Oregon in 1850, and Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) is in town to sell the hides he has caught over the spring, but he is pining for a woman to share his life with. He goes into the general store and says he'd like to exchange his produce for a wife, and the storekeeper's wife is shocked at his attitude, telling him off, though that does not quell his desire. He steps outside to wander around, watching out for females, but cannot see anyone appropriate until he spots Milly (Jane Powell) out chopping wood for her father, who owns the local eaterie. Could this be the woman he has been searching for all these years?
That's right, and it's love at first sight for her as well as Milly views teaming up with Adam as a way of rebelling against her family; however, those thoughts of rejecting the townsfolk are put to the test when she travels back to the Pontipee home and discovers that it won't simply be her and her new husband she has to attend to, nope, there are six brothers that are demanding to be looked after as well. And now that Adam has a woman to care for, the siblings begin wondering where their spouses could be, a tricky question when they're so remote and the females are far outnumbered by the males in this area.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was unusual for its day in that it was not based on an existing stage show, and neither did it use existing songs to build the plot around, it was all written especially for the screen, with reportedly Dorothy Kingsley making the most out of what could have been a pretty unsavoury story. Indeed, there are still film fans who judge this as a glorification of rape, considering where the narrative heads in its second half, the epitome of Eisenhower-era sexist moviemaking. What the naysayers don't recognise is the influence of Milly on the action, as it is she who proves to the brothers that acting like a gentleman is far more productive.
Indeed, Milly is by far the most interesting character in the film, starting out as a pint-sized revolutionary and ending up taking on board the better qualities of a civilised society and imposing them on the unruly males in her charge. Powell was rarely better, trilling her share of the memorable and tuneful songs and acting as the voice of reason, but not afraid to lose her temper to make a point worth making. With Stanley Donen at the helm, you might have thought that this would be non stop dancing, but surprisingly there is only one sequence where the cast really let loose with the capering, and that's at the rightly famous barn raising.
The dancing in that part makes up for the comparative lack of it elsewhere - Keel, for one, doesn't so much as snap his fingers in time with the music - as the brothers vie for the attentions of their objects of affection with some unimpressed local men. This ends in exactly the brawl that Milly was hoping to avoid, and the brothers go off in the huff, with only their memories of the ladies they had set their hearts on to keep them warm at night. Not much good when winter falls, so Adam, chauvinist pig that he is, settles on a solution: kidnap the six women and a parson, then take them home, making sure that the pass to the town is blocked with snow so nobody can follow. It's this part that some find problematic, but the brothers are taught their lesson by Milly, and there is a much-needed compromise reached, even if it's surprisingly saucy for a fifties Hollywood musical. Music by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer.