Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – 1954

Director – Stanley Donen

Starring – Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and Russ Tamblyn

So I know that, by and large, I give musicals a pretty hard time.  Harder than maybe they deserve, but truthfully I’m just not a big fan of a lot of the ones that I’ve seen.  I’ve been proven wrong on a handful of occasions, most notably with “Singing In The Rain”, which I have a tendency to gush and gush about because it really is that good (no really).  But then there are those examples of Musical film that defy logic, mine anyway.  How is it that people can sit through them?  Bright colors, and loose plotting do not a movie make, a point which “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” makes all too successfully.

On paper, the very fact that Stanley Donen is the director of this film should have meant it was going to be outstanding.  I mean, he directed the afore-mentioned really really really good musical, Singing In The Rain.  On top of that, Donen also directed one of my favorite movies of all time, Charade.  So by all means, this could have been great, nay, the greatest…ever.  It wasn’t.  At best it was overly long, with an utterly ridiculous story that makes zero sense, and at worst, it’s a misogynist and tone-deaf film in which the characters learn that abduction and abuse are rewarded with laughs and affection.

The story.  Well the story is about a rough and tumble mountain man, Adam, who arrives into town with the intent of claiming himself a woman.  After judging each and every girl on the street, and measuring their flaws, he finally finds someone he deems worthy of him, and pops the question.  The lady, Milly, a sort of all-purpose cook, waitress, and janitor at the local inn, immediately falls in love and regrettably assumes the feeling is mutual.  She daydreams aloud, often in song (blarg!) about her romantic notions of getting away from the daily grind of constantly living her life in the service of others, and instead spending meaningful time working alongside her true love and partner.

Of course, all Adam really wants is someone to be the cook, waitress, and janitor but with the added benefit of keeping him warm and satisfied during the long and cold winter nights spend out in the middle of fucking nowhere.  Oh, and did I mention he has six functionally retarded brothers that are dirty, violent and completely un-socialized?  Yeah, neither did he.  Adam cleverly withholds this fact from Milly till she meets them after their whirlwind one-day courtship/wedding.

***(Warning Spoilers)***

Later on, after an attempt to acclimate them to civilization spirals into a fist fight, the six brothers are encouraged to steal each of themselves a woman, just like Adam did, in order to salve their wounded pride.  The tried and true method of tricking the girl they fancy into coming outside, then tossing a blanket over their head and forcing them into their kidnap wagon understandably alarms the town, and a chase ensues.

To emphasize just how irresponsible Adam is, when Milly chastises him for inciting this wonton kidnapping, he storms off to a secret pouting cabin in the woods leaving her to take care of the mess that he fucking caused, all while keeping up the high standards of cleanliness and cooking to which they’ve all become accustomed.

To go too much further would be to give away too much of the story, not that you can’t really see where it’s going from here, but in the interest of not giving away everything I’ll stop here.

***(End Spoilers)***

Now, I realize that this is a 1950s musical, and as such, is supposed to be breezy and fun.  Just an excuse upon which one could drape a little choreography and a bunch of songs.  The story is really more of an afterthought, a necessary evil.  Unfortunately it seemed more than a little dated and seemed to really champion just taking what you want from women.  After all, it’s for their own good and they’ll end up loving it anyways, right?

Okay, so it’s just a goofy love story with some fish out of water elements, and sure it has a lot of sexism which isn’t good, but either way the story isn’t what’s important.  Likewise the singing didn’t really stand out, there was one really good dance number, and a bunch of forgettable ones, but that’s not really the point. But, it features a young Julie Newmar (for the uninitiated, she played Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV series)…whose name was, of all things, Dorcas (!!!?).  Oh, but it was filmed in Technicolor, and had some well thought out set-pieces…so essentially, bright colors and loose plotting.  It still doesn’t a movie make…too bad they did anyway.

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man

Rain Man – 1988

Director – Barry Levinson

Starring – Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, and Valeria Golino

What is more awful, the imitation of the famous character, or the famous character, himself?  It’s not as easy a question as I was guessing that it would be.  With such well-defined mannerisms, speech patterns that inspire imitation, and the constant repetition that drives it into the brain of the collective public, a film like this one can easily become parody.  Before seeing this film, my only knowledge of it was of the imitation of Ray Babbit that just about everyone seems to know, regardless of having seen the film or not.  I had grown rather sick of these imitations and had developed the opinion that I didn’t like Rain Man because of it.  I felt that Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the aforementioned Babbit was hammy and over the top, and I wrote off Tom Cruise as having played himself…again.  All before having seen one frame of film.  I was wrong.

For something that could have easily delved into the realm of the predictable, layered with melodrama, and schlock that I feared so much, Rain Man keeps a remarkably level-headed assessment of Hoffman’s mentally challenged Ray and his hot-headed brother, Charlie played in a remarkably subtle way by Cruise.  Immediately my impression of the film shot up as the characters turned out to be not only grounded in reality, but more importantly, utterly believable and even likable as well.

Driven mostly by his anger, and to a lesser degree by his fear, Charlie Babbitt,tries to fill the hole inside himself with things and with money.  Constantly he is reminding himself of what the world owes him, and it is with this attitude that he greets the news of his estranged fathers death.  Not willing to deal with how this makes him feel, or his own sense of loss, Charlie looks simply at what was left to him, and feels he is owed more.  He is not a terrible or a bad person, he is just so filled with anger, it’s all he can feel anymore.

The majority of his father’s money, it turns out, has been left to a brother, that Charlie never knew he had.  Ray Babbitt, the new-found brother, immediately becomes a target for Charlie’s anger, despite the fact that he’s unable to understand, let alone deal with either the anger or the blame.  Charlie is left with the choice of leaving with nothing, or leaving with Ray, hoping to get a sort of paltry ransom from the executor of his father’s estate, and the rest of the film deals with the two brothers learning to find value in one another.

While the union isn’t ideal for either of them at first, the two brothers eventually get to know each other, and in time come to trust each other too. As I mentioned before, Tom Cruise, wasn’t yet the Tom Cruise we know today.  The 1988 version could actually play more than one character, each one with subtlety and definition, too.  Watching Babbitt stretch and grow, first straining against then breaking through the confines of his anger, was one of the most rewarding experiences thus far in this endeavor.  Combined with the muted performance that Dustin Hoffman turns in, Rain Man showed itself to be the real deal.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen during this little endeavor, Rain Man was surprisingly good.  What could easily have fallen back into the gimmick of method acting or even a plain, stale buddy movie, really blossomed into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Well worth it.

An American In Paris (1951)

An American In Paris – 1951

Director – Vincente Minnelli

Starring – Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant

So I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with all things French.  Paris, specifically, is one of my favorite places ever.  So much so, that occasionally, I have been known to pull up the Google map of the city and street-view surf around to various places that I either want to go, or remember fondly.  Imagine my delight, when I found out that Gene Kelly, the man who was primarily responsible for the best musical ever (Singing in the Rain), was in a movie set in the romantic, free-spirited, and gorgeous streets, and hearts of Paris!  Motherfucking, Paris, son!  So did it stand up to all that hype and ballyhoo?  Almost.

Firstly, lets just get this out of the way.  I don’t think any musical is going to quite equal Singing in the Rain.  The color, the musical numbers, the athleticism, and the practical use of singing and dancing numbers to naturally advance the plot, is not only remarkable, it’s also just not fair measure upon which to hold the competition.  It’s like comparing Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger version, for gods sake) to another Sci-Fi movie.  No comparison, everything else loses.

Okay, so discounting the unfair competition, how was An American in Paris?  Very good.  When preparing for this review, I had a set number of routines in my head that I wanted to talk about, but as I tried to isolate what made each stand out from the others, I’d remember just what elements of the other routines I liked as well.  For instance, possibly my favorite dance number was the description/introduction of the many faces of the film’s love interest, Lise (Leslie Caron).  In said dance number, an admirer explains to his friend just what this siren is like using different styles of dance to illustrate different facets of her personality.  But as I was typing up how that set of mini-routines was so fantastic, I remembered Gene Kelly’s Buster Keaton-esque morning routine putting away his bed, and preparing breakfast.  Awesome, and totally worthy of its own mention.  Each routine, and each song had something like this that made it worth watching, and as such, the ranking system I originally devised doesn’t work out so well when writing about them.

The dancing and choreography were certainly fun to watch, but there were a few times where I would have liked a bit more storytelling instead of dancing just for dancing’s sake.  A prime example would be in the films final dance routine (which, by the way, lasts a full 18 minutes without any dialog of any kind).  Though I liked the tour through the famous french paintings, the stretch was a pretty long one where I found my attention wandering a bit.  By and large though, I found myself engaged (mostly) throughout.  I’m sure I’m not making any real revelation here when I say that Gene Kelly was a pretty competent dancer, so watching him wasn’t really that hard.

When it came to the secondary characters, however, the magic slipped away a little bit faster.  Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guetary simply were never quite given enough to do, with the exception of accompanying Gene Kelly.  Similarly the plot for those characters seemed a little thin as well…but speaking of plot…

The story goes like this, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a painter.  A rather mediocre one, even by his own admission.  He and his starving artist friends live hand to mouth in a beautiful building on the left bank of the Seine, each struggling and working hard to sell their art, be it painting, piano, or dance.  While out selling his paintings, or trying to, he meets a rather well to do socialite who does all she can to seduce him, and lure him in.  While out on the town with her one evening, Mulligan doesn’t recognize their first date for what it is and finds himself captivated by the beauty at another table.

The trouble comes in when we the audience realize that this girl, the object of his affection, is in a relationship with one of his good friends and is about to be swept off to the wedding chapel with him.  So now Jerry has to pick, between a woman who is the unavailable ideal, or the woman who is the pines after, but is his  clear second choice.  Unfortunately this plot weakens toward the end and seems more like  a formula conducive to the inclusion of dance numbers than it does a reasonable plot that happens to have dance numbers in it.  We never really get a satisfactory resolution for around fifty percent of the stories, they are just left open-ended.

As with the unattainable ideal that is Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris is so vibrant, it nearly causes your brain to explode with colorful seizures.  The set pieces are all fun, especially when they rather faithfully re-create some recognizable Parisian landmarks as with the fountain at Place de la Concorde, or the nest of little book-stalls that exist along the both sides of the Seine.

So, An American in Paris is definitely my second favorite musical that I’ve watched for this list, which isn’t very descriptive considering it exists somewhere between Singing in the Rain (which, we’ve established is fantastic), and West Side Story (which is fucking awful).  That’s like saying something is between noon and midnight, or someone is between a humanitarian and a murderer.  Rest assured that I really enjoyed An American in Paris.  I’ll count myself as super lucky if all of the other musicals on the list are this good!

Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

SinginInTheRain

Singin’ in the Rain – 1952

Director – Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Starring – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds

Coming into this movie, I was skeptical.  To be more to the point, coming into this endeavor of watching all of these movies, I was skeptical about every one of the musicals.  For some reason, I just don’t really consider a musical a viable genre of film.  It doesn’t have any of the high drama, action, or space monsters that would make me say, “Cool!”  Instead there’s dancing…and worse, there’s singing too.  Not sure why this particular combination of things turns me off of musicals, but it is both of those two ingredients  that are vital to the musical.  And here I am hating on them before I’d even seen the first one on the list.

Lucky for me, Laura just went ahead and brought home both Singin’ In The Rain and West Side Story without me knowing.  I say lucky, because I really had a very good time watching Singin’ In The Rain.  It was extra fun because she loves it so much, I caught her out of the corner of my eye bobbing her head, or singing under her breath.  I got twice the show, for half the price!

To start with, the first thing that struck me was the color.  The poster isn’t kidding when it says Technicolor.  It was like having electric, neon candy explode inside my brain!  There was so much to look at, and all of it was so rich and vibrant, full of life.  Gene Kelly was everything I’ve heard he was, charming, debonair, suave, and light on his feet.  I had never heard of Donald O’Connor, or Debbie Reynolds, but both of them also impressed me with their skills.

The story, a couple of  young men who come up through vaudeville, and into movies during the switch over from silents to talkies, perfectly suits the inclusion of the rich color palette, thematic set pieces, and the film’s dependence on song.  This is just what the fifties has taught us about Hollywood.  It’s bright, it’s beautiful, it’s filled with happy endings, and just desserts.  It’s one big dream, fully rendered and realized on screen.

Technically speaking, the set pieces incorporated genius use of practical light sources as well as light motivated by the emotions and exuberence of the characters.  The camera work was smooth and quick, never hanging for too long on one element of the dance.  The camera holds back enough so that we feel like we see the entire routine, but moves in for close-ups enough so that we don’t miss the finer details or the acting.  The songs, with the exception of a couple of slower ones, were fast paced, energetic, and exciting.  Each one got your blood moving without overstaying it’s welcome, or getting stale.

The only critique I have of this film is a pretty minor one.  Of the songs, two of them were a little slow and didn’t really engage me.  These performances stood out so much to me because of the sheer energy of the other routines.  They didn’t necessarily move the plot forward, and they certainly sapped the momentum out of the story.  I guess there are people out there who not only like slower, romantic songs, but are drawn to musicals because of them.  That is actually one of the elements that has been keeping me away for so many years.

I’ve learned my lesson.  While I am still a might skeptical about musicals, I am 50 percent won over.  If West Side Story is half as good as Singin’ in the Rain was, then there will officially be some hope for the getting through the rest of the musicals in the bunch.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

“I loves it!” – Ashley