Movie musicals like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954) were big hits in the 1950s, partly because they proved to be great showcases for the new CinemaScope technology as well as perfect excuses to wow audiences with lavish costumes, bright colors, and big production numbers. Set on the Oregon frontier in 1850, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” offers all of those attractions and more, with Howard Keel and Jane Powell heading up an excellent cast and director Stanley Donen at the helm.
Keel stars as Adam Pontipee, a rugged frontiersman who ventures into town from his remote homestead to find himself a wife. He settles on Milly (Jane Powell), a pretty but hard-working girl with no family of her own, and, surprisingly enough, she accepts his sudden proposal. Milly gets a shock when she discovers that Adam’s farm is also home to his six rowdy younger brothers, but she makes the best of her new life, even though Adam’s own ideas about women and romance are rustic at best. When the brothers pine for wives of their own, Adam encourages them to imitate the Romans in the story of the Sabine women, but the abduction of the girls does not go quite as smoothly as the Pontipee men had hoped.
Howard Keel made a lot of musicals in the early 1950s, including “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950), “Show Boat” (1951), and “Kiss Me Kate” (1953), but “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954) is one of his best performances, with Keel demonstrating the full power of his very masculine charisma and his impressive vocal talent. His first song number, “Bless Yore Beautiful Hide,” highlights his booming voice and his appeal as a leading man, with Keel absolutely resplendent in red hair, a rakish beard, and a suit of fringed buckskin. One can see why Jane Powell’s Milly says “yes” to him so quickly. Powell herself is apple-cheeked and lovely but full of the pioneer pluck that a girl like Milly would need to survive; her best numbers in the movie include “When You’re in Love” and “Goin’ Courtin’”.
Look for a few familiar faces in the supporting roles, including Russ Tamblyn as the youngest Pontipee and a very young Julie Newmar – billed as “Julie Newmeyer” – as Dorcas. The full power of the whole cast becomes apparent in the incredible ensemble numbers, particularly the barn raising scene and the “Lonesome Polecat” dance. These colorful sequences feature some of the most exciting and physically demanding choreography ever seen in a musical. Michael Kidd, the choreographer, also staged dances and musical numbers for “The Band Wagon” (1953) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1969).
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” picked up five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, but won only for Best Musical Score. In addition to the movies already mentioned, you’ll find Howard Keel in “Calamity Jane” (1953) and “The Day of the Triffids” (1962). See more of Jane Powell in “Royal Wedding” (1951), which Donen also directed. For more of his most memorable work, see “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “Funny Face” (1957), and “Charade” (1963). Russ Tamblyn is best remembered as the leader of the Jets in “West Side Story” (1961) but you’ll also find the versatile actor in “Gun Crazy” (1950) and “The Haunting” (1963), among many others.
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