Seven Brides For Seven Brothers: Review
Not only is the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a fun and entertaining film for people of all ages, it stands as a compelling argument for the necessity of watching films in the widescreen format. Without ‘letter box’ you’d only get three, maybe four brothers max at any given time, and obviously that’s just not what the filmmaker intended.
I think I first discovered Seven Brides for Seven Brothers when TCM (Turner Classic Movies) first came on the air back in 1994. So, it’s only fitting that I saw this great musical for the first time on the big screen at the 2nd Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. What was especially nice was seeing it with my mother who had been just a little too young to see the film in a theater when it first came out back in 1954. She also had only ever seen it on TV, but usually in black and white and on a small set (sadly, she doesn’t get TCM in her isolated coastal town).
Seeing any classic film on the big screen for the first time is a unique experience all its own, but the result is particularly impressive when dealing with a widescreen, Technicolor musical. Much like an epic such as Spartacus or Lawrence of Arabia, big song and dance numbers have been framed with the wider aspect ratio in mind. Directors were particularly conscientious of this creative choice during the years when films had to compete with the onslaught on television, which is exactly the era when this film was produced. In order to get people out of the house and into a theater you had to provide the public with something they couldn’t get at home. Thus, widescreen was born.
Now, up to now you may not off hand think that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers necessitated the use of widescreen. After all, the film is just a simple story about a backwoodsman in 1890 who comes to town and finds himself a wife in a matter of hours. She discovers he has six unkempt brothers and quickly goes about teaching them the nicer qualities of life, including courting. They meet some girls and thinking they’re being romantic, kidnap them. Unfortunately, due to an avalanche they are forced to remain until the pass is clear. By springtime everyone is in love with everybody else, and the film ends with six more weddings. Simple, right?
But think about it. There are seven of them, and they’re usually all together in most scenes. When you add the girls that’s fourteen people on screen at once. Then add the dancing and the widescreen format can barely accommodate them all. In the barn raising scene for example, the cast is virtually pushing frame (going right up against the edge of the screen) in every shot! It’s actually stunning how well choreographer, Michael Kidd uses the girls and brothers throughout the sequence of showdowns they have with their romantic rivals (that’s another six people on the screen!). The ingenuity of action collaborates seamlessly with the use of forced perspective shots, allowing everyone to be seen at once when necessary. You couldn’t do that with traditional framing, and you’d definitely lose a few brothers if you settled for full screen at home, and of course you’d then lose the full impact of the film.
And don’t forget the powerful voices of the two lead actors. Howard Keel was known for his impressive manly physique, and he had a powerhouse voice to match. When you hear his opening song you’ll believe the widescreen format was required just to contain the magnificent sounds coming out of his mouth. And all though Jane Powell is a tiny little thing, her singing ability is just as dominating. Director Stanley Donen often framed Powell by herself during her songs, knowing her voice was more than enough to fill the empty space.
Before the screening at the Classic Film Festival Powell participated in a conversation with film critic Leonard Maltin, and she referred to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as her personal favorite of all her movies. As Maltin noted, even though it appears that Powell in the film is at the mercy of a chauvinistic society that has definite ideas about a woman’s worth, she (Millie) is indeed the strongest character in the film, with a will and determination unmatched by anyone else regardless of gender, or size. Indeed the film itself is so much more than it appears, and the widescreen helps to emphasize this distinction.
I encourage you to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers widescreen or not, but why cheat yourself. See it as it was intended, in the original letter box format. With so much going on in those extra bits of framing the experience will be all the better for the effort.