Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 October 2004
Source Warner Bros. DVD
An ancient tale, recounted by Plutarch, tells of an event that took place just after the founding of Rome. In order to grow the city into a great power more quickly, Romulus (that mythical co-founder of Rome who suckled at the teat of a she-wolf as a baby) granted citizenship unconditionally to any criminal or outlaw who wished to stay in the city. The city grew, but a lack of childbearing women threatened the longevity of the new city. The citizens of a neighboring city scorned the idea that any of their daughters should marry the low-lifes of Rome. Those neighbors, the Sabines, were not averse, however, to taking advantage of Rome’s invitation to a massive feast in honor of the god Neptune. The Romans greeted their guests, provided a distraction for the men, and scooped up their women when their backs were turned.
The Sabine men, astonished at this effrontery, immediately declared war on Rome. By the time that the fighting had commenced, though, the Sabine women (who had grown to love their captors) threw themselves between the battling men and begged for reconciliation. Deferring to the women, the Romans and the Sabines made peace and the greatness of Rome resumed its magnificent growth.
Ancient legends of heroes and battles have long proven fertile grounds from which to pluck ideas for films. One only has to look at recent films like Troy, Gladiator, and Alexander to see that centuries-old stories still have box office appeal. However, you can count on one finger the number of Hollywood musicals adapted from ancient mythology. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was adapted from the legend of the rape of the Sabine women by way of the short story "The Sobbin' Women" by Stephen Vincent Benet, a gifted writer whose work had provided successful bases for several previous motion pictures.
Its formidable pedigree aside, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of the most enjoyable musicals to come from the classic era of the MGM studios. With music as great as that of Show Boat, choreography as thrilling and athletic as Singin' in the Rain, and actors with as much charisma and chemistry as Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has become a truly revered and beloved film. It might surprise you to know, then, that MGM did not expect much from the film. Unlike the other musicals listed above, Brides was not produced by the fabled Arthur Freed production unit at MGM. Produced instead by Jack Cummings, whose biggest successes at the studio were the swimming-pool ballets of Esther Williams, the film had its corners cut in just about every conceivable way. Instead of being filmed in the gold standard of color cinematography, Technicolor, the film was shot in the relatively new, cheaper single-strip Anscocolor process (similar to the more widely used Eastmancolor process). Instead of being filmed on location (as director Stanley Donen requested), the film was shot entirely on sets. Instead of the songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter who had crafted hit after hit for the Arthur Freed musicals, Brides was assigned to the relatively unknown Gene de Paul. What a shock for MGM, then, when the film became one of the biggest hits of the year and was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best cinematography, best writing, and best editing and won the award for best music.
The thrill and joy of the movie comes not from its rags-to-riches production history, of course, but from the unbridled delight that the movie evokes in its viewers. The songs are knowingly corny and catchy as hell, the dancing is (quite rightly) renowned, the story is ludicrously sexist but almost mockingly so, and the whole film is just exceedingly watchable. It is one of those films that, even though I own it on DVD, I will sit through (at least partially) any and every time it shows up on Turner Classic Movies. Every person I've watched it with, no matter how much they deride musicals, has always come away impressed with the dancing in the barn raising scene and has not been able to get "Bless Yore Beautiful Hide" out of their head. I would not go so far as to say that it will turn all who watch it into lovers of musical comedy (the whole world Judy Garland fans? Kill me now.), but it may just be the film that makes those who think they hate musicals reconsider their opinion.