4 out of 5 stars

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of the best classic musicals—but it’s also a feminist nightmare. It’s a film dripping with misogyny—yet the songs are feverishly catchy, and the dance routines are beautifully choreographed. Stanley Donen’s musical is probably like that one uncle you only see at Christmas: problematically sexist, yet somehow, still lovable.

It’s 1850 and Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) decides he needs a wife. When this backwoodsman makes his way into town, he encounters Milly (Jane Powell)—it’s love at first sight. After a gruff proposal, Adam and Milly are soon married, and she travels back with him to his cabin in the Oregon woods. Though excited to start life with her new husband, Adam reveals he hasn’t been entirely honest: she’ll also be starting life with his six brothers.

Living in the house with them are Benjamin (Jeff Richards), Caleb (Matt Mattox), Daniel (Marc Platt), Ephraim (Jacques d’Amboise), Frank (Tommy Rall), and Gideon (Russ Tamblyn). The Pontipee brothers are essentially brutes who have never been properly socialised. Milly discovers she has an ultimatum: crumble in despair, or make her new life out in the woods work. Opting for the latter, Milly realises that Adam’s younger brothers have desires of their own, and she decides to help them in their quest to find love.

Amongst the top classic musicals that don’t feature Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a complex watch. Some aspects of the film have aged terribly—there’s no getting around that. But despite its problematic flaws, the film’s aesthetic merits are undeniable, meaning Stanley Donen’s work still makes for hugely entertaining viewing 70 years on.

Of course, you will have to make concessions. I was first introduced to the film by my girlfriend, who revealed she had to switch off her feminist brain while watching it. From the beginning, it’s clear why. When Adam first strides into town, his predatory gaze betrays his intentions: he’s there to find a wife—after his shopping, but ideally before lunch.

The male gaze refers to the way women are depicted as sexual objects in visual media for the gratification of heterosexual men. This is embodied in Adam’s rather blatant leering: his eyes mentally undress all the women who pass by, with him even critically assessing their physical attributes through song. “Heavenly eyes—but oh, that size…” This won’t be the last time misogyny is suspiciously placed within a rhyming scheme.

He doesn’t attempt to conceal his desires: this ravening backwoodsman talks to the shopkeeper about his intention of procuring a wife as though he were discussing the price of cattle at the farmer’s market. The shopkeeper’s wife is disgusted: “Let me tell you, none of our girls are going to go off to bear country with you—to cook and wash and slave for seven slummocky backwoodsmen!” Ignoring her, he looks at the women in his general vicinity, judging their health by their age and weight: it feels as though he were analysing a horse’s teeth before a sale.

And then, he finds just the right woman for him. “Pretty and trim, but not too thin, heavenly eyes—and just the right size!” It’s a little bit like the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, except instead of Goldilocks choosing between bowls of porridge or suitable mattresses, we watch a self-centred egotist select a wife. I suppose this was the American Frontier’s equivalent of Tinder back in 1850? Nevertheless, Milly falls in love with Adam instantaneously, and they elope back to his shack in the woods.

The civilising effect of women is established as a theme early on in Milly’s stay at her new home. While Milly is initially branded a fool for going along with Adam unconditionally, she makes herself a force for change. There seems to be, perhaps, a sliver of feminist critique: she demonstrates agency, control, and power over a traditionally powerless situation. Milly establishes rules for her cooperation, which everyone must abide by if she is to stay. The hirsute men are shaved, they wait for Milly to say grace before eating, and they learn to pass food around the table, sharing the bounty instead of pouncing on it like ravenous wolves.

She also teaches them how to behave respectfully, educating them in the art of courtship. While the boys might think tales of raccoon hunts make good icebreakers, Milly instructs them in the woefully lost art of romance. Tellingly, the young men learn not to resort to violence in her presence; their brand of senseless barbarity is curtailed, along with the dishevelled savagery that personified it.

However, despite the power she exhibits, Milly remains positioned as a servant in their lives. She may be enforcing her own standards of living, but she continues to clean, cook, and care for the seven men who essentially act as her adopted sons. This is something she states explicitly early on in the film: “You don’t want a wife. You want a hired girl; a cook or a washerwoman.” She even refuses to share a bed with Adam. Regrettably, while it seems as though this will lead to genuine, long-lasting criticism, Milly soon relents. Before long, she appears content with her position as housekeeper for the seven men.

Unfortunately, although Milly manages to influence the six younger brothers, Adam is incorrigible. He encourages the other brothers to be violent after Milly expressly forbids them from fighting in town, while also refusing to become civilised like his siblings: “What do I need manners for? I already got me a wife.” He is unapologetically sexist, even intoning “wisely” to the younger, lovesick Gideon: “Don’t worry—one woman is pretty much like the next.” Little does he know that Milly is within earshot, able to hear his utterly shocking misogyny.

Believe it or not, nothing I’ve mentioned so far represents the peak of problematic behaviour in Seven Brides and Seven Brothers. That accolade belongs to the infamous abduction plot. In an attempt to aid his brothers in courting their sweethearts, Adam suggests kidnapping the women they admire, citing Roman mythology as the foundation for his logic. Because colonialist regimes are often so romantic, aren’t they?

The tale Adam references is the abduction of the Sabine Women, which occurred during the early days of the Roman Republic. Romulus, at the suggestion of the Senate, created a plan to abduct women from the neighbouring Sabine city during the festival of Neptune Equester. At Romulus’ signal, Roman soldiers seized more than thirty women attending the festival and attacked the Sabine men who tried to protect them. Romulus then requested that the women accept Rome as their new home and, most importantly, Roman soldiers as their new husbands.

It’s not exactly the myth I’d reference when giving dating advice. The motivations for this crime have since been disputed. Many historians claim it was to bolster the Roman population, which was dwindling and would soon prove too meagre to support the city’s strength. However, some academics argue there is no evidence to suggest this, and that it was an excuse to conceal an orchestrated act of lust.

No matter how you decide to interpret it, women are either seen as breeders, servants, or sexual objects. After the seven brothers return from the village, carrying off six terrified girls whom they intend on marrying (yes, this is a family-friendly musical comedy), Milly scolds Adam once again: “You think a wife’s just a cooking thing! You’ve got no understandings, you’ve got no feelings!”

Because Adam’s behaviour, particularly in his attitudes towards women, is continually criticised, one would think that the film serves an edifying purpose. Gradually, even Adam can see the error of his ways, especially after the birth of his daughter: “How I’d feel if someone came creeping in and carried her off… I’d string him up the nearest tree. I’d shoot him down as I would a thieving fox.” Mercifully, he begins to understand that kidnapping women and expecting them to marry you simply isn’t right. Baby steps, admittedly, but at least it’s in the right direction.

However, the issue here is that their actions are eventually justified. The kidnapped women fall head-over-heels in love with the boys, not wanting to return to the village after the snow finally melts. They are all married, and the ending is a happy one. Though he is lightly rebuked, Adam’s methods of obtaining love are always vindicated; the possibility that the snowbound hostages may be suffering from Stockholm syndrome is never entertained. After all, this wasn’t recognised as a condition until the 1970s, 20 years too late for Donen’s musical, let alone in 1850.

Not only are the Pontipee brothers forgiven for their crimes, but they are also shown to be superior suitors to the men who dwell in town. This seems to be a form of commentary on how such urban settings only serve to emasculate men. At every turn, the woodland family are revealed as stronger, tougher, and infinitely more charming than their civilised counterparts. While they’re a little rough around the edges, they are shown to be loveable rogues who are well-meaning, just a little backwards.

This is perhaps best seen in the track “Sobbin’ Women”. As Adam discusses his plan to kidnap the young women, with misogyny deeply embedded in his lyrics, the rest of his brothers are boyishly excited about wooing their sweethearts as a marauding collective. Adam assures his brothers not to worry about the women’s response during the kidnapping, claiming that even the Sabine women: “Acted angry and annoyed, but secretly they was overjoyed!” Problematic doesn’t quite cut it…

And here, arguably, lies the real issue with the film: it’s still excellent. If it had little aesthetic value, it could easily be dismissed as a misogynistic schlock that never deserves to see the light of day again. But the songs, despite having woefully offensive lyrics, are all catchy, bouncy, and infectiously cheery. That “Sobbin’ Women” is about a mass abduction (and implied rape) is so easily forgotten as the men prance around the barn, ecstatic and in love. You probably haven’t felt so conflicted about enjoying a song since you busted out a move to R. Kelly’s “Ignition”.

If we were to examine another hugely enjoyable musical with a problematic message, we could analyse the much-loved Grease (1978). In a similar vein, Danny (John Travolta) is chauvinistic and self-centred. Although criticised throughout the film by Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), she eventually comes around to his way of thinking, as evidenced by her leather-clad, wavy-haired appearance in the film’s climax. Ultimately, it possesses a terrible message about succumbing to peer pressure, as well as embracing underage drinking, smoking, and unprotected sex as badges of honour, rather than the health hazards they are.

Still, the film itself is a lot of fun. This then begs the question: do we go to a musical for a moral lesson? No, we go for the songs, the dance, and the charming atmosphere. Fortunately for this sexist slice of classic cinema, it excels in all three areas. As already mentioned, the songs are terrific. But perhaps even more impressive are the dancing sequences in the film—the set pieces are truly extraordinary.

Legendary choreographer Michael Kidd originally didn’t want to work on the project, but Donen convinced him to sign on by saying there would be no dance numbers in the film. Kidd agreed, and predictably, Donen reneged on his promise: of course a musical needs dancing routines! Although Kidd was furious and threatened to quit, he persevered and turned out some of the most enjoyable routines of his career. In the brilliantly intricate barn dance, Kidd meticulously rehearsed the cast for over three weeks to perfect the sequence. They certainly succeeded: it’s a mesmerising display of skill and talent.

Then, even when the dance numbers aren’t impressively complex, simpler routines are executed sublimely. For example, when the brothers nurse their heartache for their faraway sweethearts in “Lonesome Polecat,” cinematographer George Folsey ensures he can capture Kidd’s routine in one continuous take. The result is a visually pleasing ballad about loneliness in the woods.

There’s also a very cosy 1950s feel to this musical from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Perhaps it’s due to the beautiful colouring in the picture, or the exceptionally grand vista that CinemaScope offered. The rather obvious painted sets make it all the more endearing, though Donen reportedly hated them so much he refused to watch the film for years; originally they were supposed to shoot on location, but after MGM slashed the film’s budget, they relied on the painted backdrops.

All of this is to say, the film is aesthetically enjoyable despite the blatantly sexist content. I would love to say that this film is a satire, or that it’s at least self-aware. Unfortunately, I fear that would be disingenuous; cinema history is filled with aesthetically impressive works with horribly immoral messages. Even Leni Riefenstahl’s films have been retroactively praised for their intelligent design and innovative style.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is precisely that: a terrible moral inside a beautifully crafted film, with immensely talented performers and a wonderful selection of songs. The dance routines are so pleasing that you can watch them over and over again without ever becoming bored, and the characters are likeable, despite their odious views. If you go into a viewing with a critical eye, you’re less likely to come out sobbing.

USA | 1954 | 105 MINUTES | 2.55:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Stanley Donen.
Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich & Dorothy Kingsley (based on a 1938 story in ‘Argosy’ by Stephen Vincent Benét).
starring: Howard Keel, Jeff Richards, Matt Mattox, Marc Platt, Jacques d’Amboise, Tommy Rall, Russ Tamblyn, Jane Powell, Julie Newmar, Ruta Lee, Norma Doggett, Betty Carr & Nancy Kilgas.