Check out the previous post (see below) on Howard Keel and the dwindling appeal of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals in the early 1950s – just as he is about to reach the height of his career.
Howard Keel: Height of career as ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ becomes sleeper blockbuster
Whether with Louis B. Mayer or Dore Schary at its head, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had undoubtedly expected Howard Keel to have reached the height of Hollywood stardom after having him cast as the lead male singer/romantic interest in two routine but successful Esther Williams star vehicles, Pagan Love Song and Texas Carnival, and in four of its prestige musicals: Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Lovely to Look At, and Kiss Me Kate. That is, except for the fact that the last two titles had turned out to be sizable money-losers.
‘The Sobbin’ Women’
Inspired by Plutarch’s Life of Romulus and the Ancient Roman legend of The Rape [or rather, Abduction] of the Sabine Women, Stephen Vincent Benét’s rural U.S.-set short story “The Sobbin’ Women” was published in the 1937 collection Thirteen O’Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. The high point of the tale takes place when, at the suggestion of their oldest brother’s pregnant and overworked wife, Milly, six backwoods brothers abduct six young women at a local gathering.
“The Sobbin’ Women” was initially optioned by stage director Joshua Logan, who had been planning a theatrical adaptation. In 1951, after Logan’s option had expired, MGM bought the rights for producer Jack Cummings, at the time best known for his wildly popular Esther Williams musicals (and later responsible for Lovely to Look At and Kiss Me Kate).
The veteran wife-and-husband team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Oscar-nominated for The Thin Man, 1934; After the Thin Man, 1936; and Father of the Bride, 1950) were then tasked with transferring Benét’s tale to mid-19th-century rural Oregon. Lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Gene de Paul (instead of original choice Harold Arlen, who is supposed to have been nixed by Mercer) were to provide the songs accompanying the plot.
Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd (Guys and Dolls, Can-Can), in spite of some initial reluctance, would be responsible for the dance numbers, while Stanley Donen, whose brief directorial career had had its share of ups and downs (ups: On the Town, Royal Wedding, Singin’ in the Rain; downs: Love Is Better Than Ever, Fearless Fagan, the soon-to-be-released Give a Girl a Break), was chosen to handle the proceedings.
Seven brides for seven straight brothers
In front of the camera, the project was to star the studio’s soprano-voiced “all-American girl next door,” Oregon-born Jane Powell, top billed as a more melodious, less cunning version of Milly. Howard Keel was to play her husband, baritone-voiced backwoodsman Adam Pontipee.
Cast as the brothers were minor league baseball player turned MGM contract player Jeff Richards, and an array of capable male dancers: Tommy Rall, Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise, Marc Platt, plus an acrobatic Russ Tamblyn – “all straight,” Keel reassures us in his autobiography, Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business.
Among the soon-to-be abductees were Virginia Gibson, Ruta Lee (as Ruta Kilmonis, in her film debut), and future Catwoman Julie Newmar (as Julie Newmeyer).
Released in July 1954, the end result was the effervescent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a critical and commercial smash hit. (See trailer below.)
Battle of the MGM musicals
According to Jane Powell, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – one of MGM’s biggest blockbusters of the 1950s – almost didn’t get made.
In her autobiography, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, Powell would recall, “The studio was pouring all this money into [the Arthur Freed-produced, Vincente Minnelli-directed, Gene Kelly-Van Johnson-Cyd Charisse star vehicle] Brigadoon and felt it couldn’t afford to do two musical extravaganzas at once, so MGM bigwigs were going to drop it. But Jack Cummings, our producer, talked the studio into doing it. He offered to cut the budget, to economize in every way possible. He pleaded.”
The accuracy of Powell’s recollections may be a bit iffy. After all, besides Brigadoon (budget: $3.01 million), MGM had also been able to afford the aforementioned Rose Marie (budget: $2.98 million), partly shot “on location” (even if not in the film’s actual setting) in mid-to-late 1953. Two other 1954 musicals, The Student Prince and Deep in My Heart, would cost the studio around $2.5 million apiece.
That indicates that Metro musicals, despite their erratic box office performance of late, were still considered good investment risks. Ultimately, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ended up with a hardly B-grade $2.54 million budget, covering, like Brigadoon, the shooting of two versions: one in CinemaScope, the other in the regular widescreen format. (Rose Marie was shot only in CinemaScope.)
The worst fight ever
Yet budgetary woes were undeniably an issue during filming. In the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Blu-ray audio commentary, Stanley Donen remembers the production as “the worst fight I ever had … to get the picture made in the way it finally was.”
Donen adds that Jack Cummings at first wanted to use royalty-free American folk songs instead of an original song score, while the top brass clamped down on the director’s idea to shoot the movie on location.
Furthermore, there were problems pertaining to “creative differences.” Also in the Blu-ray commentary, Donen discusses the rumor about Howard Keel trying to get him fired before production began. (Several sources state that Keel had been pining for Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, and Kiss Me Kate’s George Sidney.)
Additionally, screenplay disagreements pitted Keel against Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett; these led to the screenwriters’ departure and the arrival of Kiss Me Kate adapter Dorothy Kingsley.
Jane Powell & Howard Keel career height
In spite of the multifarious financial and artistic contretemps, Howard Keel would affirm in his autobiography that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was “one of my happiest filmmaking experiences at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”
Dore Schary and the moneymen at Loews, Inc. (which was still officially in control of the studio), no doubt felt just as happy: MGM’s highest-grossing 1954 release, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers brought in $9.4 million in worldwide rentals ($5.52 million in the domestic market) and $3.19 million in profits. It was easily the most commercially successful vehicle in the careers of both Jane Powell and Howard Keel – thus surpassing Annie Get Your Gun to become MGM’s biggest musical hit to date (not adjusted for inflation).
Now, putting things a little more in perspective: inflation or no, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was not the biggest musical blockbuster ever. Also in 1954, Paramount released veteran Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and former MGM contract actress-dancer Vera-Ellen. A remake of Holiday Inn (1942) – with elements in common with Lovely to Look At (putting on a show to save a failing establishment) – White Christmas, the year’s no. 1 box office draw, scored $12 million in rentals in the U.S. and Canada alone.
Best Picture Oscar nominee
Even so, when the Academy Award nominations were announced in early 1955, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – not White Christmas (or Brigadoon, for that matter) – was the one musical among the five Best Picture nominees. That was the first and only time for producer Jack Cummings, stars Keel and Powell, director Donen (who, strangely, failed to be individually shortlisted), and co-screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley.
The musical was also shortlisted in four other categories: Best Screenplay (Goodrich, Hackett, Kingsley), Color Cinematography (George J. Folsey), Film Editing (Ralph E. Winters), and Scoring of a Musical Picture (Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin). Deutsch and Chaplin were the only eventual winners.
Notwithstanding its immense popularity, White Christmas scored one single Oscar nod: Best Original Song for Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”
MGM’s costly Rose Marie was totally bypassed by the Academy; the slightly costlier Brigadoon landed three nods, all in the less publicized categories (Best Art Direction, Costume Design, and Sound). The former title, as discussed in the previous Howard Keel post, was a money-loser despite strong worldwide box office receipts; the latter, set in Scotland but – like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – shot in Culver City, was a downright bomb, losing the studio $1.55 million.
Enduring un-PC classic
In a movie replete with highlights, two sequences stand out in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: Jane Powell delivering a marvelous rendition of “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” and the eye-popping barn-raising dance segment, masterfully choreographed by Michael Kidd.
Playing opposite one more petite leading lady (after Betty Hutton, Kathryn Grayson, and Ann Blyth), Howard Keel – height: six feet three – towers over Jane Powell. At times, possibly because of the added facial hair and Powell’s girlish demeanor, he looks more like her big, brawny daddy than her spouse.
Yet Keel and Powell do make an engaging movie couple, both giving their all to what might otherwise have been conventional (imposingly macho/decorously feminine) roles.
Inevitably, however, this 65-year-old Hollywood production also has something to affront our era’s ready-to-take-offense types: its happy ending, which has the virginal female abductees falling in love/lust with their virile male abductors. Instead of demanding that the balletic backwoods brothers be hanged and/or castrated by the local Traditional Family Values posse, the women hungrily take them on as husbands by claiming they’ve all been impregnated.
Whether brazenly sexist or cleverly subversive, more than six decades after its initial release, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – co-adapted by two women, let’s not forget – remains as buoyantly enjoyable in the early 21st century as it was back in the mid-20th century.
Howard Keel: What next after career height?
As 1954 came to an end, Howard Keel had three worldwide musical blockbusters (including one blockbuster-in-the-making) to his – at least partial – credit: Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
He also had one sizable and one modest hit, respectively, Texas Carnival and Pagan Love Song. And three money-losers, all in the previous three years: Lovely to Look At, Kiss Me Kate, and Rose Marie.
As discussed in more detail in the follow-up post, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was also having a mixed rate of success with its 1954 musicals.
Which route would the studio take? And how would that affect the career of its top male singing star?
“Howard Keel: Height of Career with Sleeper Blockbuster Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” follow-up post:
Howard Keel: Box office info
 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers budget (not including marketing and distribution expenses) and box office information, and that of other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer titles discussed in this post, was collected by way of online reports citing MGM’s Eddie Mannix Ledger and the Ledger itself, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.
White Christmas box office information via Variety.
“Rentals” refers to the studios’ share of their films’ box office gross.
See follow-up post (link above) for information on the inflation-adjusted box office figures of several MGM musicals starring Howard Keel.
1954 Best Picture Oscar & Original Song winners
 The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Best Picture of 1954 was Elia Kazan’s black-and-white sociopolitical drama On the Waterfront, set universes away from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The other nominees that year were The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, and Three Coins in the Fountain.
That year’s Best Original Song winner was Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Three Coins in the Fountain,” sung by a disembodied Frank Sinatra in Jean Negulesco’s same-titled romantic comedy-drama, one of the year’s biggest box office hits.
Unless otherwise noted, Howard Keel quotes via Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business, which is also the source for his problems with the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers screenplay.
Images of Jane Powell and Howard Keel at the height of their careers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Howard Keel: Height of Career with Sleeper Blockbuster Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” last updated in June 2019.