Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and At Any Price with Richard Peña

June 29, 2018 | Jacqueline Medina

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

This week’s classic is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the 1954 movie musical directed by Stanley Donen.

The film follows seven rural men from the mountains of Oregon who find themselves so much in need of wives that they steal into a local town and abduct several young single women, an idea that somehow just seems less acceptable today, if it ever was acceptable. The idea was based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1938 short story “The Sobbin’ Women,” which was itself a parody of Plutarch’s ancient Greek tale of the Sabine Women, who were abducted by Roman soldiers to be their brides.

Director Stanley Donen tangled with MGM on several aspects of the film’s production. He was convinced that CinemaScope was the right format for the picture, but the studio was concerned that his choice would limit the film’s screening ability across the country. Producers insisted that a second, standard version of the film be created alongside the CinemaScope version. The requirement created a huge expense, especially wasteful considering the standard version was never printed. The elements remain, unused, in MGM’s archives, although you can see this alternate version on DVD.

Donen also disagreed with MGM’s producers when it came to Seven Brides’ score: he wanted to commission original songs for the film, but the studio wanted no new score. “Why not use old country songs like ‘Turkey in the Straw?’” they suggested. Thankfully, Donen prevailed: Johnny Mercer was brought on board to write lyrics, and with composer Gene de Paul, they came up with several original songs for the film including “Bless Your Beautiful Hide,” “June Bride,” and “Sobbin’ Women.”

From the beginning, Stanley Donen knew that he wanted famed dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd to stage the movie’s musical numbers. The problem was that neither Kidd nor the studio could visualize seven rugged mountain men breaking into song and dance in a believable manner. Kidd told Donen that he couldn’t see how dance numbers could be effectively worked into the story. “You got these seven slobs living out in the country. They got horse manure on the floor. They’re unwashed. They’re unshaven. They look terrible. These people are going to get up and dance? We’ll be hooted out of the theater!”

But Donen refused to take no for an answer. Before long, Kidd saw opportunities in the script for the brothers to dance, and his musical numbers became one of the film’s most wonderful aspects, with the dance at the barn-raising widely considered one of the high points of the American musical film.

There are so many pleasures in watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—the wonderful score, the impeccable visual design, the fast-paced action—but for me, there’s none greater than watching some of America’s greatest dancers all working together. Among the brothers, Mark Platt, Tommy Rall, and Matt Mattox all had remarkable credits on both stage and screen, but we New Yorkers have a special love for Jacques d’Amboise, here looking impossibly young, who of course for years was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. 

REEL 13 INDIE | AT ANY PRICE

At Any Price (2012)

This week’s indie is At Any Price, a 2012 drama directed by Ramin Bahrani.

At Any Price recounts a tale of ambition, greed, and father-son conflict which, despite the sunny tranquility of the film’s rural Iowa setting, steadily grows to the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy. Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, a prosperous farmer who is also a regional salesman for genetically modified seed that requires licensing from a big corporate Agra company. Determined to stay number one in sales for the county, Henry’s aggressiveness knows no bounds; he’s not beneath maneuvering to buy a recently deceased farmer’s land even as he pays his respects at the man’s funeral.

We begin to understand Henry a bit better once we meet his disapproving father, as well as Henry’s hotheaded son Dean, played by Zac Efron, who shows no interest in pursuing Henry’s farm business. Dean dreams of escaping his father’s world with a career as a NASCAR driver, much as his older brother continually postpones coming home by going on one mountain climbing expedition after another.

Henry and Dean seem destined to continue on their divergent paths until an unexpected investigation into Henry’s business practices sets in motion an escalating series of events that will trigger a family crisis. Also featured in supporting roles are Kim Dickens as Henry’s long-suffering wife and Heather Graham as a woman who finds herself on intimate terms with both father and son.

Although born in North Carolina to Iranian-immigrant parents, Ramin Bahrani exhibits some of the same thoughtful, careful examinations of daily life that have been associated with many of the excellent Iranian films of the past few decades. His earliest works seemed to specialize in films about recent immigrants, yet unlike most films that focus on that most timely subject, Bahrani gave his immigrant characters rich, complex, personalities. Man Push Cart followed a Pakistani rock star struggling to make it on New York’s mean streets with a coffee cart; Chop Shop followed a Latino orphan in the junkyards of Willets Point; Goodbye Solo focused on a Senegalese cab driver.

Bahrani’s characters are never simply victims but, on the contrary, survivors who have learned, or are learning, how to maneuver in the new American society they’ve chosen as home. At Any Price represented a change of pace for the director, thrusting him into the American heartland for a tale on the souring of the American dream that seems even more relevant today than when first released. In 2014, Bahrani directed 99 Homes, a gripping drama on the unscrupulous home foreclosure market in Florida, and most recently, he remade Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451 for HBO.

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