What in the bleeding heck.
…So, this is a film whose premise has really, really not aged well, I’d say. Based on a Stephen Vincent Benet story, which was itself based on or inspired by the Roman myth of the Rape of the Sabine Women, this is the tale of the seven Pontipee Brothers, all living in somewhat unkempt squalor in colonial Oregon. While eldest brother Adam (Howard Keel) is in town one day, trading some of their farms’ goods at the general store, he decides it’s high time for him to get a wife, and sticks around town looking for a likely candidate. He spots pretty Milly (Jane Powell), a hired girl at a local saloon who can make a mean stew, and proposes to her instantly. Milly is initially bemused, but accepts – something about the adventure of it all sweeps her off her feet. So Adam doesn’t really get a chance to give her the fine print – that she has six brothers-in-law living under the same roof and that Adam’s essentially expecting her to carry on being a maid, only with no pay.
Still, she accepts her fate readily enough. Along with her cooking and cleaning, though, she also embarks on a campaign to shape up all seven brothers – in the hopes of reforming her own husband, and shaping up the other six so they can win ladies of their own. The fluffed-up, new-and-improved Pontipees make their debut at a local barn-raising and impress six single lasses there – until jealous rivals pick a fight with them that turns into an all-out brawl, resulting in many cuts and bruises and the destruction of the barn they were there to build.
The Pontipees hole up in disgrace. Finally Adam – sick of his brothers’ moping – tells them the story of the Sabine women which he’s just read about in one of Milly’s books and suggests they do the same – kidnap all six of their crushes and bring them back to their farm for the winter, where the snows will trap them until spring and giving nature a chance to run its course. ….I have to pause here and share the actual lyrics from the song which spells out this plan:
“Rough ’em up like them there Romans do
Or else they’ll think you’re tetched!…
Them a women was sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’,
Weepin’ a ton them sobbin’ women…
Oh they acted angry and annoyed
But secretly they were overjoyed
Them goin be a sobbin’ for a while
We’re gonna make them sobbin’ women smile!”
Again, I say – what in the bleeding heck.
…Okay. To be fair, there are some things to say in the film’s defense. Milly does intercede – after a fashion – when the boys turn back up with their women, evicting all the men to the barn and turning herself into den mother to the unwilling women all winter, looking after them and keeping everything on the up and up. …True, she does quietly encourage her charges to spy on the boys out the window, and does quietly agree that yes, brother Ephraim is strong, and yes, brother Benjamin is tall…so it’s not quite the insta-marriage thing the boys had in mind, but Milly’s intercession just makes it a little more…proper.
There’s also the dancing. Many of the other reviews I’ve read choose to skip over the sticky sexual politics altogether and focus on the choreography instead, and there’s certainly cause for it. Choreographer Michael Kidd originally turned the gig down (“Here are these slobs living off in the woods. They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there’s manure on the floor, the cows come in and out – and they’re gonna get up and dance?”), but then relented, coming up with ideas for how to incorporate athletic, “farm-worker” actions into dance. Kidd’s influence even extended to the songs themselves – for one number, Kidd all but ordered a song, telling composer Johnny Mercer he wanted something mournful for the bachelor Pontipees to sing as they chopped wood and lamented their singlehood. Kidd was already working on some “wood-chopping” choreography to go with it. And in short order, Mercer gave him the song “Lonesome Polecat”, which I have to admit I found kinda cute.
The dance at the barn raising, as well, is a showstopper – the six brothers start out competing with six other bachelors for the single lasses on a square dance floor, the competition growing fiercer and fiercer until it’s a full-on dance battle, each of the brothers doing showier and showier stunts to show up the other boys.
Director Stanley Donen made sure to cast top-notch dancing talent for the brothers Pontipee – most were primarily known as dancers rather than actors (and you can….kinda tell). This was clearly going to be all about the music and the dance numbers, rather than the story. Still – I really really wish that Kidd and Donen had been working in the service of a much better, or at least a less oogy, story.