The Big Idea Behind SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS
Tuesday July, 31 2018 at 08:00 PM
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The source material for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was Stephen Vincent Benet's short story The Sobbin' Women originally published in the November 1938 issue of Argosy. The Sobbin' Women was itself a parody of an ancient Greek story as taken from Plutarch's Life of Romulus about the Sabine Women, who were abducted by Roman soldiers to be their brides. Benet's story updated the setting to the Oregon frontier of the 1850s and substituted the Roman men with seven rural brothers.
Bringing the tale of The Sobbin' Women to the big screen had long been producer Jack Cummings' pet project. Cummings, the nephew of Louis B. Mayer, had produced several successful musicals for MGM including Easy to Wed (1946) and Kiss Me Kate (1953). Famed Broadway director Joshua Logan had already optioned the rights to Benet's story, however, with the intention of turning it into a stage musical. After five years passed and Logan had not made progress with The Sobbin' Women, his option was up and MGM quickly snapped up the rights to the story on Cummings' behalf for $40,000.
Cummings immediately began to assemble a top rate team to work on the film version of The Sobbin' Women. He brought the husband and wife writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich along with Dorothy Kingsley to adapt the story into a workable screenplay. He then asked Stanley Donen to direct. Cummings and MGM had been impressed with Donen's previous work, which included Royal Wedding (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Give a Girl a Break (1953), and thought he would be the perfect person to bring The Sobbin' Women to life as a musical. Impressed with the screenplay, Donen was thrilled to take on the project. "The authors of the screenplay were really wonderful, bright, sharp, funny and really elegant in their construction and dialogue. I just think they're remarkable," said Donen in a 2004 interview.
Despite their enthusiasm to bring The Sobbin' Women to the screen, MGM was partial to another musical film they had in production at the time: Brigadoon (1954), starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. MGM saw Brigadoon as their "A" picture, and Seven Brides as a "B" picture. As a result, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was assigned an extremely tight budget, while MGM put the majority of their faith and money into Brigadoon. According to star Jane Powell, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers almost didn't even make it to the screen because of Brigadoon. "The studio," she writes in her 1988 autobiography The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, "was pouring all this money into Brigadoon and felt it couldn't afford to do two musical extravaganzas at once, so MGM bigwigs were going to drop it. But Jack Cummings, our producer, talked the studio into doing it. He offered to cut the budget, to economize in every way possible. He pleaded."
MGM didn't want to spend any money for original songs to use in The Sobbin' Women. The studio management thought the film could use already existing American folk songs for musical numbers. Stanley Donen fought hard to get an original musical score and new songs for the film, which MGM finally conceded. Johnny Mercer was brought on board to write song lyrics. At first composer Harold Arlen was to collaborate with Mercer on the music, but Mercer rejected working with Arlen. "He's too picky about the words that go with his music," he explained. Eventually Mercer partnered successfully with Gene de Paul, and together they came up with several new inspired songs for the film including "Bless Your Beautiful Hide," "June Bride," and "Sobbin' Women."
From the beginning, Stanley Donen knew that he wanted famed dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd to stage all of the musical numbers. "Michael Kidd was the choreographer to do this film," Donen said in a 2004 interview, "because his choreography was inventive, athletic, not classical ballet dancing, but dancing which is remarkable." The problem was that neither Kidd nor the studio could visualize seven rugged mountain men breaking into song and dance in a believable manner. In addition, Kidd was exhausted from doing a show in New York at the time and wanted to take a break. He told Stanley Donen that he didn't want to do the film. Donen, however, refused to take no for an answer. He convinced Kidd to at least listen to the songs for the film, and Kidd liked them. Still, Kidd couldn't see how dance numbers could be effectively worked into the story. "I said to Stanley and Saul Chaplin," recalled Kidd in a 2004 interview, "'I can't see any dancing in this picture. You got these seven slobs living out in the country. They got horse manure on the floor. They're unwashed. They're unshaven. They look terrible. These people are going to get up and dance? We'll be hooted out of the theater! It doesn't make any sense to me.'" With a little cajoling and eventually begging, Donen finally convinced Kidd to at least stage the movement of the musical numbers, even if he couldn't envision dancing. Before long, Kidd did see opportunities in the script for the brothers to be dancing. The musical numbers he eventually brought to life would turn out to be one of the film's biggest assets.
When the time came to cast Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Donen called upon established musical stars Howard Keel (Show Boat , Kiss Me Kate) and Jane Powell (A Date with Judy , Royal Wedding) to play the leads, Adam and Milly. For Adam's six brothers, Michael Kidd told MGM that he wanted dancers for the parts. MGM responded that they didn't have dancers under contract at the studio-just actors. In the end, they compromised. MGM would let Kidd and Donen hire four dancers of their choice as long as they used two actors who were already under contract at MGM for the remaining Pontipee brothers. For the dancing brothers, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, and New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d'Amboise were hired. Jack Cummings and Stanley Donen had been at a performance of the New York City Ballet in San Francisco when they saw d'Amboise perform and thought he would be perfect to play one of the brothers. With George Balanchine's blessing, d'Amboise was excused to work on the film. The non-dancing MGM actors chosen to play the other Pontipee brothers per the agreement were former baseball player Jeff Richards, who had two left feet, and juvenile actor Russ Tamblyn.
The Oregon mountains setting of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers seemed a natural to be filmed on location-especially since the action of the story transpired through all four seasons of one year. Stanley Donen desperately wanted to do this, but faced resistance from the studio. There simply wasn't the budget to shoot on location, MGM told him. What's more, if he wanted to get authentic footage of all four seasons in Oregon on film, it would take an entire year to accomplish. It was out of the question. MGM told him he would have to shoot the picture primarily on the MGM back lot which was a great disappointment for Donen.
Instead of using any extra money to allow Donen to shoot on location, MGM had a very different idea. Beginning in 1953 a new technical process was being used to make films called CinemaScope, a spectacular widescreen process that used anamorphic lenses. The process was quite new, but MGM wanted to make sure that they were taking advantage of every cinematic innovation. The only problem was that many theaters had not yet been equipped to show CinemaScope films. MGM's solution? Stanley Donen would have to shoot two different versions of the film: one in the CinemaScope aspect ratio 2:55, and one in the flat widescreen aspect ration of 1:77. For Donen, it would mean staging and shooting every scene twice, since the framing for each version would be different. There would be two separate negatives for each version. He would essentially have to shoot two different films under one limited budget. It was an enormous undertaking, but Donen was game. Under the new title Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (thought up by MGM head of advertising Howard Dietz), the musical version of The Sobbin' Women was ready for the cameras.
by Andrea Passafiume