Last month I watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for the first time, a movie that had been on my watchlist for far too long as someone who loves musicals. It’s one of the most acclaimed movie musicals today, making it onto AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals list and being selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It was well-received in its time too, winning an Oscar for Best Music and earning four additional Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. What makes this movie so memorable is Michael Kidd’s unusual choreography, where he made exciting dance numbers out of ordinary frontier tasks, such as raising a barn. And for this post, I’ll be focusing on the film’s most famous dance sequence, where the title brothers go to a barn-raising to court some women.
The film takes place in the 1850s, and it follows a family of seven brothers who have secluded themselves away from society, living together on a farm in the mountains. The eldest brother, Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) comes into town to shop for supplies, and decides to find himself a wife while he’s there. He swiftly marries Milly (Jane Powell), a cook at the local tavern. What Milly doesn’t know is that Adam wasn’t really looking for a wife, he was looking for a housekeeper to take care of him and his brothers. Soon after Milly meets Adam’s rowdy brothers, she teaches them how to behave and most importantly, how to court a woman. Along with Milly and Adam, the brothers then venture into town to test out their new manners at a barn-raising in the hopes of getting wives of their own.
Jane Powell and Howard Keel are the stars of the film, and appeared in a number of other musical films throughout their careers. While they’ve done their fair share of dancing, they’re more known for their operatic voices, and in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers they spend most of their time singing in the film’s musical numbers. Powell does get to dance in a couple of scenes though, including a short appearance in the seven minute barn-raising dance sequence.
While the film is about seven brothers, the barn-raising dance sequence only features six of them. But if you look closely, you’ll notice only five of them are actively dancing throughout it, and four of those actors were cast in the film for their extensive dance training. Before I get into the dance itself, some background information on the film’s key players. First, a bit about the brothers’ roles in the dance sequence and the actors portraying them:
- Frank (red shirt): The sixth of the seven brothers, played by Tommy Rall, a professional dancer and singer. He appeared in a number of Broadway shows and musical films, including Kiss Me Kate, which he starred in alongside Howard Keel a year before this film. He was also featured in a parody number of Swan Lake in the film Funny Girl, where he played the prince dancing with Barbra Streisand. Frank is definitely the leading dancer of the barn-raising dance sequence and gets to showcase both dance and acrobatic moves with other characters and on his own.
- Caleb (yellow shirt): The third of the seven brothers, played by Matt Mattox, a professional dancer. He appeared in both Broadway shows and musical films, though in the latter he usually had uncredited roles as a specialty dancer. Caleb is another prominent figure in the barn-raising dance sequence, and gets a solo spotlight to show off some gymnastic skills.
- Gideon (blue shirt): The seventh of the seven brothers, played by Russ Tamblyn, an actor and gymnast. He’s the most famous of the seven actors portraying the brothers, and is still appearing in movies and TV shows today. He’s best remembered for his role as Riff in West Side Story and as Dr. Lawrence Jacoby in Twin Peaks, a role he’ll be reprising next year for the show’s revival. For this number, he initially didn’t have a big role as he wasn’t a professional dancer, but when choreographer Michael Kidd learned he was a good tumbler, he incorporated Tamblyn’s acrobatic skills into the dance.
- Ephraim (green shirt): The fifth of the seven brothers, played by Jacques d’Amboise, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Because of his commitment to the ballet company, he didn’t appear in many other films, though he was the subject of the 1983 documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature that year. Ephraim isn’t featured as much as his other brothers in the sequence and doesn’t have any solos, but he still has a few shining moments with them.
- Daniel (purple shirt): The fourth of the seven brothers, played by Marc Platt, a professional dancer. He appeared in both Broadway shows and films, often playing minor roles. Among the original stage productions he appeared in were Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma!, and he appeared in the latter’s film adaptation a few years later. Daniel is featured about as much as Gideon in the barn-raising dance sequence, though unlike him, he has no solo showcases.
- Benjamin (orange shirt): The second of the seven brothers, played by Jeff Richards, an actor and former professional baseball player. After receiving an injury that prevented him from continuing his baseball career, he pursued an acting career. Along with Howard Keel, he’s the only brother who wasn’t cast for his dancing ability. He won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer for his role here, though he had made about a dozen films before this one. In the barn-raising dance sequence, Benjamin mostly stands in the background as he watches his brothers dance. He does participate in the bigger group dances, but he’s often found towards the back or at the far side of the shot.
Stanley Donen is best remembered today for directing some of the greatest movie musicals of all time. He contributed to the choreography on a few of them, as well as a couple of other films he didn’t direct. But for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, he left the choreography to Michael Kidd. His choreography can be seen in a few other famous movie musicals, such as The Band Wagon, Guys and Dolls, and Hello Dolly! Kidd also acted in a handful of films, including It’s Always Fair Weather, where he danced alongside Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey. That film was also co-directed by Kelly and Donen, and became the last of the duo’s film collaborations.
Though most of the brothers were played by professional dancers who specialized in ballet, Michael Kidd avoided incorporating obvious ballet moves into the choreography. He instead made the dance moves more athletic to coincide with work movements like ax wielding (this can be seen in my second favorite number from the film, “Lonesome Polecat”, which is impressively filmed in one continuous shot).
I had to find a way to have these backwoods men dance without looking ridiculous. I had to base it all around activities you would accept from such people—it couldn’t look like ballet. And it could only have been done by superbly trained dancers.
In choreographing the film’s famous dance sequence, Kidd greatly utilized the space provided by the widescreen aspect ratio. With so many characters involved (the six brothers, the six single women, and the six local townsmen), the barn-raising dance could’ve turned into a convoluted mess. Instead we can easily follow the action, and you can always find something new in the sequence upon re-watch. It also helps that the brothers were dressed in different colored shirts so they could be easily discernible among each other.
The dance itself begins with the six women dancing with their local suitors, though they’re more interested in dancing with the brothers. Throughout the sequence, the women switch off between dancing with the brothers and the townsmen. While the brothers would have picked a fight with the townsmen in the past, they try to keep it clean with their newfound manners, and opt for dancing instead of dueling as a way to woo the women. I should also note that though this scene is referred to as the barn-raising dance, the actual barn-raising doesn’t occur until after the dance-off.
Now instead of describing the barn-raising dance in further detail (and as a reward for reading this lengthy post!), I’ll show you some highlights from the sequence. Pictures couldn’t quite do it justice, so I made some gifs! Be sure to take a look at what’s going on in the background, especially in the first two gifs. Though we’re more focused on what’s in the foreground, Michael Kidd still included some action behind them.
You can watch the barn-raising dance sequence in its intended widescreen aspect ratio in two videos (part 1 and part 2). The film was shot in two different aspect ratios, as MGM wasn’t sure if all theaters had the capability to screen a film shot in CinemaScope, which was still new at the time. If you’d rather watch the whole sequence without interruption, you can watch it in its alternate aspect ratio here.
I wrote this as a part of the Gotta Dance! Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about dance in film. Click the banner below to read more fantastic posts!