Late one morning, bankrupt stockbroker
Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) finds out he's to inherit millions from a rich uncle,
provided he's married by seven o'clock of the same day. After he bungles a proposal
to the love of his life, Mary Brown (Ruth Dwyer), he hastily and disastrously proposes to
seven eligible women in a row. When nobody, but nobody says yes, Jimmie's business
partner Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) puts an ad in the paper, and hundreds of veiled brides
converge on the overwhelmed bachelor, just as he learns that Mary has decided
to accept after all. With less than an hour before the seven o'clock deadline,
Jimmie must evade the aggressive horde of women scorned, and somehow rendezvous
with Mary at the appointed church.
Perhaps what makes great silent comedy so special is the sheer difficulty in describing
why it's so funny. The audiences with which I've seen Seven Chances watched the first
few minutes with patient interest, and soon thereafter became completely hooked by
the crazy fantasy on screen. Savant has never, not even at a sporting event, seen
more audience emotion than at Keaton screenings ... the contagious laughter grows
like an animal separate from the audience itself, until you forget everything except
that you're having the time of your life and laughing like a baby. The organ accompaniment
was drowned out by the roaring of the crowd.
Seven Chances divides neatly into halves, with the protracted
proposals setpiece in the first, and the action and stunts in the second. The most famous
sequence involves a hill strewn with rocks and boulders, and unless you've already seen it
excerpted in one of Kevin Brownlow's silent movie documentaries, it will probably take you
by surprise. Like most of the gags in this comedy, it builds from almost nothing - unlike
other comedies that rely on complicated concepts or elaborate mechanical ideas, Seven Chances
seems created from sheer comic invention. So as not to spoil the impact, I
won't describe any of the big-laugh gags in detail.
Keaton often did specific gags just to challenge his skills as a stuntman and
his ingenuity as a filmmaker. There're a couple of shots where Buster gets into his car,
and the scene changes to his arriving at his destination by showing the entire
background dissolving, with Buster and his car staying in perfect position in the
frame. These scenes were accomplished with the use of surveyor's instruments, placing the
car and Buster in the two scenes in precisely identical positions relative to the
camera. The virtuosity of the shots comes from the knowledge that the dissolves had
to be done in the camera by winding back the film at one location and
double exposing at the second. Done totally by hand, the resulting transitions are as
smooth as any digital optical today ... and in Savant's estimation, are much more of an
A big surprise upon visiting the Internet
Movie Database listing for the film is discovering that
the smiling telephone switchboard operator (the one who waves her wedding ring
at Buster) is none other than Jean Arthur, in her third year in films. Maybe
this is old news to movie star spotters, but Savant wouldn't have ID'd her in a million years.
The film was definitely shot in Los Angeles, on streets that look very familiar but
that Savant can't precisely place. One neighborhood pictured is, I feel sure, only a few
blocks away from my home. Buster runs past several houses that are
identical to the 1922 tract homes here in Larchmont, just south of Paramount Studios. The
problem is that my tract's style was probably repeated many times over through other
Los Angeles neighborhoods. You can see a still of my un-rebuilt house on the
Savant Year Two Report Page.
For an Angeleno, watching Seven Chances is like stepping into a time machine.4
Keaton's studio still stands near Vine and Santa Monica Boulevards, presently a rental
stage run by photographer Ben Kitay.
Surrealists adore Keaton; this cockeyed take on the institution of marriage turns
courtship and romantic pursuit into a frantic nightmare of very-real looking unreality.
Savant hasn't read anything
linking Seven Chances to Keaton's stormy marriage - one author said it was
the producer who suggested turning 'a bad 1916 play' into a Keaton vehicle. But one can easily get
the idea that something had to attract Buster to this particular theme. The brides go beyond
being just comic foils, one more unattractive than the next, and become an
amorphous female blob with a thousand feet, unstoppable, untamable. This (misogynist?)
streak of humor definitely links up with the conclusion to Keaton's College
several years later. Buster ribs the Harold Lloyd - Roaring Twenties' brand of
pre-Wall-Street-Crash optimism by sketching the conquering college athlete's future
in a series of cynical, chilling vignettes, worthy of Luis Buñuel.
There are drawbacks to the film that may have contributed to its being shown less
frequently than other Keaton classics. Image and archivist-presenter David Shepard
have properly not chosen not to censor anything.3
The only jokes that fall completely flat are ones centering on race and ethnic
stereotypes, that were
endemic to the entertainment world of 1925. The heroine has a slack-brained,
slap-shoed black servant, apparently played by Jules Cowles, a white actor
in blackface. Buster does some tellingly racist (the whole society,
not just Keaton) double-takes at black women he mistakes for Anglos. Keaton sidles
into proposal-mode with an uncomprehending girl on a bus bench, who
then turns out to be reading a Hebrew newspaper, giving the moment an unpleasant sting.
Viewers are referred to the fact that Seven Chances was made by a Jewish producer.
I've often wondered why a Hollywood founded by Jewish entrepreneurs should be soaked
in so much offensive Jewish stereotype humor. The most informed answer I've gotten to
date should have been obvious: Jews have a sense of humor and react to ethnic jokes just
like anyone else does. And anyone expecting consistent subtlety and
class from the founders of Hollywood, need to be reminded that they were sometimes a crude
and lusty bunch, to put it mildly. Why do you suppose movie people were ostracized from
Image's Seven Chances disc is a great showcase for David Shepard's restoration.
It's in beautiful black and white, clear as a bell. The transfer is sharp and full
and of very good quality. If the intertitles aren't original, they fooled me. The
first minute or so is actually in two-strip Technicolor. It doesn't look
perfect but certainly gives the film an interesting kickoff. The original score,
arranged by Robert Israel, is a brightly recorded, scene-specific accompaniment. No
more audio information is given on the box.
Seven Chances is scarcely an hour long, so the disc also presents two of Keaton's
most famous short subjects from 1920 and 1923, Neighbors and The Balloonatic.
Each is about twenty minutes long and a solid laugh-getter, and show how
carefully Keaton was planning and executing his gags even nearer the beginning of his career.
Neighbors has Savant's favorite dialogue joke in all of Keaton, which I won't give away,
except to say that it's evident that Ford cars were sometimes considered a joke, even back in 1920.
Seven Chances is a favorite silent film, best seen with a roomful of people
ready to have fun. Today's audiences who like the sheer exuberance of Jackie Chan will
take to Buster Keaton's comic genius without a word of 'interpretation.' The silent-comedy
laughter chain-reaction still works... try it and find out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and
Poor, Seven Chances rates:
Supplements: none, or two hilarious Keaton short subjects, if those count.
Packaging: Snapper Case
Reviewed: February 22, 2000.
Strangely enough, modern audiences hip to the Keaton-ish talents of Hong Kong star Jackie Chan
are primed to appreciate the genius of Keaton more than generations that have gone before.
Chan's approach to his stunt gags is very similar to Keaton's in that both know what a gag
is and how to develop it. When talking kids into seeing a Keaton, tell them it's like a
Jackie Chan movie. Works every time.
a curious pattern of 'sevens' in the film - seven o'clock, seven prospective brides, etc., that
also suggests a dreamlike chance logic at work.
3 There's an otherwise remarkable Italian
movie called Miracle in Milan that has a crucial cut in the middle
of a scene about interracial romance. It is frustratingly unclear whether the cut was made to
eliminate material for or against 'mixed' relations.
reader Stephen Cooke of Halifax,
Nova Scotia has alerted me to what sounds like a remarkable book, Silent Echoes by
which examines Los Angeles and San Francisco locations for Keaton films through maps, frame
modern stills of the same places ... exactly what Savant had mused about while watching
Chances. There's a Silent
Echoes website for the book that has some really
exciting examples, even a scene from The Ballonatic's location in Venice, a beachside
suburb of Los Angeles. Thank you Stephen!
* I'm told that
the recent movie The Batchelor is some kind of remake of Seven Chances.