Sobbin’

I’ve written before about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers–a musical with decent lyrics and fabulous dancing, and a sensibility straight out of the Pleistocene. I happened upon the source material this week in a collection of Stephen Vincent Benet short stories (I had acquired it to read “By the Waters of Babylon,” an early after-the-fall SF classic) in the form of a short story called “The Sobbin’ Women.”

This post is not about feminism–well, only a bit about feminism. It’s about adaptations and how they change with time. So first I have to tell you about the movie.

Seven Brides tells the story of Adam Pontipee, eldest of 7 grown brothers who live in the mountains of the northwest in\ the mid-1800s. Since their parents died the guys have been living in a state of masculine squalor, so Adam decides to go to the nearest town, way on the far side of the mountain pass, and find himself a wife. Which he does: a bond-woman named Millie.* Adam buys out her bond, marries her, and takes her back to the mountain. In the movie Millie is happy with the change–Adam is played by hunky Howard Keel, after all, and aside from getting out of the bond, she hopes for a romantic pairing.

They get to the mountain, where she discovers that she’s traded one kind of drudgery for another: every time she sees some new mountain of neglect–dust, dirty dishes, mountains of unwashed clothes–the refrain “but now you’re here…” comes up. But after some meet-cute stuff about the wedding night, Millie settles in. The brothers adore her. She gets the house–and the brothers–in shape and discovers that the boys are all lonely and want wives of their own. She starts teaching them courting manners (Adam, having bought him a wife the old fashioned way, scorns this, which should tell you something).

They go to a barn raising with one of the most blisteringly brilliant dance sequences in all musical comedy, at the end of which the boys have each figured out which girl from town they want–and the suitors and fathers from town have made it clear that the Pontipees are not welcome. Back on the mountain the boys are mooning for their girls, and Adam comes up with an idea based on the story of the Rape of the Sabine Women: go down to the town, kidnap the girls–and a minister–and bring them back to the ranch and marry them. What could go wrong?

Especially–it being the cusp of winter–if they can trigger an avalanche as they get past the mountain pass on the trip home, making the pass unusable for months. They kidnap the girls and bring them home, but forget the minister. Millie, with six young women suddenly on her doorstep, chases all the boys out to the Barn and zealously protects the girls from their advances. And she has the mother of all fights with Adam, who came up with the idea, and he storms off to live in a trapping cabin for the winter. Even news that Millie is pregnant can’t get him to come back.

At the end of the film, of course, everyone is happy. The girls fall in love with the boys. Adam comes back just in time to see his daughter (and to realize that he’d be upset if someone treated her the way that he treated those girls from town). And the town fathers, arriving just in time to hear a baby cry, all assume the child is their daughter’s, and force shotgun marriages.

When I was a kid watching the film with an uncritical eye it was, well, fine. Mostly you’re there for the dancing (the barn dance and a number called “Lonesome Polecat” are particularly brilliant) and a few of the songs. As an adult–especially as an adult showing this to my daughters–well, it provoked useful conversations. And the dancing is still swell.

So: to the source material. There are small cosmetic changes (in the story all the brothers’ names begin with H; in the movie, their names are alphabetical: Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frankincense, and Gideon). But the big, startling one? The idea to kidnap the girls is Millie’s. She’s lonesome up there on the hill with all these guys, plus she’s pregnant, and keeping up with the substantial workload is hard enough that her husband is worried about her. So the family goes down to a “sociable” in town and Millie essentially supervises the kidnapping. Then she pretends to the girls that she knew nothing about it, banishes the boys to the barn, and works the forbidden-fruit gambit. The girls start mooning for the boys, and Millie just happens to have wedding dresses for all six of them, which makes them moon the harder (women and weddings. Apparently it’s a thing). So the hedge minister marries the couples, but even then Millie won’t let them pair off–the new wives stay in the house until their families can bless the marriages. When the families arrive in the spring it’s to find the brides devoted to the husbands they haven’t even slept with yet, and accede to the inevitable.

Millie gets a bunch of sisters-in-law, a whole community of family. And you get the sense that that was what she was working toward all along, maybe from the first day she set foot in the Pontipee’s house.

In adapting the story, why make Adam the instigator in the film when Millie was the instigator in the source? The story was published in 1938, the film in appeared in 1954, so maybe that has something to do with it. The story gives Millie the power (albeit a sneaky, manipulative power). She goes after what she needs–a community of women, up there in the woods with all those men–but she also plays by the rules, making sure the girls’ virginity is protected even after marriage, until the weddings can be signed off on by the families.

In the movie Millie’s completely out of the loop until the girls arrive, and the whole thing is masterminded by Adam, who is clearly emotionally clueless in a raised-in-the-woods-and-got-no-larnin’ sort of way. He’s immediately punished for the kidnapping by being confronted by Millie (and he goes off to sulk in the mountains until spring, a sort of self-punishment). That gives Millie the moral authority. In fact, the film protects her from any complicity, and portrays Adam’s complicity as a kind of doesn’t-know-any-better good intentions.

I’m still mulling over what I think about all this, and I’d love to hear what anyone else thinks. No conclusions, just… huh.

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*Bond-service was a not-uncommon form of economic servitude under which you traded some economic benefit–the price of your fare to America, or something like that–for a period of service. In some cases this was like being a hired servant except without pay; in others it was closer to being a slave–it really depended upon who you sold your bond to. I believe there were some protections afforded white bond-servants which people of color could not rely on, and at the end of the bond period you were free to go.

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Sobbin’ — 7 Comments

  1. The difference in the dates is important. There were a lot of movies in the 30s and 40s about strong women who manipulated situations to get what they wanted. But the attitude toward women in the 50s was a real throwback designed to get the women who’d had career success during the war to move to the suburbs, raise kids, and stay home.

    But also, unless you’re dealing with the kind of role where you’d cast Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, I don’t think the men running Hollywood would even think of a woman making a plan.

    Do you know the gender of the story’s author? That might be relevant, too.

    The whole idea of that story horrifies me now, but I can conceive of a time and place where a woman figuring out how to bring together a community of women to support her would make sense. Still horrifying, though.

  2. Oh, I remember that film. I’ve been afraid to watch it, as even back then I winced at the way the women were handled, except for that barn dance. That was so terrific.

  3. The story was written by Stephen Vincent Benet (knowing him chiefly from “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the anthology was surprisingly eclectic writer as to time and place and theme.) The screenplay was written by Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, and Dorothy Kingsley.all three of whom worked on movie musicals, but two of whom (Hackett and Goodrich) also worked on The Diary of Anne Frank