Tuesday, December 13, 2016

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (MGM 1954) Warner Home Video

Based on Steven Vincent Benet's 'The Sobbin' Women' - itself a version of an ancient Roman tale, The Rape of the Sabine Women - director Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) remains at the high water mark of MGM’s illustrious musical movie output; an unpretentious, ebullient masterwork that, in hindsight had everything working against it, yet somehow managed to triumph against the studio’s miserly cost-cutting measures to become one of the biggest and brightest money makers of the season. The name Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer evokes a myriad of fond movie land reflections, long since having become a part of our collective memory. Yet, in hindsight, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ought not to have been among them: a big and boisterous outdoorsy musical extravaganza distilled into a cramped and claustrophobic, studio-bound production, lacking the visual splendor of Oklahoma! In fact, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was begun as something of a response to 2oth Century-Fox outbidding MGM for the rights to produce that bucolic bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein stagecraft for the big screen.In pre-planning Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, producer Jack Cummings turned over the creative reigns to one of MGM’s freshest finds: director Stanley Donen, who had inconspicuously come to the studio as a dancer from Broadway’s Best Foot Forward. Mercifully, Donen’s ambitions were loftier. He quickly gained the ear of rising star, Gene Kelly, his legendary collaborations with Gene leading to a lucrative co-directing credit before venturing out on his own. In retrospect, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers immeasurably benefits from Donen’s indentured servitude and intuitive wherewithal behind the camera; his ability to maneuver and re-frame the action and the extras, in this case, not merely to fill the expansive vistas of Cinemascope, but also to camouflage many – if not all – of the shortcomings inherent in this studio-bound/sound stage enclosed production.

Just prior to principle photography studio head, Dore Schary slashed the film’s budget by nearly half, scrapping Donen’s request to shoot a large percentage of his movie on location – or even, outdoors. With the exception of a few brief establishing shots (all of them utilizing MGM’s western back lot), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers would be made almost entirely inside a series of sound stages, the cavernous interiors redressed with painted cycloramas to reflect the wide open spaces of Oregon circa the late 1800’s. If Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has a shortcoming, it remains MGM’s shortsightedness to realize the movie would have immensely benefited from a few key sequences – most noticeably, ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’, ‘The Barn Raising Ballet’ and ‘Lonesome Polecat’ being shot on location. In retrospect, there remains a queer disconnect between these obvious indoor production numbers and the ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’ and ‘Spring, Spring, Spring’ sequences, both photographed outdoors on the MGM back lot.

To Stanley Donen’s credit, we are never entirely aware, or perhaps, distracted by this juxtaposition for more than a few fleeting moments. Interestingly, the revised budget on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was in service of Gene Kelly’s mounting expenses on another stage-bound musical: Brigadoon. Like Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was photographed twice; once in the vast expanses of anamorphic Cinemascope (that director, Vincente Minnelli once commented was only suitable for photographing snakes and funeral processions), then again in the matted aspect ratio of 1.78:1. In Cinemascope’s infancy, studios were eager to capitalize on the gimmick of widescreen, yet wary of its enduring appeal. Donen’s finesse in being able to shoot two movies together, with decidedly different framing requirements, reveals his accomplished sense of cinema space. Neither version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feels cramped. Nor does it appear as though Donen was forced to compromise the integrity of his tempo, mood or staging to accommodate either process.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers stars Howard Keel and Jane Powell in roles that, arguably, have defined their careers. Powell’s tenure at MGM dated all the way back to the late 1940’s when she made her formidable debut as the studio’s response to Universal’s Deanna Durbin in George Sidney’s epically resplendent, Holiday in Mexico (1946 – not her first starring role, but her first for MGM); a lavishly appointed and tune-filled extravaganza. So too was Howard Keel then considered something of a valiant successor to MGM’s Nelson Eddy (it was briefly hoped he and the studio’s resident soprano, Kathryn Grayson – with whom he had co-starred in MGM’s monumentally successful remake of Showboat 1951 – would resurrect the operetta for another cycle a la the likes of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy). Alas, Keel came to MGM in its waning years; a towering, raven-haired baritone with arrogant charm. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers affords each of these ensconced musical stars their genuine opportunity to shine; Powell as the determined frontier woman, devoted to bringing couth to the ill-bred Pontipee brothers; Keel, as Adam (her husband and eldest of the brood), ensuring the manly vein of brute self-importance endures, despite the feminizing characteristics of a woman’s touch.

Stanley Donen stock piled the rest of his cast with accomplished dancers; New York City ballet’s Jacques d'Amboise as Ephraim Pontipee, Broadway’s Tommy Rall as Frank, and MGM contract dancers, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox and Russ Tamblyn as Daniel, Caleb and Gideon respectively. The one exception is MGM contract player, Jeff Richards as Benjamin; undeniably being groomed as the square-jawed hunk du jour, but decidedly born with two left feet. Look carefully and you will notice that Donen – aware of Richards’ short-comings – is always cleverly camouflaging the obvious; setting Richards’ apart from the action or relying on his innate athleticism to perform simpler dance steps while the other’s fill in the gaps with more terpsichorean grace and finesse. Richards would, in fact, have a following as a prominent player in MGM’s B-noir/detective thrillers from the mid-1940’s to the late 50’s. He even managed to acquit himself rather nicely of ‘Rock n’ Roll Tumbleweed’ ; a rare bright spot in the otherwise turgidly scripted 1956 remake of The Women, entitled The Opposite Sex.

To complement as well as offset all this male machismo, Donen handpicked his ‘brides’ from MGM’s formidable roster of female talent; pin-up Julie Newmar as Dorcas, Nancy Kilgas as Alice,  Betty Carr (Sarah), Virginia Gibson (Liza), Ruta Lee (Ruth) and Norma Doggett (Martha). Interestingly, while their male counterparts all had prosperous careers either in movies or elsewhere, these ladies’ tenures were fairly brief and undistinguished apart from their appearance in this movie. In hindsight, their autonomy serves the story, rewritten by alumni, Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley. For Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is very much an ensemble piece with Keel and Powell steering at the helm. Yet, Donen’s contributions on the film equally ensure none of the cast is overlooked, particularly during the rambunctious musical sequences. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is bursting at the seams and filled to the rafters with spunk, heart and energy, nowhere more exuberantly on display than in The Barn Raising Ballet. For nearly six minutes we are spellbound in the dark by an utterly vigorous display of masculine ego run amuck; a challenge dance between the athletic Pontipee brothers and their more courtly and cultured brethren from the nearby town; each vying for the affections of a limited pool of eligible maidens. The dance is designed to celebrate and showcase the various stylistic differences between the Pontipee men; as in the juxtaposition of d'Amboise’s lithe pirouettes beside Tamblyn’s tumbler acrobatics; herein augmented with a heightened sense of danger as Tamblyn balances on a set of wooden horses with an axe in hand. Gene de Paul’s hearty score (with an unaccredited assist from Adolph Deutsch, magnificently arranged by Conrad Salinger) is homespun, yet kinetic; the piston-pumping bell kicks, leaps and bounds boisterously punctuated by the music.

It’s easy to see why Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ran away with the lion’s share of ticket sales, leaving the more costly and highbrow Brigadoon in the proverbial dust. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers moves with an effortless agility from one scene to the next; taking full advantage of the Cinemascope frame; Donen’s direction heartfelt, yet purposeful – a balancing act resulting in a peerless stream of musical consciousness. While Brigadoon’s drama is infrequently interrupted by its musical vignettes (or is it the other way around?), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers illustrates liquidity between its songs and dances and the deceptively featherweight narrative stringing these moments together. There is a suppleness to the exercise; the audience entertained by the totality of the piece rather than its parts. And the backdrops, while regrettably always glaringly noticeable, nevertheless seem to work in service of the overall artifice of the story. One can choose to regret and lament MGM’s narrow-mindedness in disallowing Donen and his company the ability to work in more naturalistic settings (the one painful moment occurring as Jane Powell trills the sublime ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’ - a wayward sparrow, mistaking the paper mache and canvas for the real thing, inadvertently bounces off the painted mountain backdrop in a shell-shocked flutter of wings) or simply embrace the artifice as part and parcel of the movie’s theatricality and visual ‘charm’.

What sells Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are its’ performances.  Howard Keel and Jane Powell are exactly what the doctor ordered – timelessly appealing as the mismatched husband and wife who discover their differences don’t really amount to a hill of beans…“when you’re in love…really in love.” At one point Keel’s Adam Pontipee summarizes this kernel of wisdom thus: “Ma used to say love is like the measles…you only get it once!” Audiences have been falling in love with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ever since. The irony, of course, is that no one associated with the project, or anyone in MGM’s front offices for that matter, really knew what a treasure they had on their hands; the unexpected surge of revenue generated by the movie surprising even Stanley Donen, who warmly regarded his movie as just one of many in the queue for that particular year. Like it or not – and most directors do not – audiences are the final judges of their art, and in 1954 they thought otherwise, or rather, better of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Ironically, despite the film’s enforced claustrophobia, one recalls most everything about the picture as being light and breezy, its folksy atmosphere augmented by Saul Chaplin and Johnny Mercer’s songs.

After the opening credits (following a scruffy backwoodsman’s horse-drawn carriage through the wilderness under the main titles) the Albert Hackett, Francis Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley screenplay begins in a small town in Oregon. Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), the eldest of a rough and tumble brood of furriers has come in search of a few supplies for his ranch. Oh yes… and a wife. The local shopkeeper, Mr. Bixby (Russell Simpson) and his wife (Marjorie Wood) are decidedly against Adam’s fairly straight forward and unromantic approach to finding female companionship. But Millie (Jane Powell); a cook in the local restaurant has dreamt of just such a morning when she might endeavor to cook and clean for only one man. Regrettably, Millie’s dreams are shattered when, upon returning to Adam’s cabin in the mountains, she quickly discovers she has been adopted as the matron for his six brothers who are about as unkempt and lacking in the social graces as human beings can get. Disappointed by her turn of events and own naiveté, Millie elects to make the best of her situation, keeping Adam at bay as she sets about transforming his brothers into duded up prospective suitors for some of the town’s most eligible maidens. After all, marrying them off would certainly clear out the cabin in a hurry. A bath, shave and haircut later and voila: the timber men are looking downright handsome and ripe for the picking. Alas, their etiquette could use more than a smattering of Emily Post. Here too, Millie proves a godsend, taming the savages with hints on how to go courtin’ and sparkin’ – parlor jargon, guaranteed to win any lady’s heart. To melt it doesn’t really take much doing.

Pressed and polished, the Pontipees arrive for a barn-raising at Pete Perkins’ (Howard Petrie) ranch; the epitome of masculine chic and instantly catching the eye of the town’s many maidens. The grand prize for the barn raising is a calf named Annabelle. Millie tells Adam she could really use Annabelle on the farm; thus, he forms a team made up of his brothers to raise the roof in record time. Alas, the Pontipees are up against the jealous sports who are not about to offer up their womenfolk, don’t play fair and aim to win. Having been told by Millie that the only way to truly impress a woman is through kindness, the brothers allow the town folk men to take advantage of them, before having enough and trading in their decency for a fair exchange of fists. Naturally, the more rugged Pontipees win this fight. But they lose the battle when the girls rush to nurse the wounded back to health – or, at least, consciousness.

Back at the farm, Millie patches up the brothers’ scrapes and cuts, applying witch-hazel to their open wounds and split lips. But nothing, it seems, will help ease their minds from their terrible lapse in judgment. How will they ever get wives now? Why, by force – of course; Adam relaying Plutark’s story of the Sabine women being conquered by the Romans in ye old Biblical times. What Adam fails to comprehend is how kidnapping will ever lead to romance in the present day. Time passes. The snow comes. Undaunted, Adam takes his brothers into town in the dead of night. One by one, each brother captures and makes off with the girl he met at the barn-raising; the town’s Reverend Elcott (Ian Wolfe) quickly forming a posse to make chase. At the pass, Adam deliberately sets off an avalanche; the heavy snow creating a natural barrier the townsfolk cannot overcome or bypass. The Pontipees have won! Or have they? For upon returning to the cabin, Millie is appalled by their raucous behavior. Have they learned nothing? Apparently not. Angry with Adam, Millie exiles the lot to the barn. They can sleep with the other animals. Millie also takes in the girls in; converting the brother’s attic quarters into a sort of reformatory.  Again, time passes. The girls, who were tear-stained and sad upon their arrival have since begun to fantasize about the men who previously slept in these beds; also as to what life would be like if they were the wives of their chosen Pontipee brother; their daydreams expedited when Millie confesses she is with Adam’s child and will give birth in the Spring. In the meantime, Adam, knowing nothing of her pregnancy, goes to one of his other cabins high up in the mountains to wait out the winter alone.

When Gideon arrives to inform Adam he has a newborn daughter, only to be chastised by Adam, the two brothers get into a brief skirmish. With the snows melting, the pass becomes clear and the town’s folk prepare to storm the Pontipee ranch for their offspring. The plan is to lynch the Pontipees. However, upon hearing the cry of Millie’s babe coming from the house, every man in the rescue party assumes the worst; that one or more of their daughters has been deflowered out of wedlock. When Rev. Elcott asks the girls to be truthful and reveal whose child it is, each – in order to save their beloved from the hangman’s noose – claims the child for their own. Hence, Rev. Elcott is forced to perform a mass wedding ceremony in the presence of the rescue party – to legitimize the child’s birthright.

Buoyed by Michael Kidd’s pas d’action choreography; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers remains a delectable dish of buck-skinned bodies; their torsos, arms and legs caught in an effervescent swirl of athleticism. The score, while quaintly melodic, really doesn’t yield to the ever-lasting pop tune ilk; the Barn-Raising Ballet probably the most instantly recognizable piece of music and easily one of the greatest celebrations of dance committed to celluloid. The movie endures, partly because it bucks the anticipated traditions of the Hollywood musical; also, because its pieces seem to fit so neatly together. Here is a musical that effortlessly moves from dialogue to song to dance, then back to dialogue with narrowly a hiccup. Despite its reputation for being an ensemble piece, curiously, the least utilized of the cast is Howard Keel, who avoids ever having to partake in a single dance, sings but two of the film’s most forgettable songs, then quietly steps aside for the real plot to get underway. Jane Powell is, of course, at the peak of her powers; having physically matured to the point where her always miraculous singing pipes seem to genuinely belong within the proper tabernacle. 

Eschewing the amenities of courtship, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is infused with an invigorating freshness and vitality rarely seen – its brash free-spiritedness escaping from the two-dimensional screen and affecting even today’s cynical audiences with an infectious optimism.  Alas, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Cinemascope was photographed by the great George Folsey in Ansco Color. Meant to rival Technicolor’s supremacy in an industry desperate to cut costs – and considerably cheaper than its competition, Ansco also produced an inferior color image; marred by muddy tones and quite unable to produce accurate reds. It was also discovered (too late) that Ansco’s shelf life was particularly brief and susceptible to vinegar syndrome: a general implosion/deterioration of the original camera negative within a very short period of time.

Without the benefit of a full-blown digital restoration Warner Home Video has made the best of an abysmal situation for this 2-disc DVD offering. We get both the anamorphic Cinemascope and open matte ‘widescreen’ release herein. There are discrepancies between the standard and Cinemascope versions worth noting. The Cinemascope, shot on Ansco (Eastman) film stock, pales in both color fidelity and saturation to the open matte version. The open matte prints – oddly enough – were struck by Technicolor, yielding a far more steadfast and resilient dye transfer with infinitely more refined and robust colors. There’s also a lot more fine detail generally evident throughout the matte version. The more readily seen ‘scope’ version, despite being cleaned up for this DVD release, continues to favor a murky brown/beige palette. On the whole, it also exhibits reds that are significantly more orange and flesh tones obviously more pasty pink and/or ruddy brownish/orange.

It’s a mistake to criticize Warner Home Video for the quality of this Cinemascope transfer – at least partly – since they are already working from problematic masters. The ‘scope’ version also suffers from an inherent ‘bending’ of the image on the extreme left and right sides of the film frame (a shortcoming of early Cinemascope features) – the result: most vertical objects appear to be leaning inward rather than standing straight up. From a purely visual perspective, the less oft’ seen 1.85:1 version fares better on all fronts. Herein, colors are infinitely more natural, Technicolor’s rainbow retaining a goodly percentage of the original hues and luster. Flesh is far more naturally reproduced and reds look ‘red’ rather than orange or slightly pink. The audio on both versions has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital: competently done and with solid spread across all five channels. Extras include a new audio commentary and a fairly good documentary on the making of the film; a holdover from the days when MGM/UA Home Video still held the rights to this film. The doc is hosted by Howard Keel and is presented in absolutely abysmal video quality; color bleeding, bumped contrast and a ton of video-based noise. Yuck!  We also get the original theatrical trailer.

I’m going to lead the petition for Warner’s archive division to get busy on a new Blu-ray master of this time-honored and much beloved American movie classic. Frankly, it’s a wonder – and a tad appalling – they have not already committed to a hi-def release of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But again, it all boils down to time and money and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers needs a lot of each to ready it for a 1080p release. One sincerely hopes for a new photochemical restoration; also a digital scan in 4K and clean up to get things back to looking relatively sharp and pleasing. We won’t poo-poo it any further. There’s really no point. Until Warner decides it’s about time to take this transfer seriously, we’ll have to content ourselves with this middling 2-disc set. Regrets.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO

Cinemascope 2.5
Matted Widescreen 3.5

EXTRAS

3

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