"A man can't sleep when he sleep with sheep". Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, with Matt Mattox, Russ Tamblyn and Tommy Rall (screen below, click on the image to enlarge). The song is "Lonesome Polecat". One of the very greatest numbers in the American Movie Musical done, at Michael Kidd's insistence, in a single four-minute take. They don't get any better than this, the only thing to come close might be Chuck Walter's Dreyer-esque "Friendly Star" from Summer Stock with Judy and Gene Kelly shot in two long takes with a corkscrew crane to an invisible edit in the middle.
The screens above and below come from a great new Warner Archive Blu-ray two disc set of Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers(1954.) The title had been a problematic one for decades, even past the point when Warner issued a DVD back in 2005 which added a scrubbed up print of the alternate 1.85:1 widescreen version. Earlier this year Warner finally found an original inter-positive (first generation) print with virtually no wear or damage and was able to recomposite image quality and stereo sound in what is probably the closest you’ll ever get to original Scope 2.55 and true stereo release prints in 1954.
The picture was Metro’s first venture into Scope, along with Minnelli’s Brigadoon, which was filming in an adjacent soundstage. Unfortunately for Donen, Metro very much delegated the production budget for Seven Brides to “B” status, despite his pleading to keep the shooting outdoors (at greater expense.) So they enforced studio bound filming with painted backdrops in place of the glorious Montana mountains and landscape.
Brigadoon meanwhile was given the full “A” treatment, although Minnelli himself preferred and chose soundstage and painted backdrops over the great outdoors, to say nothing of his fascination with the new and incredibly strange Anscocolor process. I think history relegates Ansco to what must have been the most artificial, if not the most outright hideous looking color process in the history of cinema, on the evidence of these two pictures and George Sidney’s 3D Kiss Me Kate, which does have a fantastic color design that seems to suit Ansco's typical color schemes of purples, blues, oranges and kelly green.
This wonderful new Blu-ray edition imports the extras from the 2005 DVD, including a feature length commentary from Stanley Donen which Warner recorded with him back in 2004. I will now counsel all and every film student or undergrad in Film Studies to immediately throw out every text book and lecture note they’ve ever collected and patiently sit down to play back Donen’s commentary track. It’s a masterclass in film making, the greatest one could ever hear, and without either effort or self-aggrandisement, Donen’s passion for the musical form blows a searchlight through this glorious masterpiece.
Donen took to Scope like a duck to water, like Cukor, Preminger, Ray and Fuller at the same time, if only for the simple reason, as he explains it: “I had up to 18 people on the screen at any one time – six brothers, six brides and six town boys, so I needed the widest screen to do it with.”
His incomparable, elegant, athletic and graceful mise-en-scène was already well established. It had perhaps peaked in the musical numbers for Singin’ in the Rain in 1952, which is co-credited to Donen and Kelly, but for which Donen must take the lion’s share of credit. He keeps his takes as long as fluidly possible, all for meaning and grace, and he only cuts on movement to movement, all the better to shine even more of the frame on the beauties of the choreography.
Kidd’s choreography for Seven Brides is one of the outstanding masterworks of American dance. Donen shoots the Lonesome Polecat (screen above) number in Seven Bridesin a single take, just a day’s work as he calls it, and for the rest his cutting, like Cukor’s, remains invisible and seamless. It looks to me he has used a crab dolly for every musical number in the picture. One of his visual signatures is the lithe dolly in, swoop, dolly up, then swoop down and dolly back. It’s a gorgeous and incomparable formal structure he gives to Audrey’s “How long has this Been Going On” in Funny Face, and to Kelly and Charisse in the Broadway Rhythm ballet from Singin’ in the Rain, to cite just two numbers. His camera movements are even more gorgeous than Minnelli’s, which are generally concentrated on the spectacle of static composition, and movement within the decor, like the numbers from An American in Paris.
At this point I will stick my neck out and acknowledge Donen as the very greatest director of American Musicals, even greater than Minnelli. Even Donen’s stage to film adaptations, like Pajama Gamefor which Warners at least gave him a budget for more extensive location shooting, are perfect movies, because he had a flawless eye for talent, dancers, singers, actors, and for movement. The great French born cinephile Jean-Pierre Coursodon praises Donen to this level, and I salute that recognition. In half a dozen musicals from 1952 to 1960, and a string of other pictures Donen is unmatched in the cinema for form, grace, the presentation of dance and music in the American Cinema.
Donen turns 95 this year and should also be saluted today as the greatest living film director.