This is my contribution to the CinemaScope Blogathon hosted by Classic Becky’s Brain Food and Wide Screen World. Be sure to check out the other posts exploring an early 1950s’ technical innovation that changed the moviegoing experience by dramatically widened the image, creating new aesthetic issues and opportunities for filmmakers.
Musicals are an irresistible slice of escapism. Sitting down with an Old Hollywood musical, surrendering to the glamorous costumes, minimal yet lavishing set design and characters spontaneously expressing themselves through song and dance is the closest thing to time travel available today. As a child who spent majority of the ‘90s alternating between musicals and Classic Disney animated features (all on VHS) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss one of my childhood favorites. Not only is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) shot and shown in CinemaScope, but is also enduringly endearing and completely crazy.
Set in 1850 Oregon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers tells the tale of Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), a backwoodsman who rides into town looking for a wife and Milly (Jane Powell), a scrappy, outspoken cook who refuses to be pushed around. It’s love at first sight and they’re literally married the same day. What feels like a happily ever after is just the beginning when Adam takes Milly home to the farm he shares with his six unruly brothers he conveniently forgot to mention before the nuptials. Not only does Milly stand her ground in the male-dominated household, but also teaches the backwoodsmen some much needed manners, a thing or two about good hygiene and inspires them to seek love and marriages of their own.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of those movies that straddle the line of innovation. It was filmed in CinemaScope, the most popular widescreen system in the American Cinema Postwar Era between 1945 and 1960. The ‘Scope camera’s anamorphic lens took in a wide-angle view and squeezed it onto a strip of 35mm film. A comparable lens attached to the projector then squeezed the picture to create normal-looking images, but on a widescreen. At the time, Hollywood wasn’t eager to fully commit to the widescreen wagon. With innovation comes doubt.
There were fears that the widescreen would immobilize the camera and lead to longer takes. Some editors were afraid that the audience would get lost in the combination of quick cuts and wide compositions. Stanley Donen, the director of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, had no such doubts and insisted on filming the movie purely in CinemaScope. The studio had other ideas and pushed for the movie to be filmed both for CinemaScope and regular screens, a decision Donen fought tooth and nail against. Accommodating both versions took a big bite out of the budget. Donen originally planned to shoot the movie on location in the Oregon wilderness, but due to money constraints, it was filmed on a backlot, which is mightily apparent. At one point you even see a bird fly straight into the backdrop.
Most directors saw the problems with the widescreen format as a challenge. They exploited lighting and focus to emphasize main figures and used depth to guide the eye across the frame. We see these solutions at work in Seven Brides where characters are at the center of the frame in the foreground while the middleground and background are packed with significant detail. There are even a lot of shots where the camera is stationary and the characters utilize the space.
Although the final product is a departure from Donen’s original vision, Seven Brides was well received and continues to appear in lists of top musicals and lists of the greatest films of all time. The score is wonderfully uplifting, the lyrics are infectious and the overall sound is good given its age.
Seven Brides is very much an integrated musical where the characters unconsciously express themselves through song and dance numbers that further the plot. This is how the characters work through their feelings and make decisions. The performances function as moments of self-realization. For instance, the barn raising dance sequence, one of my favorite production numbers maybe ever, is a larger-than-life act of courtship. The male dancers are masculine and athletic and many of the brothers did their own stunts. Along with the beautiful choreography and music to get lost in, the color contrast between the brothers with their red hair and strong, solid colored shirts and the suitors in gray and brown highlights the combative spirit and points to the careful attention to detail.
Love is almost always a central theme in musicals. Most times, the entire musical is one large courtship, which we see with the brothers and the girls from the town. What sets Seven Brides apart is how it also asks what’s next? What happens once the romantic leads marry? Often, the destined duo share a kiss and the curtain drops, leaving the audience to assume they live happily ever after. Amongst the dated notion of gendered roles, Seven Brides gives us one truth – marriage is tough, especially when you marry someone without knowing much about them beforehand.
Musicals often implement a duel focus structure following a man and woman with radically different values. Adam has a very narrow, patriarchal way of thinking. At one point, he tells his heartsick younger brother that “one woman is pretty much like the next.” Milly wants to be a wife and a mother, but not at the expense of her self-respect. She isn’t afraid to kick Adam out of bed or out of the house entirely when he regards her more as a hired cook and clean than a wife. This marriage isn’t at all what either expected. We rarely see the complexity and difficulty of marriage explored in this way, especially in sugarcoated musical fantasies. The resolution of the plot is more about the couple’s reconciliation and acknowledgement of their differences, not so much how they change each other, but how they compromise and want to be at their best for each other.
The movie isn’t without its problems. The plot is kind of outrageous, especially as someone living today looking back at what was made in the ‘50s and set in the 1800s. The depiction of abduction is indeed worrisome and reinforces the fact that even if sincere, ignorance combined with blindly mirroring the Romans is dangerous. The backwoodsmen have a preconceived notion of what women are—cooks, housekeepers, child bearers and interchangeable—but that’s before a living, breathing woman takes charge of their home. They’re very naive in a way, but much more willing to actively participate in Milly’s lessons on how to be decent human beings than Adam who doles out gems like, “Why do I need manners for? I already got me a wife.”
Overall, the plot is absurd, highly formulaic and predictable, but I can appreciate its unique structure, the joyful and enjoyable production numbers. The list of problems nag at my brain, but the songs and dances make me giddy. I can think about it all, take it apart, analyze each little piece, but at the end of the day, this musical takes me out of reality and out of my head for a good hour and a half and I like that.
As a viewing experience, I prefer the wide CinemaScope version to the trim rectangle format. The widescreen enhances the vastness of the open wilderness (well, the painted backlot wilderness) and the feeling of isolation contrasted with the busy, packed scenes in town. I can’t help, but wonder what Donen could have done with a ‘Scope camera out in the Oregon wilderness with a little more leeway from the studio, a little more trust in Donen’s capabilities and a little more trust in innovation. I highly recommend everyone see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for the fantastic performances if nothing else, but be sure to take it with a grain of salt.