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We're told that Buster Keaton believed Seven Chances to be his worst film, and that he encouraged Raymond Rohauer not to revive it along with his other silent work. Today that assessment seems crazy. This crazy chase film may not have the most sophisticated of plotlines, but in form it is almost perfect. Keaton's scenarists adapted Seven Chances from a stage play by Roi Cooper Megrue, but as much of the film is action that sweeps across a city and into a valley beyond, quite a few changes must have been made. Along the way Keaton indulges a technical trick or two that could only be appreciated by his fellow filmmakers.
The story of Seven Chances sounds like a setup for a clever two-reeler comedy. Law partners James Shannon and Bill Meekin (Buster Keaton & T. Roy Barnes) have been suckered into an illegal stock transaction and are convinced that arrest and disgrace are unavoidable. A summons server shows up at their office, and they avoid him by escaping to the country club. The little man turns out to be Shannon's own lawyer Caleb Pettibone (Snitz Edwards), there to tell Jimmy that a rich relative has died: he'll inherit 7 million dollars if he's married by 7p.m. on his 27th birthday, which happens to be today. Jimmy blows his proposal to his girlfriend (Ruth Dwyer) by making it seem that any woman will do. She changes her mind and tries to send Jimmy a message, but Bill and Caleb force Jimmy into a panic, proposing to every woman in sight. In just a few minutes Shannon is the laughingstock of the Country Club. In desperation, Bill puts an ad in the afternoon papers for a bride, any bride, immediately. After an exhausting afternoon, the hopeful groom falls asleep waiting, not realizing that hundreds of prospective brides are converging on the church. Jimmy's ordeal is just beginning.
Buster Keaton's Seven Chances divides neatly into halves, with the protracted proposals set piece in the first, and most of the action and stunts in the second. The comedy may not be a monument to cinematic experimentation but it builds its laughs like the proverbial house afire. The story spends no more than ten minutes with its setup of mistaken identities, and then settles into a couple of reels at the country club and the girlfriend's house, where Jimmy's lack of communication skills convinces a girl dying for a marriage proposal, that she's being insulted. The dozen or so society girls at the country club have just as many ways of turning him down, each more blunt than the last. Jimmy's romantic note gets torn into fifty pieces, and showers down on his head, as firm a "no" as one could imagine. A hatcheck girl with the haircut made iconic by Louise Brooks observes all this nonsense with a suspicious eye, as if looking out for the interests of the female species. Jimmy keeps retrieving his hat, then turning it back in again and recovering his tip, until she's ready to have him thrown out.
Keaton films had their share of humor now considered racist. The "serial proposer" plot idea gets Keaton into trouble with the P.C. police, I suppose, even though none of the jokes are mean-spirited. Jimmy thinks he's gotten a "yes" from one of the society girls, until she's revealed to be an 11 year-old child wearing her mother's coat. Jimmy also "mistakenly" accosts a Jewish woman and an African American on the street. His facial expressions say it all. Apparently audiences in 1925 recognized Julian Eltinge as a famous female impersonator. Buster rushes backstage at a theater to propose, getting his hat torn up as seen in the photo on the Seven Chances packaged cover.
The big joke in Keaton's short film Cops was the surreal sight of a human tidal wave of uniformed policemen pursuing Buster through the city. Here in Seven Chances it's brides of all shapes and sizes, all convinced that they're an "I do" away from the fulfillment of their dreams. Nowadays it's probably just as un-PC to show the gallery of plain, harsh and outright frightening-looking women crowding around Buster. Some act coy and another grabs him like she would a goose for the slaughter. It's the stuff of comic nightmares. When we see Buster running in the streets pursued by this army of women the surrealistic association is difficult to shake off. Freud had dreams like this, I imagine. Keaton shows the female horde destroying everything in its path -- brick walls, a field of corn and perhaps even Buster himself when the mob inadvertently drops him onto the path of an onrushing train.
The last couple of reels of Seven Chances show Keaton in constant motion, in top gear. He races down city streets and past modest homes. A squadron of cops runs in panic when they see the human flood of brides that follows. Buster leaps gorges, almost gets shot by duck hunters and performs an incredible flip-flop tumble down a steep sand hill that we thought only a cartoon character could do. But he saves the wildest for last. Running down a long incline, Buster trips over one rock, which jostles two more, which start an avalanche of bouncing boulders. Predating video game graphics by at least sixty years, Buster must dodge and weave to avoid being crushed. Even if the rocks are fake, they clearly have mass and are moving very quickly. In this one inverted-Sisyphus image, Keaton crystallizes a philosophy of life ... just keep dodging disaster and hope for the best. The oft-told story is that Seven Chances was finished without this big ending, but that Keaton re-shot when preview audiences began to laugh at a couple of rocks "chasing" Jimmy Shannon down the hill.
That's the big scene, but Keaton aficionados also have a soft spot for his technical prowess in two scenes showing Jimmy driving from one location to the other. Instead of a driving sequence, Keaton gets in his car, which does not movie, Instead, in a perfect dissolve the location changes, while the car and Keaton remain perfectly aligned, even though he's parked on a slight incline. We're told that Keaton used surveyor's tools to accomplish this effect, which was achieved by back-winding the film and doing a manual double-fade dissolve in the camera. Knowing the technical context, the ingenuity is dazzling -- and the definition of Buster Keaton.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Seven Chances is a fine restored HD encoding of one of Buster Keaton's funniest, action-oriented features. The musical accompaniment is provided by Robert Israel, composing and conducting. Historians Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton comment on the film on a second commentary track. Kino disc producer Bret Wood has rounded up two films with a similar premise, a 1947 Three Stooges short (A Brideless Groom) and a 1904 Edwin S. Porter film in which a man is pursued by a mob of angry women.
John Bengtson offers another of his fascinating location comparisons. I had often wondered if Seven Chances was filmed in my neighborhood, as the residential bungalows that Keaton races past are very much like the houses on my street. Apparently the same successful contractor built all over Los Angeles, for I've seen the same house patterns in East L.A. and Culver City. You can compare the structures in the movie to a still of my un-rebuilt house on this early Savant page.
The comparison shows that the giant street chases in Seven Chances took place down near Olympic and Jefferson Blvds, and on what is now the U.S.C. campus. Bengtson also points out that the film's smiling telephone switchboard operator (the one who waves her wedding ring at Buster) is none other than a young, plump Jean Arthur, in her third year in films. Keaton's sister-in-law Constance Talmadge also appears, receiving one of Jimmy's marriage proposals as they drive side-by-side in matching automobiles.
Seven Chances begins with an opening that lampoons romantic sentiments, a series of tableaux that look like greeting cards. Jimmy visits his girlfriend as the seasons pass. The scene changes appropriately with the time of year, and the girl's puppy grows up without Jimmy ever finding a way to actually propose. This opening was filmed in Two-Strip Technicolor, but before this new Kino disc one either saw B&W 35mm prints or brownish attempts to revive long-faded surviving colors. Film historian Eric Grayson gives us a full run-down on how the improved color on this release was obtained. By examining his original materials, the answer seems to be, "with vastly improved digital color manipulation."
Kino's terrific Keaton package ends with a gallery of production stills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Seven Chances Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.