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Howard Keel Centennial: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

We're celebrating music man Howard Keel's centennial this week. Here's Lynn Lee...

In many ways, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) marked the peak of Keel’s MGM career, coming after his breakout role in Annie, Get Your Gun and his star turns in Showboat and the less-successful but still-classic Kiss Me, Kate!  Keel’s film career would fade in the years that followed, although he continued to enjoy success on the stage and in later life would find TV fame with his role on “Dallas.”  It was Seven Brides, though, that captured Keel in his screen prime as an appealing and charismatic musical actor who managed to make a problematic character (to say the least) surprisingly compelling.

Full disclosure: Seven Brides was one of my favorite movies growing up, and remains one of my all-time favorite musicals.  As a young child I loved it even more than West Side Story and The Sound of Music because it felt like a happier movie than the other two...

It wore its romantic aspects more lightly, made me laugh more often, and never reduced me to a puddle of tears or fears.  Even as I got older and realized that there were some pretty squicky gender dynamics underlying the rollicking fun, I retained – and still retain – deep affection for the film.

Sure, it’s about a bunch of men inspired by a story of ancient Roman rape to kidnap a bunch of unsuspecting women to be their wives, only to win over said women and presumably live happily ever after.  Still, Seven Brides ends up being way more enjoyable for modern audiences than you'd expect from that premise, thanks in large part to the irresistibly catchy songs (the film would win the Oscar for best score, in addition to being nominated for picture, adapted screenplay, cinematography, and editing) and absolutely spectacular dance numbers (that barn-raising sequence is for the ages, as is the hilariously doleful woodchopping ballet, “Lonesome Polecat”).  There's also a disarming wink-and-nod quality to the acting that invites us not to take the abduction plot too seriously - the clear implication is the abductors are clueless backwoodsmen who simply don’t know any better.  (The script was apparently based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet that I have not read but suspect was probably even more satirical.) 

Which may be why I still have “Sobbin’ Women” stubbornly stuck in my head despite the wince-inducing lyrics (satire or no, they are baaaad):

There is a moral message here, though, as Seven Brides turns on the redemption of Keel’s character, Adam Pontipee, who takes pretty much the entire movie to learn the error of his ways.  As the oldest of seven sons, he’s the natural leader of a pack of much more pliable and credulous men (including a babyfaced Russ Tamblyn as the youngest brother, Gideon) who assume Adam always knows best – including the best way to get a wife.  By that token, Adam’s also the one who takes the longest to recognize that he’s a willfully stupid, entitled pig who’s set a terrible example for his brothers. 

He’s ultimately saved by his wife, Milly (a fabulous Jane Powell), whose only flaw is that she fell in love with him, but who also calls him on his shit, protects the abducted girls, and earns an even deeper level of respect from the brothers than Adam does.  (I could write a whole separate post on how Powell’s Milly is the linchpin of the movie.)  As it is, Adam’s mea culpa moment feels a bit too little, too late, and still too patriarchal by today’s standards, as he basically admits that it took having a daughter of his own for him to understand why what he did was so awful.

Yet it’s a testament to Keel’s screen presence that you buy Milly’s love for him, despite everything, and that you still root for them as a couple and for him to be a better man.  It also helps, of course, that he’s tall and strappingly handsome and has a sexy bass-baritone singing voice that could make anyone a little weak in the knees.  As one of the few Pontipee men who doesn’t dance (most of the brothers were played by professional dancers), he still cuts a commanding figure, especially next to tiny Milly.

Perhaps the best distillation of Keel’s character comes at the beginning of the movie, in his paean to the wife he hasn’t yet met but is cheerfully confident he’ll have for the asking:


In just that one sequence, Keel captures everything that’s both most attractive and most repulsive about Adam Pontipee.  We may roll our eyes, but like Milly, we can’t take them off him.


Annie Get Your Gun (1950) 
Calamity Jane (1953) 

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Reader Comments (10)

I loved all MGM musicals.... and still do!!

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

The basic idea behind it is horrifying but the dancing is sublime. Keel is strapping and commanding but the heart and soul of the movie is Jane Powell without question. What a shame it was practically the end of the line for her screen career and the last really classic film she appeared in.

Love the series! Hope both Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate, my two favorite Keel films are going to be profiled.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

He was a very talented and sexy man

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The More The Merrier are my two favorite movies since my childhood.
Howard Keel does not have to exert himself to exude the least virility - it's something he owns, period. Like the elegance of Cary Grant, something natural.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a lesson in how to make a musical. MGM was surprised by the success with public and critics and one of the keys to this success lies in the choreography of the master Michael Kidd who didn't want the rude farmers look like trained dancers and his work ultimately influenced the film's wonderful soundtrack.
The luxurious and colorful costumes are by other master, Walter Plunkett, the man who dressed Scarlett O'Hara. The fake landscape is a marvel. And really Jane Powell deserves all the praise.
Is the film sexist? Is the film feminist? It's a lot of fun and extremely well executed.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

I adore the dancing in this movie with all my heart.

Each time I watch it, I end up finding out more about the dancers and watching what I can on You Tube.

Jacques D’Amboise is the subject of a documentary, “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’”, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1984.

Marc Platt (the Lonesome Polecat) is one of the dancers in the documentary “Ballet Russes” 2005. He danced with the company under the name Marc Platoff (they liked the dancers to sound Russian).

Tommy Rall dances with the marvellous Ann Miller in “Kiss Me, Kate”.

And of course, we all know Russ Tamblyn from “West Side Story”.

I wish we could have seen more dance numbers for the women. Julie Newmar always looks so cool.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I have great affection for this film. Lynn, thanks for such a balanced review.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I haven't seen this film in so long. Would love to see it on the big screen someday. I wish more repertory houses would program musicals.

April 12, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

joel - alas, I don't think we're covering those two...I wish we were, too! I really debated between Showboat and Seven Brides but ultimately went with the latter because it was just so formative for me (also, it was easier to access since I own it!).

Gwen, thanks for the shout out to Michael Kidd's choreography - I could definitely have written an entire post about the dancing, too! But alas, there wouldn't have been much to say about Keel.

It's funny that for a Howard Keel centennial the recurring theme so far seems to be "Howard Keel was easy on the eyes and ears, but NOT the most memorable thing about this movie!" Perhaps that speaks to why his movie stardom didn't really outlast his MGM musical days.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

so this is where the “i’m a father of daughters” enlightenment began..?

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Lynn Lee, thanks.
MGM never took Howard Keel seriously as a STAR and never gave him his own vehicle. The same with other two of my favorites of the studio, Walter Pidgeon and Ann Miller, both talented. This doesn't stop us from being fans and admire his talent, charm and hotness. Other wonderful actors have been less fortunate than Mr. Keel and are not even mentioned nowadays or little remembered, like others of my favorites who gave a lot money in the 1930s to MGM, the musical duo Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

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