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Seven Chances

Seven Chances
Image Entertainment
1925 / B&W with a Color sequence / 1:37 silent aperature / Street Date January 11, 2000 / 24.95
Starring Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards
Original accompaniment score arranged and conducted by Robert Israel
Art direction and technical direction by Fred Gabourie
Cinematographers Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Based on plays by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue, written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havens and Joseph A. Mitchell
Directed by Buster Keaton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Seven Chances is far from Buster Keaton's most famous film, having neither the amazing production value of The General or the advanced special effects of Sherlock Junior. It's a simple farce based on a single situation, and plays out as a single extended chase. It's more like a conventional 'Keystone Kops' silent than any of his other features. However, when this picture was put in front of an audience at UCLA, it got the most uproarious response of all. 1 For elaborating on ideas and building his jokes, Keaton was unsurpassed, and Seven Chances is pure silent comedy at its finest.


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 accomplishment.

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. 2 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 polite society?

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none, or two hilarious Keaton short subjects, if those count.
Packaging: Snapper Case
Reviewed: February 22, 2000.

1 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.

2 There's 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.

4 Helpful reader Stephen Cooke of Halifax, Nova Scotia has alerted me to what sounds like a remarkable book, Silent Echoes by John Bengtson, which examines Los Angeles and San Francisco locations for Keaton films through maps, frame blowups and modern stills of the same places ... exactly what Savant had mused about while watching Seven 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.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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