Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of the many MGM musical classics that took a surprisingly long time to reach the Blu-ray format. Warner Archive finally brings Stanley Donen’s 1954 musical to high definition on June 5 with a beautiful transfer and sound. It’s easily the best the film has ever looked on home video.
For those watching Seven Brides in today, the film’s plot might seem a little uncomfortable. Based on a short story called The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent Benét (who also wrote The Devil and Daniel Webster), the story finds Howard Keel as Adam Pontipee, the leader of a group of brothers, trying to find a bride to cook and clean for them. He picks up Milly (Jane Powell) and takes her home, where she is horrified to learn what’s expected of her.
The strong-willed Milly doesn’t let her disappointment get in the way and she even cleans up the other six brothers. Milly also tries to teach the boys how to behave with women and go-a courtin’.
There are several preposterous things going on in this movie, but audiences back in 1954 probably felt the same way. You can come to terms with them by realizing the story itself is a period piece, set at a time when women were expected to stay at home.
The idea we should be happy at the end of the film because the six brothers got away with abducting six women is silly. But it is also against the lessons Milly tried to teach them earlier in the film, and essentially lets Howard Keel’s character get the last laugh. It is embedded in the film’s own DNA that this isn’t quite right, but ’50s musicals need a happy ending, not a downer.
Gender politics aside, the film is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. The Oscar-winning score by Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin and songs by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer are catchy, classic tunes. Michael Kidd’s choreography, particularly of the barn raising scene, is unforgettable. And director Stanley Donen proved that great musicals do not need extraordinary budgets, getting the most out of the confined studio space he was forced to work in.
While the barn raising scene is the movie’s centerpiece, my personal favorite underrated moment is “Lonesome Polecat.” The entire scene was shot in one long take, with the camera moving from brother to brother as they lament the misfortune of having girls not like them after they abducted them. Kidd’s choreography brings the brothers’ personalities to life in their movements.
Warner Archive’s two-disc Blu-ray includes everything from the film’s two-disc 2005 DVD release. The biggest inclusion is the alternate 1.77:1 filming. Since this was MGM’s first CinemaScope (2.55:1) film, the studio was skittish about completely dedicating to the format, so they forced Donen to shoot the film twice for theaters that were not equipped for CinemaScope. Oddly enough, they had him film in 1.77 instead of 1.33. MGM probably picked 1.77 after the success of Kiss Me, Kate in that ratio (or close to it) the previous year. And in a weird twist, most theaters were able to show CinemaScope by the time Seven Brides came out anyway, so the 1.77 version was rarely ever shown.
The alternate filming is a unique curiosity, and it’s great that WA included it on its own Blu-ray disc in full Hi-Def. They could have cheapened out and included it as a standard definition extra on the first disc. Thankfully, they did not.
All the other 2005 DVD extras are housed on the first disc with the CinemaScope movie. They are:
- Commentary by Stanley Donen – Donen’s commentaries are always interesting, so this is worth checking out as he goes through the film’s production.
- Sobbin’ Women: The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – This is a surprisingly in-depth, 43-minute documentary about the film’s production and success. Hosted by Howard Keel, it includes interviews with most of the cast who was still alive in 2004. (Since the cast was so young, a surprising number are still with us in 2018, including Jane Powell, Jacques D’Amboise, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall and Julie Newmar.) Notably, they include some criticisms of the film, with Donen and Powell complaining about how bad some of the painted backdrops look.
- Radio City Music Hall Premiere – This is a very brief collection of newsreel footage of the film’s premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York, overlaid with some quotes from the Sobbin’ Women documentary.
- MGM 30th Anniversary Celebration Newsreel – This is another brief newsreel, including an interview with Powell and Ann Miller. It’s a little depressing to see though, since it shows how the MGM roster of stars had dwindled by 1954. You can spot Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Miller, Powell and a couple of character actors posing near a giant cake. But it’s a far cry from glitzy footage of MGM from the ’30s.
- MGM Jubilee Overture – This is a 10-minute CinemaScope short subject with the MGM orchestra playing a medley of hits from MGM musicals. It was directed by George Sidney.
While there are some questionable elements in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ plot, the film is an undeniable classic. It is a great example of what made ’50s musicals so great, with joyous singing, incredible choreography, beautiful cinematography and pure innocence. Donen, Kidd, Keel, Powell and everyone else in this film is at the top of their game. No musicals collection is complete without Seven Brides.