My Misspent Youth In Films...
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
Directed by: Stanley Donan
Starring: Jane Powell, Howard Keel
Released: June 22, 1954
In 1850 Oregon, when a backwoodsman brings a wife home to his farm, his six brothers decide that they want to get married too.
What I Thought Then
This was one that we watched a lot. It's fun, funny, and filled with fighting, dancing, and slapstick humor. I loved the barn-raising scene, and I especially liked Frank, the hot-head. After decades without seeing it, I could still rattle off the names of the seven brothers (Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank, and Gideon). A good time for the whole family.
What I Think Now
Let's just say that the sexual politics of film have changed a lot in six and a half decades. But before we dig into that, let's talk about the stuff that works. Structurally, it is a taut film, which is not what you expect from a musical made during the Hollywood musical boom. Keel and Powell have very nice voices. The dancing is amazing--apparently Jacques d'Amboise who played Ephraim (and who is still alive, by the way, at 86) was on loan from the New York City ballet. And that barn-raising dance-off and subsequent brawl really is a show-stopper. Clearly the set-piece of the film. The movie also does a great job of managing a large cast. There are fourteen people mentioned in the title alone, and the movie treats them the same way J.R.R. Tolkien treated the dwarves in The Hobbit. They're there. They have names. But aside from three or four prominent heroes, they're mostly relegated to the background.
Maybe two thirds of the way through is where the movie takes a bit of a dark turn. The seven brothers are uncivilized, uncouth mountain men, but when their oldest member Adam takes a bride, she brings with her two books--the only two books in the now eight-member household. One is the Bible. The other is Plutarch's The Rape Of The Sabine Women (although it's never explicitly named, they frequently refer to "them sobbin' women"--get it?). The boys have fallen in love with some girls in town, but the girls have all been promised to other men and this is 1850 Oregon, where women are in short supply. So they decide to go into town, kidnap them along with the parson, take them back to the farm and marry them. They cause an avalanche through "Echo Pass" which prevents anyone from being able to get to their farm until spring. And then realize they've forgotten the parson, so it's just six men, six women, all unmarried, living with a slightly older married couple in a tiny house. It's The Real World: Oregon Trail. Antics ensue.
Don't worry, it gets worse. And if a discussion of implied rape is going to upset you, go ahead and skip down to the last section.
You see, when the girls are kidnapped, Adam's wife Milly refuses to let the boys sleep in the house as punishment for the kidnapping. Adam storms off in a huff to go spend the winter in the family cabin, leaving behind the other 13-ish (Milly is pregnant, but no one knows that when he leaves). By the time spring arrives and the pass has thawed, so have the girls' hearts. Adam returns, and on learning that he's now a father of a baby girl, he's had a change of heart and decided that they need to return those girls to their families. Conveniently, those same families are on their way to hang the boys. The girls don't want to leave so they start hiding. Adam orders his brothers to find them, and when the girls' families arrive, what do they find but their girls screaming in the barn while the mountain men grab them from behind and jump on them. And in case you think I'm reading too much into this, you can watch it for yourself. The staging is not in any way subtle.
The parson, having heard a baby cry, fears the worst and asks the girls whose it is. (Side note: did anyone do the math? The girls couldn't have been gone for more than four or five months--tops!) All at once, they say "mine" because they know what that would imply. The next scene is a group wedding between the six unmarried brothers and their new wives, whose fathers are standing just behind with shotguns. You see, the girls have fallen in love with the brothers, but the only way to break off their prior engagements is for them to have been "spoiled" by another man. And they've accidentally given their fathers an elaborately staged false rape story. So what else can an honest god-fearing man do but marry his daughter off to her rapist at the end of a shotgun?
A movie is always, always, about the period in which it was made more than the period that it's depicting. The sexual and religious politics of the film--and, if we're being honest, the haircuts--are a reflection of 1954, not 1854. So in a way, the nudge-nudge-wink-wink agreement that the film makes with the audience is that this is a way for suburban boys and dads to play at being savage mountain men, with all that that entails about nostalgia for lost manliness and the proper handling of women. The advertising for the movie played up the "shock" of the ending and even showed clips of the brothers chasing the girls and jumping on top of them in the hay. It's a romantic comedy musical rape fantasy for the whole family. The film milks that (at one point it's even lightly implied that at least a couple of the brothers have been... uh... "husbanding" the livestock) and then pulls a fast one by by making the ending all just a wholesome misunderstanding.
But you're still left with a situation where seven men conspired to commit a series of assaults and then lived happily ever after. Your mileage may vary, but I found it pretty durn icky.
The barn-raising sequence is still excellent, but the rest of the film has aged pretty poorly.