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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
The poor cousin of 1954's Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was filmed on a third of the budget but is twice the movie even without top talent like Gene Kelly. Filmed in the great indoors of MGM, this bright and witty jaunt still manages to have an outdoorsy feel, thanks mainly to Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul's lusty score and plenty of peppy choreography, which extends to action scenes choreographed almost like dancing. Jane Powell and Howard Keel are an attractive couple, the brides and grooms are an engaging group of studio up-and-comers, and the entire enterprise is so spirited one wouldn't guess that MGM musical era was grinding to a halt.
Warners packs this two-DVD set with not one but two versions of the picture. The extra copy is a rarely screened separate shoot version (see below).
The songs in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are consistently witty, motivated and in the service of an interesting story, something few musicals can claim. The cast breaks out in a ballad of one kind or another every few minutes, yet even musico-phobes enjoy this one. The plot has a hook that will interest anyone, a retelling of The Rape of the Sabine Women in a rough West painfully short on marriageable women, with lovesick men too unschooled to realize that kidnapping sweethearts is not the way to win a mate.
It's a farce, of course, but one with a human edge. Jane Powell's character is already an overworked drudge who thinks she's escaping cooking for a lot of strange men, only to be tricked into becoming the new nanny for seven irresponsible batchelors up in them thar hills. There's a certain desperation in establishing a reasonable facsimile of civilization; the womenfolk have to teach their men the rules of decent living from the ground up.
Even though the proceedings are hayride-chaste for the uptight 1950s (the censors flipped over innocent lyrics about men sleeping with sheep), the whole enterprise has the fun appeal of girls and boys bundled together in a snowdrift-covered cabin. Once again the Powell character has to act as a chaperone while the two sexes play teasing games.
Michael Kidd's choreography uses extended takes and timed routines to excellent effect, and pulls off an acrobatic tour-de-force for the celebrated barn raising number. As many as ten dancers at a time risk their necks tumbling and cavorting atop raised planks, platforms, etc. The choreography is both exhilarating and funny, what with everything we see being a dance and an acrobatic stunt at the same time.
Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich's adaptation (they were responsible for It's a Wonderful Life) keeps everything in balance and in good taste. Most of the unlikely events squeak by (not a single girls really minds being kidnapped) and the story nimbly sidesteps an ending that seems headed for The Seven Brides Say Farewell to the Seven Brothers at the Hanging Tree. Best of all, with the thick-skulled Howard Keel character learning some valuable lessons about women, it all seems to have emotional depth.
There has gained charm in retrospect. Russ Tamblyn is just beginning to develop the musical skills he'd use only a few times, in West Side Story and two George Pal adventures. And there's always the to-die-for Julie Newmar, at least six inches taller than any of her girlfriends but already the feline beauty that would become the definitive Catwoman on TV's Batman.
Warner's DVD of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a fine disc set obviously assembled by people who love these musicals and know that the DVD fan base is eager to see rare material.
As with the same year's Brigadoon and The Student Prince, MGM hedged its bet with Seven Brides by shooting a simultaneous but separate 'flat' version, just in case CinemaScope turned out to be a flash in the pan like 3-D. 1 This second version was never really shown much, but it's included here as an extra. For television viewing, I prefer it to the main CinemaScope version. The blocking is identical and the compositions allow the actors to be bigger on screen most of the time. Not only that, but because it hasn't seen the rough printing history of the 'Scope version, the colors are better and the image sharper. The flat version is matted to 1:77 and anamorphically enhanced - it is 'flat' but it's also widescreen, as that was the main changeover standard in 1954. According to the packaging information the Scope version is at the original extra-wide 2:55 scope ratio, and the transfer indeed looks narrower than most.
The only drawback to the 'new' version is that it hasn't been remixed into 5.1 like the 'Scope copy, but that may be a plus for the purists.
The second disc also contains the extras. There's a lengthy TV docu on the making of the film that's been updated with a couple of new interviews from the Turner archives. There are newsreel short subjects of the premiere, and a fairly feeble MGM 30th celebration showcasing the few stars still working on the lot. The frequently-seen MGM Jubilee Orchestra short subject is a concert of MGM hit music conducted by Johnny Green. The main feature also contains a commentary by director Stanley Donen.
Warners is putting these classic films out so quickly, it's hard to keep up. Every week brings the announcement of another desirable boxed set. Last week we heard about a giant James Cagney Gangster Box, and a similar Swashbuckler Box is on the way from Errol Flynn. Perhaps all this should have been happening five years ago - I remember watching Brigadoon once simply because there wasn't anything better available. But better late than never, I suppose. With DVD players now in the homes of older viewers as well as early adopters, the market for these classics should now be enormous.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers rates:
Supplements: commentary, docu, short subjects, second alternate version
Packaging: Two discs in normal Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2004
1. One of Savant's very first attempts at an essay on film lore back at MGM Video Savant was an article on this, which is still in the Savant Article Index. It contains a memo from George Feltenstein with the exact specs of the second 'flat' version of Seven Brides.