Sunday, October 10, 2004

Do You Four Boys Take These Two Girls To Be Your Seven Brides?

I can recommend the new special-edition DVD of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, with the following caveats:

- The use of studio interiors for outdoor scenes is still a problem; I don't think musicals should be shot on location, but a lot of these sets just look distractingly fake, much like the sets in MGM's Brigadoon that same year;
- The transfer, while excellent, can't do much to improve the cheap Ansco Color process;
- The director, Stanley Donen, doesn't have a whole lot to say on the audio commentary track;
- I can't help feeling that the theme of this film -- kidnap women, they'll learn to like it -- would be a little horrifying by the standards of 1854, let alone 1954. Though to be fair, the sexual politics of the film aren't all bad, as the Howard Keel character starts out viewing women as interchangable, and winds up sort of appreciating his wife as an individual.

With that out of the way, it's an excellent DVD. They've included two separate versions of the film: the CinemaScope version, and a "flat" (1.85:1 aspect ratio) version shot simultaneously, for theatres without CinemaScope equipment. Much of the movie works better in the non-'Scope version; the MGM directors were struggling with the adjustment to the wide screen, which isn't really right for the kind of musicals MGM specialized in -- a love duet is a disaster in CinemaScope, what with the necessity to fill all that empty space on either side of the lovers -- and they compensated by bringing in the camera in too close, placing lots of people in the wide frame but at the expense of showing less of each person. The non-'Scope version gives us more of the kind of screen compositions we get in the classic MGM musicals. However, the most important and famous sequence in the film, the barn dance, was specifically designed for 'Scope, and it doesn't work as well in the non-'Scope version. I'm happy to have both versions, along with the commentary, a making-of, and a couple of MGM promotional shorts from around the time the movie was made (including one of those CinemaScope-demonstration films where we see a full orchestra filling the wide screen).

Seven Brides was probably the best film produced by MGM's B-list producer of musicals, Jack Cummings. His movies drew on most of the same actors, directors and technicians as the musicals of Arthur Freed, but he had less money to work with, and less of a sense of story and style than Freed; I don't think he had Freed's interest in making sure that the script scenes were as interesting as the musical numbers, or in encouraging the kind of visual flourishes that Freed did; directors like Donen and George Sidney tended to do wilder, more elaborate visuals for Freed than for Cummings. But a lot of Cummings' movies, like Three Little Words (a biopic of two obscure songwriters that manages to be better than any of MGM's biopics of famous songwriters) and Give a Girl a Break, are very solid, and he was certainly preferable to MGM's Joe Pasternak, a producer who had bigger budgets than Cummings but put those budgets to work making Mario Lanza musicals.

Seven Brides is most famous for its Michael Kidd choreography, which happened to be perfect for the new CinemaScope era -- replacing the two-character dances of the traditional MGM musical, which didn't work in 'Scope, with six and seven-character numbers that filled the wide screen. But it also benefits from having one of the best original scores written for an MGM musical. Donen mentions on the commentary track that Cummings originally wanted to use period songs for the movie; fortunately, they turned instead to Gene De Paul, a talented pop composer who had had a few hits here and there (his biggest hit, believe it or not, was called "Cow Cow Boogie"), and the great lyricist Johnny Mercer. The two would team up with Kidd a couple of years later for the hit Broadway show Li'l Abner. De Paul's catchy tunes and Mercer's almost superhumanly polished, well-crafted, and witty lyrics account for a lot of the movie's success. The next year, Donen would co-direct a musical for Arthur Freed, It's Always Fair Weather (due on DVD next year, so I'm told), that had a bigger budget than Seven Brides, a great cast, a good script -- but which is prevented from attaining classic status by the near-disastrous choice of composer (Andre Previn, proving for the first of many times that, talented musician though he is, he can't write a good tune). Musicals are about a lot of elements, but most of all, they're about songs and singing. Without good songs, a musical's in trouble even if everything else is right.

Oh, and the subject heading comes from the Monty Python Sketch about a stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as performed at a prep school.

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