Here’s an excerpt of Ephron’s book.
Getting married was a big part of my fantasy life. There was a card game called “Old Maid” that we played as kids. Each card had a partner card except one. The loser would be stuck with a card depicting a funny-looking gray-haired woman with glasses and a hat. The hat was especially sad – sort of a pillbox with a fake flower in it. Old Maid the card game struck terror in me. I was a superstitious kid and getting left with that card seemed prophetic. There was also a song that freaked me out. “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” Ella Fitzgerald sang it quite inappropriately in my opinion on a record of Christmas songs. When the record (what we now call vinyl, and why do we, it’s so pretentious) got to that song, I would pick up the needle, very carefully so as to not scratch the record, and skip it to the next song. I couldn’t bear to listen to it if I didn’t have a date. Not having a date on New Years Eve was like being an old maid. It was being an old maid every year.
This absurd hysteria about New Year’s Eve stayed with me for much longer than I’d like to admit. Whenever I read about how people in their twenties don’t date anymore, they travel in hoards, it makes me happy. Maybe this group thing has taken the sting out of New Year’s Eve.
So, on the one hand my mother was drilling me daily from the time I could hold a spoon – “you will have a career like me. You will work. You will be a writer. You will leave Los Angeles. You will go to New York City. You will work. Career, career, career. “ On the other hand – driving me as powerfully with no help from her – was simply wanting love.
I blame this on the movies. I blame it on one movie in particular: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
There were lots of messages keeping women domestic then, every message actually – lack of opportunity, advertising, the women’s magazines like McCalls, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Seventeen, which glorified the stay-at-home wife and which I devoured each month when they arrived at our house. But really the thing counteracting my mother’s teaching, trumping it, was a singing and dancing romantic comedy starring Jane Powell, the 1950s Meg Ryan.
In Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Jane Powell is the cook at a roadhouse in a wild west town when Howard Keel, big and handsome, rides in, shaves while he sings, samples her stew, and proposes. This is my favorite line: When he asks for catsup, she replies, “My stew can stand on its own feet.” She agrees to marry him – it’s love at first sight for her – and he takes her to his ranch in the back woods where she discovers he has six uncivilized (but sweet) brothers. It turns out she was looking for love but he was looking for a servant. Boy, did I want to be that servant. Lucky Jane. She gets to rise at dawn, make flapjacks, eggs, bacon, biscuits, and coffee for eight (including her), wash their filthy clothes and teach them to dance. Once cleaned up, they are gorgeous, and then – excuse me for telling the plot of this movie I love as much as I love my dog – she takes them to a barn raising where they meet other town girls and fall in love. Those girls, however, are promised to less attractive town boys who wear stiff suits with dorky stitching on the lapels while the brothers wear britches with wide leather belts and cool blousy shirts. The barn-raising musical number, choreographed by Michael Kidd, a dance-off between the townies and the brothers, is the greatest dance sequence in a movie ever. In my opinion.
The brothers return to the backwoods heartsick, so heartsick they can barely lift a pitchfork of straw. At Howard Keel’s urging – stirring them to action as only a song can – they return one night and kidnap the women. A cute kidnapping, if you consider putting a bag over the head of someone you love, cute. My favorite kidnap-cute from the film is not the bag-over-head but this: When one young woman sets a hot pie on the windowsill to cool, she is whisked right out the window. I don’t want to tell you the end of this movie in case you haven’t seen it, although given the title, you can probably guess.
The movie came out when I was ten, and by the time I was twenty I had seen it sixteen times. The last viewing was in Madrid. There were no subtitles but it didn’t matter because I knew it by heart.
It is the only movie of which I have counted my viewings. All sixteen were in one movie theater or another. I can’t emphasize how important this is. Watching a movie in a theater is to enter a dream state. In Purple Rose of Cairo Woody Allen perfectly captures the transporting power of film. When Mia Farrow goes to the movies and is captivated by the glamorous world so different from the dismal small life she is living, her yearning is so great that the hero on screen is pulled right out of his cinematic reality into her prosaic one.
I was young and vulnerable and innocent when I saw Seven Brides. I took my heart into that theater and lost it.
Loving a movie is not about logic. If a movie “gets” me, I forgive it anything. If it doesn’t, I sit there cold, critical, poking holes. I’m amazed that many sane people claim that violent movies don’t make people more violent. This seems the delusional, self-serving justification of people who make violent movies. If violence excites you, a violent movie will nurture that. It must. Movies invite you to dream, change your dreams, become your dreams. Recently I was reading in The New York Times about Anton Edwards, a leader of the Prepper Movement. Preppers are people who spend a lot of time preparing to survive a catastrophe, natural or terrorist, that results in an all systems failure (banks, phones, food, transportation, breathing, whatever). Mr. Edwards said he went to see the movie Deliverance when he was ten years old … went in, according to the article, a fairly regular kid and emerged a Prepper.
“Ten” did pop out at me. I was ten when Seven Brides overwhelmed, seduced and altered my life. He was ten when he saw Deliverance. I asked a developmental psychologist about “ten.” A big year, it turns out, when children first begin to think for themselves, entertaining ideas different from what their parents tell them. Budding sexuality too. First feelings. Deliverance has a male rape in it – no wonder Edwards emerged a prepper. I’m surprised more men didn’t, but then it had an R rating. Ten-year-old Anton Edwards never should have been in that theater.
I do wonder if you spend your life preparing for disaster if you are disappointed if a disaster doesn’t happen. If you are hoping for a disaster so you haven’t wasted your time or can prove you’re right or can finally have the adventure you crave, or get to watch everyone else go down while you inflate your raft, load it up with gas masks and cans of tuna fish and sail off Manhattan island (row actually – row across the Hudson to New Jersey, are they kidding?)
The impact of Seven Brides was undoubtedly greater because I saw it in a theater as opposed to on a DVD, as opposed to lying on a bed where I can say to whomever I’m watching with, “Would you please pause it? I want to get an apple.”
As for romantic films being denigrated as chick flicks, consider this. My adolescent yearnings aside … when you’re looking for love, aspiring to love, hoping for love, dreaming of love, movies are where it seems possible. When you’re past the “falling” phase and in the calmer yet more complicated being-in-love (assuming you’re committed to it), the only place you ever fall in love again is at the movies.
That is no small thing.
Credit line: Copyright 2013 by Delia Ephron, courtesy Blue Rider Press.