Not that long ago, I was walking down a Brooklyn street and encountered an elderly woman surrounded by grocery bags. I offered to help carry them into her apartment, and I was sort of disappointed when she said yes and I saw what a long staircase it was and how heavy the bags were. After several trips we’d gotten them all in and she thanked me. “I was worried I was going to miss the beginning of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on TV,” she explained. “It’s my favorite movie.”
“You know,” I said, “it’s out on DVD now. I’d be glad to loan it to you.”
“Oh, I have the DVD,” she said blithely.
The film inspires such irrational devotion. Whenever I am down, I go to YouTube and watch the barn-dance scene, which is famous not just because of the number of accomplished dancers in the cast but also because of the sheer, exhausting athleticism of Michael Kidd’s choreography. As a child, I decided that my wedding party would replicate the entire number—I was going to be Milly and do the pas de deux in the middle—but then you grow up and realize that unless you are a dictator on an international scale, this kind of thing is impossible. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to watch it and not get just a little bit cheered up.
Yet we might as well admit it: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is sort of … problematic. For those who have not experienced the 1954 musical, allow me to describe the plot. Spoilers follow. Adam Pontipee, dressed in buckskins, comes to town from the backwoods to get a wife, a process covered in the Johnny Mercer song “Bless Yore Beautiful Hide” (which, like the rest of the score, is for some reason labeled with an “explicit” advisory on Spotify). In Milly he finds a girl who is
pretty and trim, but not too slim
heavenly eyes, and just the right size
simple and sweet—and sassy as can be!
Adam and Milly are married and return to his remote cabin, where she discovers to her dismay that he lives with his six slovenly redheaded brothers; she’s expected to act like a drudge. In no time flat she whips them into shape, teaches them manners, and presents them, in varicolored shirts, at a local barn raising. Dancing, rivalry with town dandies, and stunts with axes ensue, and the brothers all fall instantly in love with comely maidens in calico frocks.
Here’s where it gets weird. The guys all return home and start moping around. Adam, the eldest, proposes they make like ancient Romans and abduct their sweethearts, “sobbin’ women” style. As in, the Rape of the Sabines. Which they do. Not raping—just kidnapping bodily, covering them with quilts and forcing them into a sleigh with a bunch of men. Then they cause an avalanche so the women are effectively trapped on their farm. Milly, when presented with this fait accompli, is justifiably appalled and kicks all the men out of the house. Adam leaves in high dudgeon and moves to some remote trapping cabin.
Time moves on, the women gradually soften, and everybody falls in love. Adam comes back to find he has a baby daughter. All the town people descend on the Pontipee farm, and the repentant brothers try to force the girls to go home with their families. And then it gets weird again. Everyone’s about to leave when the minister says, “We’re all fathers here, and we love you … so don’t be afraid to answer. I heard a wee babe crying in the house. Whose is it? Don’t be afraid to tell.” To which, in unison, all six unmarried girls shout, “Mine!”
Cue sextuple wedding and closing credits.
Now regarded as a classic, the film was shot on a relatively low budget and became a sleeper hit. If you ever get the chance to watch the special features on the DVD, do it, if only to see how utterly bizarre Julie Newmar (Dorcas, in lavender) is. The details of the scrappy production history are interesting, and at the time of the DVD’s issue, almost the whole cast was living.
Much as I love the movie, until recently I had never read the 1937 Stephen Vincent Benét story, “The Sobbin’ Women,” on which the musical is based. It’s very short, made blessedly available by the graces who run Gutenberg, and if you’re a fan of the film, it makes for surprising reading. Benét, who won the Pulitzer twice, is probably best-known today (if at all) for “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and, indirectly, for his poem “American Names,” the final lines of which provided the title of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. “The Sobbin’ Women” is, of course, strange—but it’s strange in a rather different way from the movie.
For starters, the Pontipees have different names: instead of Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Efram, Gideon, and Frankincense, the brothers all have H monikers: Harry, Hosea, Halbert, Harvey, Hob, and two others whom the narrator never bothers to mention. Then there’s Harry and Milly’s courtship, which is somewhat less star-crossed than the film suggests:
It was there he saw her—feeding the chickens out in the poultry-yard. Her name was Milly and she was a bound girl, as they had in those days. Next door to a slave she was, for all she’d come of good stock and had some education. She was young and thin, with a sharp little thoughtful face and ragged clothes, but she walked as straight as an Indian as she went about the yard. Harry Pontipee couldn’t have said if she were pretty or plain, but, as he watched her through the window, feeding the chickens, something seemed to tell him that he might have better luck with her than he’d had with the others.
All that is kosher enough; rags and chicken feed don’t exactly call out for Technicolor. The real difference is in the kidnapping portion: in the story, it’s completely the pragmatic Milly’s idea.
“You great big lumps of men!” she said, with the cocky look on her face. “There’s more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream. If they won’t marry you after you’ve asked ’em—why don’t you marry ’em first and ask ’em afterwards?”
Not only does she orchestrate the whole terrible plan—over the guys’ objections—she helps execute it:
“Ready, boys?” called Milly, in a voice that cut through all the talk and commotion. Everybody turned to look at her. And then there was a gasp and a cry, for “Ready!” chorused the six bachelor Pontipees; and suddenly, each one had one hand on a rifle and the other holding a girl, while Harry and Milly trained a couple more rifles on the rest of the community to keep them quiet. It happened so sudden, half the folks didn’t even know it was happening—till the Pontipee boys had their girls outside in the street, and the big doors locked and bolted behind them.
Then, she totally good-cops it with all the girls and pretends she had nothing to do with it (somewhat implausible given the whole rifle thing) and concocts an elaborate and manipulative plan to get everyone together, and has already made wedding-dresses for them, and talks down all the kinfolk when they show up in the spring. What’s more, far from being taken for granted, she is adored: “At the end of three months, there wasn’t one of those boys that wouldn’t have laid down his life for Milly, and, as for Harry, he just worshipped the ground she walked on.”
Is it less problematic to cast the heroine as a scheming manipulator? It certainly changes the dynamic. Either way, two things are clear: the story is utterly ludicrous, and that would have been the best wedding ever.