Sunday, June 3, 2018

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS: Blu-ray (MGM, 1954) Warner Archive

The name Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer evokes an irreplaceable part of our cherished collective cultural heritage. Yet in retrospect, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) ought not to have been among the myriad of treasures bursting forth from its backlot: a big and boisterous outdoorsy musical extravaganza, distilled into a cramped and claustrophobic studio-bound production, it decidedly lacked the visual splendor of Oklahoma!, already a Broadway smash, and very shortly, to follow its cue on the big screen in resplendent Todd A-O. 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 this bucolic bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein stagecraft. In its heyday, Metro possessed a seemingly limitless wellspring of talent and funds to pursue whatever projects its chosen few desired…at least, under the auspices of studio mogul and Hollywood’s raja, Louis B. Mayer. Alas, by 1954, MGM was no longer L.B.’s kingdom; the old lion, deposed in a palace coup by Metro’s parent company’s wily president, Nicholas Schenk and replaced with the ineffectual Dore Schary. Despite a rather impressive assortment of credits over at RKO, Schary simply lacked both the chutzpah and showmanship Mayer possessed in spades.  The fatal results of this misfire in management would not immediately be revealed as Schary, either through general neglect or merely being sidetracked by an absolute investment in his own slate of projects, simply let the studio’s creative brain trust do as they pleased on projects already in the works at the time of his ascendance to the throne. Regrettably, more steam was required to fuel the pistons of this vast factory complex. And yet, it was Schary’s generalized contempt for both MGM’s star system and the Hollywood musical – a genre that had put the studio on the map and for which their impeccable mark of quality was best known – that would ultimately lead to complications on the set of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Producer Arthur Freed’s sour grapes at being denied the opportunity to bid on Oklahoma! would ironically yield one of MGM’s most beloved musicals of all time. In hindsight, it is easy to see why.  Based on Steven Vincent Benet's 'The Sobbin' Women' - itself a version of an ancient Roman tale, The Rape of the Sabine Women, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers remains at the high-water mark of MGM’s illustrious musicals – unpretentious and ebullient. Even though it had everything working against it, the picture somehow managed to triumph over the studio’s miserly cost-cutting measures. Not only that: it became one of the biggest and brightest money makers of the season – even outshining ‘the other’ musical offering of the season - Brigadoon; a project for which Schary had quietly syphoned off one third of ‘Bride’s initial budget to complete. 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 (1943). 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 on Singin’ in the Rain (1952) 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 sound stage enclosed production.
For the most part, Donen’s camouflage works – particularly within the artifice of the musical genre. Just prior to principle photography Dore Schary slashed the film’s budget by nearly half, scrapping Donen’s plan to shoot a large percentage of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 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 confined almost entirely to indoor sets, the cavernous interiors redressed with painted cycloramas to suggest, though never convince us of the wide-open frontier 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 photographed outdoors. In retrospect, there is a queer disconnect between these obvious ‘set pieces’ and the ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’ and ‘Spring, Spring, Spring’ sequences, shot 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. Like Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was photographed twice; once in the vast expanses of Cinemascope (its letterboxed image once described by director, Vincente Minnelli as suitable only 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 widescreen – like 3D – perceived as the salvation that could woo back audiences who had traded their movie consumption virtually overnight for the comforts of staying at home to watch television. Donen’s finesse in simultaneously shooting two movies 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. Undeniably, The Barn Raising Ballet plays more exuberantly when horizontally re-composited to cover the entire ‘scope’ image, even if the more ‘full-figured’ proportions of its matted widescreen counterpart reveal a tad more elemental design, vertically, in sets and costumes. As Cinemascope was quite new in ’54, a good many theater patrons eventually saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in the matted widescreen process too.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers stars Howard Keel and Jane Powell in roles that, arguably, have since 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 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 (and would appear opposite again in Kiss Me Kate, 1953) – would resurrect the screen operetta for another cycle a la the likes of retired sweethearts, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy). Alas, Keel came to MGM in its waning years; a towering, raven-haired baritone with arrogant charm. Although he would carve his own niche during this brief tenure, it would not be opposite Grayson, but as a leading man bounced from musical to musical with intermittent successes. 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 stockpiled 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 here was 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 how 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. But his star would never fully mature and by 1957 he was relegated to television work in anthology series and sadly, soon thereafter to fade entirely from public view.
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 had prosperous careers either in movies or elsewhere, these ladies’ tenures were fairly brief and undistinguished apart from their appearances herein. In hindsight, their autonomy serves, rewritten by alumni Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley, as despite their ‘lead’ billing in the title, it is ‘the brothers’ who are the real/reel focus of this story. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is very much an ensemble piece with Keel and Powell steering at the helm. Yet, Donen’s behind-the-scenes contributions equally ensure none of the cast is overlooked, particularly during the rambunctious musical sequences.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is filled to its 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 amok; a competition dance between the athletic Pontipees and their more courtly and cultured brethren from the nearby town; both sides vying for the affections of a limited pool of eligible maidens. The dance is designed as a showcase for the various stylistic differences between the Pontipee men; as in the juxtaposition of Jacques d'Amboise’s lithe pirouettes next to Russ Tamblyn’s earthy tumbler acrobatics, herein augmented with a heightened sense of danger as Tamblyn balances on a set of wooden horses with a real 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 is 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 evolves a kinetic energy between its musical sequences and the deceptively featherweight narrative that strings them together. There is a suppleness to the transitions, the audience entertained by the totality of the piece rather than its parts. And the backdrops, while regrettably always obviously fake, nevertheless 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 painfully unforgivable moment occurring as Jane Powell trills the sublime ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’ as a wayward sparrow, mistaking the paper mache and canvas for the real deal, inadvertently bounces off the painted mountain backdrop in a shell-shocked flutter of wings) or simply embrace the overt theatricality as part and parcel of the movie’s visual ‘charm’.
What really sells Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are its’ performances: Howard Keel and Jane Powell, exactly what the doctor ordered – timelessly appealing as the mismatched husband and wife who discover their differences do not really amount to a hill of beans…“when you’re in love…really in love.” At one point, Keel’s Adam 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 this movie as just one of many in the queue for this 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 wonderful 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 keep house for only one man. Regrettably, Millie’s dreams of domesticity are shattered when, upon returning to Adam’s cabin in the mountains, she quickly discovers she has been adopted as a matron for his six brothers who are unkempt and lacking in the social graces. 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: these 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.
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 town’s jealous sports who are not about to offer up their womenfolk, do not play fair, and, aim to win. Having been told by Millie the only way to truly impress a woman is through kindness, the brothers allow the town’s men to take advantage of them, before having quite enough physical abuse 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 their locally 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 this 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 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 all-girl’s dormitory.  Again, time passes. The girls, who were tear-stained 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; 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 his wife’s pregnancy, goes to one of his other cabins high 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 with some uncalled for glib comments about Millie’s fidelity, 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 to reclaim their offspring. The plan is also to lynch the Pontipees – a bit of frontier justice thwarted upon the town’s men’s arrival at the ranch.  Hearing the cry of Millie’s baby 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 baby for their own. Hence, Rev. Elcott is forced to perform a mass shotgun wedding ceremony in the presence of the rescue party – to legitimize the child’s birthright. The Pontipee brothers are at last men and the women they have chosen have managed an even more impressive coup - to make them all legit.
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 does not 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 ever committed to celluloid. The movie endures, partly because it bucks the anticipated traditions of the Hollywood musical; also, because its pieces fit so neatly together. Here is a musical that effortlessly moves from dialogue to song to dance, then back to dialogue with barely a hiccup. Despite its reputation for being an ensemble piece, curiously, the least utilized in the cast is Howard Keel, who avoids ever having to partake of a single dance routine. He sings but two of the film’s most forgettable songs, then quietly steps aside for the real story to get underway. Jane Powell is, of course, at the peak of her powers; having physically matured to a point where her always miraculous singing pipes seem to genuinely belong within their 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 its infectious optimism. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Cinemascope was photographed by the great George Folsey, regrettably in inferior Ansco Color. Meant to rival Technicolor’s supremacy in an industry then desperate to keep escalating costs down – and considerably cheaper than its competition, Ansco also produced a less than impressive color image, marred by muddy tones and quite unable to reproduce accurate reds. Too late, it was also discovered Ansco’s shelf life was particularly brief and susceptible to vinegar syndrome: a general implosion/deterioration of the yellow layer in its original negative, turning chalky in a very short period of time. The passage of time, overplay, lack of proper archiving and preservation, and, a 70mm reissue have all added to the technological woes inherent in any proper restoration of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. All the more reason to celebrate Warner Archive’s (WAC) costly efforts and newly minted Blu-ray – a quality 2-disc affair that, in a word, is miraculous beyond most any expectation for resurrecting this classic to its opening night splendor.
If only the picture had been shot in AnscoColor, or CinemaScope or stereophonic sound the heartaches and head-scratching would have been considerable.  Combine all three follies together and…well, you have an archivist/preservation’s worst nightmare in spades. Best to throw in the towel and admit defeat – right? Wrong! WAC has risen to the challenge of preserving Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with all the voracity for precision and quality we have come to expect from them. Remember folks, we are working not only with flawed and fragile elements, but film stocks well beyond the sixty-plus year benchmark – and not always gingerly cared for throughout their lifetime. To complete this miracle of restoration, WAC has scoured many film vaults and laid all the necessary groundwork to ensure consistency, cribbing mostly from an early interpositive remastered in 4K. Color fidelity on the 2.55:1 ‘scope’ image has been tweaked from this structurally sound master with inherent shortcomings in its dupes. Do not let the main titles fool you (more on this in a moment). Once the main body of the film begins, the image is startlingly bold, with superb contrast and some gorgeous grain to boot. As per the titles: they have never looked good. On this Blu-ray they appear overly saturated to the point where everything just looks very cartoony and slightly orange.  Hey, its Ansco – and, at least herein, forgivable. The DTS 5.1 audio is lovely and exhilarating.
WAC also gives us the alternate 1.75:1 matte widescreen alternative, processed by Ansco, but shot in Technicolor. Applying due diligence, this version is housed on a separate disc with modest color tweaking and an overall clean-up. Interestingly, the credit sequence on this alternate has more refined with properly balanced colors. Extras have all been ported over from Warner Home Video’s previously released 2-disc DVD and include Stanley Donen’s engaging audio commentary, ‘MGM Jubilee Overture’ – conductor, Johnny Green commanding the studio orchestra in a short subject, finally remastered in 1080p with a DTS 5.1 soundtrack (and wow, does it sound good!). We also get ‘Sobbin' Women: The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ – a documentary made in 1994 and hosted by Howard Keel, plus vintage footage of the picture’s Radio City Music Hall premiere, and, MGM's 30th Anniversary newsreel. Bottom line: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a seminal work of art from MGM, the studio that practically defined the parameters during the golden age of the Hollywood musical. This new to Blu reincarnation belongs on everyone’s top shelf of ‘must haves’. Very – very - highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
Cinemascope 4.5
Matted Widescreen 4

EXTRAS

3.5

No comments: