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.

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West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story – 1961

Director(s) – Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Starring – Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris

So if you’ve read this blog before, you may know just how surprised I was upon seeing Singin’ in the Rain. I mean it was a fantastically really well done movie, with an entertaining story, characters with a very tangible chemistry and, the surprising part, it was a musical! I know. I know. I thought that fact alone would guarantee it to be terrible too, but it didn’t.

Well based on the strength of that film, I approached this “classic” with a bit more spring in my step. I mean, this could actually be pretty fun. The story of Romeo and Juliet mixed with the raw energy and exuberance of Singin’ in the Rain. That sounds like a no lose situation…right? Enter the dance fighting. Exit all hope of this being good.

I’ll repeat that…a movie featuring a tragic love story, gang warfare, and dance fighting.  Not dance fighting like one might see in a movie like “Step Up” or “You Got Served”  where the dancing is the weapon.  No, these guys are fighting with knives, pipes, and broken bottles, they just dance around while they do it.  Removing all the power, intensity, and plausibility of fighting from the situation.

For those who’ve never heard of Romeo and Juliet, or its retarded cousin, West Side Story, here’s the scoop. There are two rival gangs who hate each other because they are trying to occupy the same territory, and because of the folly of youth, but mostly because they are so different that they are essentially the same.  Okay, so we’ve got tension.

Because of their unwillingness to look beyond these minor differences, they are completely unwilling to tolerate co-habitation.  Problems arise when a member of each group falls in love with the other.  Each gang is outraged and willing to go to great lengths to stop the fledgling romance.  There’s the story defining conflict!  This mixture of volatile elements is a recipe for disas…oh wait, no.  Dance-fighting destroys all conflict and tension just by nature of being fucking dance-fighting.  Story ruined.

So all bitterness aside, West Side Story took a rather common hackneyed concept and decided to do absolutely nothing new with it.  Adding mediocre songs to the mix, and half-heartedly choreographing some dancing doesn’t re-invigorate a story that everyone knows, especially when the “new” additions all seem tacked on and disingenuous.

So, you ask, does this spoil my impression of musicals again? Am I back to being a non-believer? Not yet, although it was touch and go there for a while. I can rationally understand that there are duds in every genre, no matter if they’re science fiction (The Core anyone), mystery (anything M. Night Shyamalan did post Sixth Sense), or even, gasp, action (Transformers, GI Joe, etc..).  Unlike what I previously thought, there will be good musicals, but there will be terrible ones too (so really I was half right).

As for the acting, there really seems to be no point in going into it for this film, I wasn’t impressed by any of it.  In general though, one of the actors in particular will manage to redeem himself in my eyes.  Russ Tamblyn, will go on to feature heavily in one of the best television series of all times, Twin Peaks, and will also play a host of memorable small roles in such works as, Drive, The Haunting, Quantum Leap, and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

So is this film worth seeing?  In my opinion, no.  Go see Romeo and Juliet instead (or better yet, go read it too), and save yourself the annoyance. Every once in a while this list of 1001 movies has some black holes of crap tossed in just because.  This is one of them.

“Giving musicals a bad name” – Ashley

The Haunting (1963)

 Thehaunting1963

The Haunting – 1963

Director – Robert Wise

Starring – Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn

The Robert Wise production of The Haunting suffers slightly from the fact that I saw the shitty 1999 remake first, and unfortunately it never really recovers.

Based on the short story by Shirley Jackson, the Haunting is a good example of the 1960’s horror film.  It is far enough away from the 50’s to avoid giant monsters, and a cliched premise, but it is still too far from the late 70’s and early 80’s when gore was in vogue.  By comparison, it manages a certain legitimacy that movies in either of the other two camps aren’t afforded.  The scares are based around tension rather than gross-outs or horrible creatures, which makes the film seem all that much more grown up. 

Julie Harris, stars as Eleanor, the troubled, put-upon woman who is perhaps a little sensitive to the paranormal.  She, and a few others, are the guest of Dr. Markway, a scientist interested in the spiritial disturbances that have taken place for decades at Hill House, a mess of corridors and rooms with a lonely and bitter past.  The presence of these newcomers (two of whom are sensitive to the otherworldly happenings), awakens the angry spirits in the house and causes them to run amok.

While the set up of each version of the film (the original and the remake) are the same up to this point, the remake diverges at this point and as the characters start dying.  So, having seen the latter version, I was waiting for the original version to start killing off our main characters.  I was waiting for the caretaker and his wife to turn up dead (like in The Others, another movie with a similar plot), once Markway’s wife showed up, I was waiting for her to die.  The point was, I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Despite the fact that I thought the newer version was dumber, with inferior acting, and pacing, I was a little let down by the lack of death, or at least the lack of percieved danger.  This version seemed tame.  Not that tame is bad, but this seemed like it was missing a scene or two, or maybe even a whole act.  The conflict of our main character (her guilt about how her own mother died) is never fully realized, and ultimately doesn’t seem a good enough reason for her to be so introspective, and awkward.  Without the realization of threat of the spirits manipulation of Eleanor’s neediness, and fear, the motivation for what happens is not fully believable, and ultimately rings false.

Despite my disappointment, The Haunting has a number of very effective scenes, the most notable of which is the scene in which Eleanor wakes up to the sound of the ghost stomping around outside her room.  She grabs hold of the hand of who she believes is her roommate (the at times aggrivating, at times compassionate Theo played by Claire Bloom), only to find out after the moment has passed that she was much to far away for it to have been her.  Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks) has a few funny lines and is generally the best character whenever he’s on screen.

One other thing that was a bit of a disappointment to me, was the inside of the house.  It is supposed to be this awesome, fearful place, that is completely it’s own character.  It wasn’t that so much.  All I saw of it was a jumbled grouping of dark walls that didn’t convey a mood or tone.  Also I didn’t really have a sense of where in the house the characters were.  There seemed to be no main room, no kitchen, no logical layout, it was all bedrooms, and stairs.

All in all, a bit of a disappointment.