When Cherished Musicals Go Off-Key

Hindsight can be brutal to the childhood experiences we often hold dear. My mother was a connoisseur of old Hollywood musicals, and by extension, so was I. Some of the fondest memories of my mother are when she’d serenade the household with lively Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers as she went about the daily duties of a 1970s housewife. She would encourage me to watch these movies with her, and honestly, what wasn’t there to love for a fun-loving kid? Snappy songs. Brilliant choreography. Glorious costumes. Witty repartee. Oh, how I especially enjoyed the repartee. These musicals were my generation’s version of Hamilton.

What could be problematic about such experiences, you ask? Some of you already know the answer, but many of those old musicals don’t hold up well in today’s socially-conscious environment. By way of example, let’s consider one of my favorites: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (SB4SB for brevity). SB4SB is a CinemaScope gem that was released in 1954, and gosh, is it a riotous, entertaining experience. The songs are catchy, the actors are mega-talented, and the choreography is something to behold—especially the famous barn-raising scene. (Yes, a barn-raising dance scene!) Seems reasonable for a 1950s musical, right?

If you’re not familiar with the movie, allow me to explain the plot, and then you’ll start to see the cracks. (NOTE: the movie is 64 years old but consider this your SPOILER ALERT.) In the frontier of mid-19th century Oregon, a backwoodsman named Adam goes to town, intent on bringing back a bride. Within hours of his arrival, Adam uses his natural charm, rugged good looks, and singing skills to woo one of the town’s scarce eligible maidens—Millie—and convinces her to marry and return with him to his romantically remote newlywed roost. Except . . .

Adam doesn’t live alone. His six younger brothers—who are just as tall, redhead, and uncouth as Adam—share the hearth and home. This is something Adam neglects to share with his new bride until they arrive back at the homestead, where she learns she is expected to cook and clean for all of them. Yes, Millie has married her singing backwoodsman under false pretenses, but at least—at least—our plucky young heroine asserts herself and refuses to play housemaid to the ill-mannered clan. Of course, Adam pouts and sings himself back into her good graces, Millie falls for it, the boys clean up their act, and they all live happily ever after. Until . . .

Envious of Adam’s marriage, and encouraged by the tale of the Sabine women, the brothers are inspired to seek out brides of their own.  In short order, the six men meet, fall for, and then court their own potential wives.

I’m sorry . . . did I say court? I meant KIDNAP.

Yes, they kidnap the women of their dreams. You see, the girls’ families and townsfolk find the brothers unacceptable as potential husbands for the girls (no surprise there), which makes kidnapping the only workable solution.  Or, the Hollywood version of a romantic solution, because what says romance more than wanting someone you’ve only met once so much that you are willing to kidnap and terrorize them until—gosh darnit!—they see how much you love them and they in turn love you back?

That’s a HORRIBLE solution.

Framed against today’s #MeToo movement, one might wonder how this movie ever got the green light? Well, the answer to that lies in social acceptability.  Whereas most reasonable people in 1954 could tell you that kidnapping an object of affection obsession is objectively bad, SB4SB presents it as comedic farce, and by golly, you just had to forgive those lovable lunks for doing what they had to do to be with the women they loved.  And in the end, it worked out for our seven brothers—they got their willing brides. Thus, the flattery of the ardent pursuer is—well, maybe not normalized, but romanticized.

Now is the time to point out that a ten-year-old isn’t reasonable people. I watched, loved and obsessed over this movie when I was that young and impressionable ten-year-old, and it allowed me to romanticize the concept of the ardent pursuer. The man who would do anything to win your affection, even if that anything goes against your will. Such efforts seemed like flattery, and sadly my self-worth as a pre-teen and teen was based on the opinion of boys. I didn’t know any better at the time (and that perhaps followed me into many of my early relationship choices) but I certainly do now.

On the whole, as we mature as individuals and as a society, we better understand and acknowledge the difference between love and obsession. Between “courtin’” and harassment. Between erecting a barn in the hopes a cute girl will be smitten with you and kidnapping someone because they once danced with you.

Does this mean I no longer enjoy the musicals I loved as a child? Perish the thought! Brigadoon remains one of my all-time favorite movies. It also deals with the concept of an ardent pursuer, but with much more dire and realistic consequences for said pursuer. I happen to have this one on DVD, so I’ve watched it recently, but I haven’t seen most of the others in years. I wonder if I were to sit down to watch My Fair Lady, The King and I, or West Side Story today, if I’d be too troubled by the misogyny, stereotyping, or whitewashing that exists in each one to be able to enjoy them for the more superficial aspects of what made them so appealing in my childhood eyes.

Which brings me back to SB4SB. Personally, I find its basic concept so out-of-touch with today’s values that I believe I can continue to enjoy it as an anachronism, a lampoon of a long bygone era, and a complete work of fancy. The songs remain catchy (I’ve been known to belt out a tune or two) and the choreography is classic. I can still love the movie because I know the difference between campy fiction and unacceptable real-life behavior. In other words, we can still love the things we loved as children, as long as we acknowledge and come to terms with the problematic themes included in those works.

And yes, as long as I ensure my youngest knows—should she ever sit down to watch SB4SB with me—that kidnapping is not an acceptable method of dating, I am free to serenade my household with “Goin’ Courtin’.” Or, I can try.  Chances are, she’d rather rock her own counter-serenade from Hamilton.

  3 comments for “When Cherished Musicals Go Off-Key

  1. August 22, 2018 at 9:35 PM

    we just can’t look at works from another era through a modern lens, can we? rochester is insufferably wordy (not to mention the boss power/over dynamic), GWTW is unacceptably racist, and as for the Greek myths……


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