To put it simply, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is awesome.
A bit silly, quite unrealistic, and nothing but fun from the second the strapping Howard Keel walks on screen.
Let’s go through the plot. The very, very simple plot.
Then I’ll go behind the scenes of this B picture that surprised everyone by ranking in the top fifteen film releases of 1954.
Seven backwoodsmen in 1850s Oregon try to convince seven girls to marry them.
In their quest to find wives, these mountain men learn some manners, and do some singing and dancing.
Oh, and kidnapping.
I’m not spoiling anything by telling you it all works out in the end. But for exactly how it all works out, you’ll have to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Our Star of the Month, Jane Powell, plays Milly, the gorgeous working girl who marries the eldest of the Pontipee brothers, Adam (Howard Keel). After marrying Adam, Milly teaches the remaining six brothers all the things they need to know to find girls of their own in town to marry. Milly’s greatest lesson to the Pontipee brothers though, particularly the one she marries, is that you can’t take love for granted.
Jane’s Flawless Milly: Her Last Great Screen Role
Jane Powell is absolutely perfect as the spunky, sassy, confident, caring, and kind Milly. Milly is arguably the best performance of Jane’s career.
And sadly, it would be her last great role. As Jane wrote in her autobiography:
“I certainly had no idea, when I was working on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, that the charmingly sensible pioneer girl Milly would be my last really wonderful role in a film.”
By 1954, when Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was released, Jane Powell was in her mid-twenties, and a phenomenal singer and dancer. So why did Jane’s film career stall, and never fully recover after Seven Brides?
Mostly, it was due to forces outside of Jane’s control.
Big movie musicals–the films that really showcased Jane’s exceptional talents–were going out of fashion by the time Seven Brides for Seven Brothers hit theaters. So, though the film was ultimately a huge success, the overall demand for glossy musicals was on the decline. This meant less musical roles for Jane, who, unlike such singing stars as Doris Day, didn’t successfully transition to other film genres.
Truly a loss for Jane, and those of us who would have liked to see her in more films worthy of her great talents.
MGM pairs Jane with Howard Keel
Jane Powell wasn’t the only star who experienced a career slump with the declining demand for musicals.
Howard Keel, another MGM star, found himself in the exact same position.
And it was the fact that Jane and Howard were both getting harder to cast that MGM slapped together Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and paired the two in it.
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In Jane’s words, the logic of the studio with this move was that:
“Howard and I had professional problems, but together we made a marvelous package—we were good box office.”
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: MGM’s “B” Musical
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a “B” picture, meaning MGM wanted to make the film, they just didn’t want to spend a lot of money doing it. Instead, the studio put the majority of their time, resources, and musical budget for the year behind Brigadoon (1954).
MGM was so set on keeping Seven Brides on a strict, cheap budget, that all requests by director Stanley Donen to film at least a portion of the movie on location in Oregon were repeatedly denied. Instead, Seven Brides was filmed in entirety on the MGM backlot.
So all those outdoors-y scenes—because you know, when you make a film about mountain men who live in the woods, you’re going to have a lot of outdoor shots—were actually filmed in front of painted canvases with fake trees, flowers, and whatnot.
Painted Sets and Bouncing Birds
To add a little bit of realism to the cheapo sets, MGM allowed Donen to bring in real birds. In some ways, the birds actually detracted, rather than added, to realism: at one point during filming, a confused bird flew into the painted canvas and bounced back off.
And they kept it in the film.
Yeah. CHEAP. But it really speaks to what a great film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that we completely overlook these painted sets, that, on a lesser film would have been utterly distracting.
The Costumes of the Seven Brides
One element of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers where the limited budget is most definitely not apparent is the wardrobe, particularly the dresses that Jane and the other six girls wear. These gorgeous gowns were designed by the legendary Walter Plunkett.
Over his nearly 40-year career, Plunkett designed costumes for more than 150 Hollywood productions, including Gone with the Wind (1939), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and An American in Paris (1951).
Plunkett did his research, and knew that dresses of the 1850s were frequently made from quilts. With this as inspiration, Plunkett designed gowns for the girls in Seven Brides that didn’t just look like they were made from quilts: they were made from quilts. According to Jane,
“It would have been easy to whip up dresses that looked like quilts—but instead…Walter Plunkett went to the Salvation Army and found old quilts, and turned them into marvelous, authentic dresses for all the brides.”
With his attention to detail and quest for authenticity, Walter Plunkett ensured that the proper, rugged frontier tone of Seven Brides was set through the beautiful costumes he designed.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: A Sleeper Hit
MGM believed that their big, money making musical for 1954 would be Brigadoon. But the studio couldn’t have been more wrong.
On its release, the whimsical Brigadoon didn’t even rank among the top films of 1954, and lost MGM $1.5 million with its poor box office showing. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, on the other hand, was a box office smash, ultimately placing in the top fifteen highest earning films of 1954, bringing the studio a net profit of $3 million.
It was an unexpected accomplishment that Jane Powell was exceptionally proud of. As Jane shares in her autobiography [aff. link]
“Of course, Seven Brides was a big hit, a real sleeper, and Brigadoon seemed to disappear. We all felt pretty smug about that.”
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers: Lumberjacks Dance!
You can’t discuss Seven Brides for Seven Brothers without touching on the spectacular production numbers and dancers.
The Pontipee brothers in the film were quite varied in their backgrounds and dance training—or lack there of.
Two of the brothers had no dance training whatsoever—Howard Keel (Adam) and Jeff Richards (Benjamin). Keel’s forte was obviously singing, and Richards actually played baseball for the Portland Beavers before becoming an actor. Both, quite conspicuously, do very little dancing in the film.
Marc Platt, who plays Daniel, is a familiar face from several musicals of the era, including Oklahoma! (1955). Jacques d’ Amboise, Ephraim in the movie, was a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet, and it shows. He’s the most graceful dancer of all the brothers.
Russ Tamblyn, Gideon in the film, best known for playing opposite Natalie Wood as Riff, the leader of the Jets in West Side Story (1961), was another Pontipee brother who, quite surprisingly, was not a trained dancer at this point in his career. If you notice, much of Tamblyn’s contributions to the dance numbers in Seven Brides involve acrobatics of some sort—back flips, aerials, etc. This is because Tamblyn’s background was not in dance, but gymnastics.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: My Favorite Brothers
My two favorite brothers in the dance scenes are Caleb (Matt Mattox) and Frank (Tommy Rall).
If we’re going strictly on dance technique, Matt Mattox outshines all the brothers. He’s the brother my dancer’s eye returns to time and again. Next time you watch Seven Brides, note how fluid, yet controlled Mattox is with every move.
Simply put, Mattox is a beautiful dancer. Trained in classical ballet, Mattox went on to choreograph a few Broadway shows before inventing and teaching “freestyle dancing,” a precursor to what we now call jazz dancing. So Matt Mattox of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of the founding fathers of modern jazz dancing. Don’t miss Mattox in the barn raising scene. He’s the brother in the yellow shirt.
Tommy Rall (Frank) is my other favorite brother to watch. You may know Tommy from Kiss Me Kate (1953). Tommy is the flashiest dancer in the group by far. As I mentioned in my Kiss Me Kate article, when it comes to jumps, Tommy Rall is near unbeatable. He gets so much higher than most any dancer put next to him. If we’re judging by pure flash dancing—that is, dancing that is really eye-catching, full of tricks, and well, flashy—Tommy wins, hands down.
But Tommy’s technique is commendable, too. After Mattox, Tommy Rall is the best overall dancer in the bunch. Don’t miss him in the red shirt in the barn raising scene.
Kidd's Choreography in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Seven Brides choreographer Michael Kidd, the first choreographer ever to win five Tony Awards, does a superb job emphasizing each of his dancers’ respective strengths.
Most impressive about Kidd’s choreography is the fact that he manages to work in really intricate steps and stunts without compromising the realism of the film: you won’t find the Pontippee brothers doing Swan Lake, or Gene Kelly taps in the movie. Michael Kidd made sure his choreography was believable for the characters and their circumstances. In Kidd’s own words,
“I had to find a way to have these backwoods men dance without looking ridiculous. I had to base it all around activities you would accept from such people…work movements like ax wielding…it couldn’t look like ballet. And it could only have been done by superbly trained dancers.”
Kidd more than succeeds here, and the dancing in Seven Brides, particularly the barn raising scene, is still hailed by critics as some of the very best ever put on screen.
Watch the barn raising dance below to see for yourself.
Did You Recognize Catwoman?
Did you find that Dorcas (what a name), arguably the most beautiful of the remaining six brides, looks a little familiar?
If not, she should be: Julie Newmar, Dorcas in the film, went on to create the role of Catwoman in the original Batman TV series (1966-1967).
I guess you could say that Julie’s career went full circle, from quilts to cat ears.
That's it for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers!
And that’s it for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and our month with Jane Powell.
Join me next week as I introduce our next Star of the Month, Glenn Ford.