Revisiting old friends can sometimes be an iffy business, particularly if you haven't seen them in a very long time. Will they really hold up to memory? In the case of the 1954 MGM musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," I hadn't seen it since the time of its initial release in my childhood. I remembered liking it then. Would I now? Yes, mostly, it's still fun, still cheerful and pleasing to the eye and ear, but it didn't quite match the many musicals I have seen since and with which it must now compete for favor. Worthwhile? Of course. The greatest musical of all time? Not really.
The plot, based on a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, is slight, to say the least. Maybe it should have stayed a short story or the characters been better developed. But who am I to complain about a film that has become a musical classic? Anyway, you remember Benet; his most famous short story was "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which also had a hard time filling out an entire motion picture. You DO remember "The Devil and Daniel Webster," don't you? You read it in high school. If you didn't, sue your high school.
Anyway, "Seven Brides" is based on Benet's "Sobbin' Women," a takeoff on Plutarch's story of the carrying off, or rape, of the Sabine women of ancient Rome, so you get some idea of the film's plot. No, not rape, carrying off. A backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory of 1850 decides to come down out of the mountains and find himself a wife in town. He does so and takes her home, where he lives with his six younger brothers. They are all of marriageable age, and when they see their older brother's new situation, they decide that they, too, should get married. Finding their brides-to-be in town, they kidnap them and carry them off to their cabin. Before long everyone falls in love, and after a good deal of singing and dancing, everything ends happily. Actually, it ends on one of the cutest notes possible.
Howard Keel and Jane Powell star as the mountain man, Adam Pontipee, and the town gal, Milly, who get hitched without even knowing one another. Keel and Powell were already veterans of these kinds of things when they did "Seven Brides" and their professionalism shows. They sparkle as the newlyweds whose troubles they never anticipate. Adam wants only a housekeeper and never expects to fall in love with his wife. Milly is a dreamer who is shocked to learn that maybe her marriage was "love at first sight" on her part only, but the spunky lass is determined to make it work, in any case. She sets out first to teach her new husband and his brothers some manners. "What do I need manners for?" asks Adam. "I already got me a wife."
The six other brothers are played by Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Maddox, and Jacques d'Amboise. The six women they court are played by Julie Newmeyer (later Julie Newmar), Nancy Kilgas, Betty Carr, Virginia Gibson, Ruta Kilmonis (later Ruta Lee), and Norma Doggett. Some of them were chosen for their acting ability, some for their singing ability, some for their dancing or acrobatic ability, and all of them for their attractive appearance.
I cannot say I liked the songs and music of famed Hollywood hit makers Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul much in my youth, and I cannot say I liked them much better this second time around, finding them much too routine and unmemorable. Yet, combined with the zestful story line and the terrific dance numbers, the film became popular enough to inspire a Broadway show and a television series. Again, who am I to argue? The songs include "Bless Yore Beautiful Hide," "Wonderful Wonderful Day," "When You're in Love," "Goin' Co'tin" (one of the best and most tuneful of the numbers), "Lonesome Polecat," "Sobbin' Women" (another cute one), "June Bride," "Spring, Spring, Spring," and various reprises of the tunes, along with several purely orchestral interludes.
The barn-raising sequence is a highlight of the picture, where the brothers outdance everyone in sight, and it's probably the only moment of the film I remember vividly from my childhood. The dancing, in fact, holds up remarkably well, thanks to the inspired choreography of Michael Kidd ("Guys and Dolls," "Li'l Abner," "Hello, Dolly!").
The only other thing I found a trifle off-putting this time around, but something I hadn't noticed when I was a kid, is the fact that most of the film was shot on an MGM soundstage. Except for a few transitional shots made on location (or at least outdoors), everything else is done inside. It's like "The Wizard of Oz." When you're little and you see it, you don't notice that it's all backdrops and painted scenery. When you get older, you notice such things, although they don't always matter anymore. In the case of "Seven Brides," the action can appear more than a bit stagey at times, especially when the actors are supposed to be in the great outdoors, and it's clear they're not.
Well, my quibbles are but minor notes in an otherwise happy and spirited production. "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" is a big, brawling, rollicking movie that, old-fashioned or not, helped to open up the movie musical to widescreen singing and dancing. It remains a pleasant experience.
Because not all theaters in 1954 were equipped to display a super-widescreen Cinemascope production, MGM filmed "Seven Brides" in two different aspect ratios, 2.55:1 and 1.77:1. Both screen sizes are presented in this two-disc set, one version per disc, along with an assortment of extras. The 2.55:1 version of the movie is here rendered at about 2.30:1, anamorphic, across my standard-screen HD television, given my set's small degree of overscanning. The colors are a bit dull and faded, despite the transfer being newly created from what I suppose to be a pristine print. Certainly, there are no other age markings of any kind, no scratches or flecks to be seen. Worse, though, the color flickers on occasion, what should be the pure whites of snow, for instance, alternating between a clean white and a slightly pink. Definition, too, is only average, delineation a touch blurred.
The picture quality in the alternate 1.77:1 version of the film is actually a tad better, overall, the colors seeming a little brighter and more solid, with the appearance of sharper definition. However, the soft flutter of the colors remains. Incidentally, the announced 1.77:1 version measures across my TV, surprisingly, at exactly 1.77:1. I suspect this is because the alternate version was actually filmed at 1.85:1, as the Internet Movie Database lists it, and MGM decided for whatever reason to announce its size on the keep case as it might appear across a modern television. I don't know.
The movie was originally shown in two-channel stereo where possible and monaural everywhere else. For all intents and purposes, the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix created for the DVD remains mostly a narrow, front-channel stereo. A bit of musical ambiance reinforcement has been added to the rear channels to open up the listening area, and the result is not at all unpleasant. It's not the equivalent of modern 5.1 sound, but given the movie's fifty-year-old origins, it can be forgiven any minor shortcomings. I was especially happy with the smoothness of the sound, too, no hardness or pinched nasality as one sometimes finds in older soundtracks.
Disc one contains the 2.55:1 version of the movie; English and French spoken languages, with Dolby Digital 5.1 for English; an audio commentary by director Stanley Donen; a gallery of Donen musical trailers; thirty-one scene selections; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains the alternate 1.77:1 version of the film. In addition, it contains an excellent, newly made, behind-the-scenes documentary, "Sobbin' Women: The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," lasting forty-two minutes, hosted by star Howard Keel, and including interviews with the director, the stars, and others of the filmmakers, all of them alive and well here fifty years later. Finally, there are two vintage newsreels, a two-minute New York première and a two-minute MGM 30th-Anniversary Celebration; plus a short subject, "MGM Jubilee Overture," nine minutes of famous tunes from MGM movies, remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1; and thirty-one scene selections. English is the only language available for the 1.77:1 version, in Dolby digital 2.0 stereo, again with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Both discs are housed in a slim-line keep case, but no booklet was included with my copy of the set.
When I finish a film, my first thought in evaluating it is, "Would I want to watch it again anytime soon?" Oh, a few movies fail to pass this test even though they are great films, mostly serious things like "Schindler's List" or "The Pianist." But a pure entertainment film like a comedy or a musical should be one you'd like to replay, just as you'd like to hear a favorite song over again. "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" doesn't quite pass the test, even though I enjoyed this revisit to an old friend on DVD. The movie hasn't quite enough good music (despite its winning an Academy Award for Best Music Scoring), enough good humor, or enough good characters to interest me in watching it again any time soon. But insofar as musicals are concerned, this one is still fun, still agreeable.
If you enjoy musicals or you already love this one, "Seven Brides" is probably a must-buy. If you don't enjoy every musical that comes along but think this one might show promise, a rental is probably in order.