best Song.

Yet AFI did rank the movie #21 among movie musicals.


People who know more about movie musicals than I do have told me "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" is perhaps the best of MGM's musicals from the 1950s.

That is quite a claim, considering that MGM was synonymous with musical excellence, especially in the '50s with movies like "An American in Paris" and "Singin' in the Rain" earlier in the decade. "The Band Wagon," considered a classic today but hardly a blockbuster when it was at the theaters, came out a year before "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

It was a time when television was keeping more and more people away from the theaters. MGM released what is regarded as its last great musical, "Gigi," in 1958. The genre sputtered along through the '60s and '70s — fueled by other studios — and seemed to reach its zenith when "Chicago" won Best Picture in 2003.

The entertainment landscape was already shifting when audiences watched Powell and Howard Keel sing and dance in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

The movie musical wasn't dead — but it was moving in that direction. To remain viable in the years ahead, musicals would have to be even more lavish, more outlandish. They would have to have a few tricks up their sleeves.

One trick was color. Color television was available in 1954 — but it was still new and very expensive. It was a real status symbol to own a color TV in those days.

Routine color programming of TV series was still more than a decade away. Meanwhile, more movies were being made in color.

To emphasize the color — and to differentiate between them — the seven brothers of the title wore differently colored shirts.

I have to concede that Keel and Powell were a good match on the screen, even if their relationship was a little odd. They met when Keel, the oldest of the seven brothers, came to town for supplies — and "get a wife" was on his to–do list.

Inexplicably, he did find a bride (Powell) and took her back to his rural home, which he shared with his six brothers. Powell not only met his brothers for the first time, she learned of their existence at the same time. And it became her mission to clean them up and make them presentable to court brides of their own.

Her character was also a bit of a feminist for that time. She resisted the idea that a wife was only good for cooking and cleaning.

And the dancing in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" was extraordinary — better than most, in my opinion. I suppose much of that was due to the fact that about half of the brothers were played by professional dancers. That paid some nice dividends in the barn–raising scene, which still has some of the most astonishingly athletic dance moves I have ever seen on film.

Unfortunately, co–star Julie Newmar, who did have professional dance training, was paired with one of the brothers who did not. Consequently, her character and her beau could be seen off to the side during some of the dance numbers. Her only dancing came with the other bride wannabes.

She went on to a certain amount of fame a decade later as the villain Catwoman on TV's Batman.