Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Performance that Changed My Life: Jane Powell in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”

Emma at All About My Movies is hosting a blog-a-thon on the theme
The Performance That Changed My Life. A great topic, and one that’s already spawned a lot of thought-provoking responses. I’m entering a little late in the day, especially considering I’m on L.A. time and Emma’s apparently in London—but hey, better late than never.

There are a lot of performances that have made a deep impression on me, but I have to give pride of place to Jane Powell’s unforgettable turn as Milly in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” I grew up watching a lot of classic movie musicals from the ’50s and ’60s, and “Seven Brides” has remained one of my very favorites ever since I first saw it. At first glance, it shouldn’t have aged as well as it has – especially considering it’s about a group of men who decide to reenact the rape of the Sabine women by kidnapping a bunch of women to make them their wives. Not to mention the fact that its lead male protagonist is, for a good nine-tenths of the movie, practically a caricature of a chauvinist pig. But I’ll argue that the reason it hasn’t been killed by the advent of feminism and political correctness—of course, apart from the fact that it features some infectious tunes and absolutely fantastic choreography (right up there with “West Side Story,” and in fact I’d argue the barn-raising sequence is, hands down, the best-choreographed dance sequence of any movie musical ever made), is Powell’s performance as the woman who somehow manages to be a good and loyal wife and at the same teach her boorish husband a thing or two about sensitivity and consideration.

This is no easy feat, but Powell pulls it off with grace as well as tunefulness. At the movie’s outset, her Milly is working as a cook and hired girl in a small town in the Oregon mountains. When a handsome stranger, backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), comes to town looking for a wife, she falls for him, accepts his proposal (which has about the subtlety of the caveman in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World”), and marries him on the spot. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Adam shares the farm he works on with six younger brothers, and the homestead is in desperate need of basic housekeeping (in his own summation, “Place is like a pigsty, and the food tastes worse”). Indeed, his initial assessment of Milly, like his assessment of all the women in town (in a song that could be offensive if it weren’t so hummable), sounds like he’s sizing up livestock:

Pretty and trim, but not too slim,
Heavenly eyes, and just the right size
Simple and sweet
(cut to Milly shoving a guy making unwelcome advances; Adam chuckles)
But sassy as can be!
Bless her beautiful hide,
For she’s the gal for me!

Turns out Adam’s actually right for once, except about her being simple. Oh sure, she may show questionable judgment marrying a total stranger who proposes to her in the manner of a business proposition, and yes, she allows herself to get a little moony and mushy in their ride up to Adam’s place. But she soon shows the stuff she’s made of: when she finds out that what Adam really wants is his own hired girl, she’s mad, of course, but rather than crumbling she sets about turning the Pontipee pad into a clean, well-ordered home and the six unmarried Pontipees (who are generally a lot more pliable, even rather sheep-like, than their eldest brother) into something resembling gentlemen. When she brings them to town, groomed and trained, to find their own wives, they almost succeed, but are goaded into a fight by the townies that, for a time, dashes their hopes. As the lovelorn brothers mope through the dead of winter, Adam gets the bright idea (from reading about the Romans’ rape of the Sabine) of leading them back down to town to carry off the girls they’re pining for. They succeed, and an avalanche blocks off pursuit from the girls’ families.

They haven’t reckoned, however, with Milly. As the weeping girls flock to her arms, in no uncertain terms she gives the brothers a piece of her mind and packs them off to the barn, where she makes it clear they’ll stay until the ice melts and they’re able to return the girls to her families. Cowed, they submit with scarcely a murmur. And she doesn’t make an exception for her husband, who goes off in a huff to play hermit for the rest of the winter and refuses to stop sulking even when he hears she’s given birth to a daughter (his reaction: “A girl! Might’ve known she’d have a girl”). In the end, however, he sees the error of his ways, and realizes what we’ve known all along, that he should be thanking his lucky stars for finding a wife like Milly.

None of this would work if Powell weren’t so convincing and fully dimensional as the strong-willed yet sensitive Milly. She’s not afraid to speak her mind to Adam and doesn’t stand for ill treatment, yet she continually lets him back into her life (and bedroom) because, under it all, for some reason—and I think most of us can sympathize—she really is in love with the guy and thinks he’s capable of changing. There are a couple of scenes that stick out in my mind: one when Adam, in a rare moment where he drops his he-man guard while talking to baby brother Gideon (a charming Russ Tamblyn, the tender heart of the Pontipee men), sings about what it’s like to be in love, and Milly, unbeknownst to him, is listening. Her face says everything, even though she doesn't: it glows, then saddens when Adam cuts off his song and dismisses the whole subject. The other is when Milly learns from Gideon that Adam is going off to a cabin in the mountains rather than submitting to sleeping in the barn. Gideon pleads with her to say something to dissuade him. At first Milly’s expression conveys inner conflict, then it hardens into resolution: “He’s got to learn he can’t treat people like this,” she says quietly yet firmly, and she’s absolutely right. She loves him, but she has to take a stand. And she does, and it feels only right and natural that he comes round as a result.

Of course add to that that she’s pretty and sprightly and sings like an angel, and you’ve got really the closest thing to a perfect woman that you can have. What’s remarkable about Powell’s performance, and what’s stuck with me through the years, is how she manages to make the character not only perfect but fully, recognizably human.


Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

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5:36 AM  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

The confidence, purity, and strength of character Powell invests in Milly have much to do with the enduring appeal Brides, but Jane makes it all look so easy in a charming, effortless performance, that she never really has received much praise for her excellent work in the film. Thanks for paying a fine tribute to a talented, somewhat overlooked pro who enliven many an MGM musical during her heyday.

5:37 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks for the comment. It wasn't until fairly recently that I realized how important Powell's role was to this movie, and how easy she makes it look, as you note.

Very much enjoyed your entry on Shani Wallis in "Oliver," though that's one musical I haven't seen. More people than I thought picked musical performances for this blog-a-thon, which I find encouraging, especially since there's a tendency not to think of those as great "acting."

4:42 PM  
Blogger JANE POWELL FAN CLUB said...

Glad to see you love Jane Powell. I have a blog dedicated to Janie which you can find at:

6:35 PM  
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1:31 AM  

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