Seven Brides, Seven Brothers, One Great Musical

September 1, 2011

Whenever I happen upon a great musical on Turner Classic Movies, I feel like I’ve struck it rich. The other night Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was playing on TV. I had forgotten how much I like this 1954 movie.

No Fred Astaire, no Gene Kelly. But it does have, among the brothers, Jacques d’Amboise, Matt Mattox (the great jazz dancer/teacher), Marc Platt (of Ballets Russes fame), Tommy Rall, and a young and eager Russ Tamblyn (who six years later played the far tougher Riff in West Side Story).

The seven brothers are a rough-and-tumble bunch of ranchers in the mid-19th-century Northwest. Jane Powell as Milly runs the ranch (or is it a farm?) with pre-feminist spunk, but she doesn’t have much dancing. (Too bad, cuz her number with Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, “How Could You Believe Me,” is one of my absolute faves.) She does have a great number (“Going Courting”) where she tells the brothers how to dance and they all knock into each other.

Watching the barn dance scene, I felt like Jerome Robbins must have seen this before he made the Prologue of West Side Story. The brash brothers steal the ladies from the townie gents in a gorgeously choreographed dance scene. It’s as fierce as the push-and-pull between the Jets and Sharks in that prologue—except that in Seven Brides the territory they’re fighting over is not the streets but young women. Choreographer Michael Kidd’s inventiveness on wooden beams is clever and fun, with acrobatics from Russ Tamblyn and Tommy Rall thrown in. Even the arm-wrestling is suspenseful. The steps are very clear, with balletic line. The look is reminiscent of Agnes de Mille’s Oklahoma or Rodeo, but cheekier—or maybe just faster. Everyone is moving, no one is posing. The energy coming out of these seven fantastically physical brothers is terrific, and you can see why the “brides” can’t resist them.

Following on the heels of this mating dance is the barn-raising brawl, which could also be the antecedent to the Rumble in West Side Story—only this rumble erupts out of exuberance rather than hatred. Oh, and the barn they raise does come tumbling down.

Seeing d’Amboise shoving and kicking his way through the brawl is especially fun if you’ve read about his street-fighting teenage years in his book, I Was a Dancer.

This movie also has one of my all-time favorite depictions of melancholy in the number “Lonesome Polecat.” Here Kidd stays simple against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains; he shows the six unmarried brothers listlessly sawing a tree or wielding an ax in perfect time, while pining for their women folk. “I’m a lonesome polecat [chop]; lonesome, sad, and blue [chop]; cuz I ain’t got no [chop] femi-nine polecat [sawing]; vowin’ to be true.”

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
is directed by Stanley Donen, whose Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face are way better known. But this movie is a treasure too. I learned from the TCM host that Donen had to convince Kidd to give the brothers a big dance number at the barn raising. Good thing, because if he hadn’t, we would have been deprived of one of the great moments in movie musicals.



Photos from the
DM Archives. Above right: Jacques d’Amboise in center, Russ Tamblyn behind ladder. Left: Matt Mattox with ax.