Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances (1925) ****
Directed by: Buster Keaton
Written by: Clyde Bruckman and Jean C. Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell based on the play by Roi Cooper Megrue and David Belasco.
Starring: Buster Keaton (James 'Jimmie' Shannon), T. Roy Barnes (His partner Billy Meekin), Snitz Edwards (His lawyer), Ruth Dwyer (His girl Mary Jones), Frances Raymond (Her mother Mrs Jones), Erwin Connelly (The clergyman), Jules Cowles (The hired hand), Jean Arthur (Receptionist at Country Club).

Roger Ebert wrote that no filmmaker in history has had a better decade than Buster Keaton did in the 1920s. I can think of nothing better to support that claim than by saying that his 1925 film Seven Chances isn’t nearly as good as Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) or The Cameraman (1928) and is still is a comic masterpiece. Buster Keaton, the greatest of all silent film stars (yes, greater than Chaplin) was on a role in the 1920s, and could essentially do no wrong. Even when his producing partner bought the rights to a B grade Broadway play, Keaton found a way to make it into a magnificent, hilarious film.

Seven Chances stars Keaton as James Shannon, who along with his partner, was swindled in a business deal, and now needs to come up with money quickly, or face jail time. His luck seems to change when a lawyer shows up at his office, and after a series of hilarious gags where Keaton avoids him, informs him that he stands to inherit $7 million from his dead grandfather. The lone catch is to get the money, he needs to get married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday – which happens to be the same day. James has long been in love with Mary, and she with him, although he has been too shy to admit it. With the money on the line, he finally professes her love, and she agrees to marry him – until she finds out about the money. She doesn’t want to get married if it’s just for that, and throws James out. She quickly changes her mind however, but cannot track James down. He has been convinced by his partner to find someone else. There are moments of hilarity throughout the film (and one sequence, where Keaton blows off a Jew, a black woman and a female impersonator, which is in bad taste – but this was 1925, and you sometimes have to accept a little casual racism and anti-Semitism in movies from this period) but it all culminates in one of the greatest chase sequences in movie history. His partner has put an add in the paper asking for any woman who is willing to marry Keaton for his money to show up at a certain church at 5pm. Keaton is there, but when he discovers Mary will marry him, he takes off for her house – leaving hundreds of angry women in dresses furious at him – who then give chase. The stunt work and the physical comedy on display during this chase scene – which makes up about a third of the films 56 minute running time – is among the greatest sustained comic set pieces in cinema history.

Keaton was known as the great stone face of silent comedy, and he shows why in this movie. He always thought it was funnier if his character bared his many humiliations, will trying so hard to maintain his dignity. He is humiliated multiple times during the course of Seven Chances, but each time, he picks himself up and keeps going. Chaplin by contrast, worked hard to get the audience to love his character – and often added in sentimental subplots to achieve this goal. Keaton had no need to do either. His characters were always men who worked hard to try and get what they wanted, and wouldn’t give up until they had it.

Keaton’s career will go down in movie history as one of the best an actor/director ever had. He easily fits alongside the best that category has ever produced – Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Chaplin etc. In fact, he is better than most of them. Yet, it is also one of the tragedies of screen history that Keaton essentially shot himself in the foot when the sound era came along. He signed a long-term contract with MGM in 1928 – a mistake he regretted the rest of his life. He lost all creative control over his films, stopped directing entirely, and was forced to use a stunt double for his films – when during the silent years Keaton not only did his own stunts, but often the stunts for the other actors in his movies if they thought they were too dangerous. The films he made in the 1930s were popular, but have faded from memory. Aside from a wordless, but memorable cameo in Sunset Blvd (1950) and a great supporting performance in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) (where Chaplin apparently cut Keaton’s part down when it appeared that he was stealing the movie from him), Keaton didn’t much great film work after the 1920s. The film he left behind from that era though still stand up as some of the greatest comedies ever made – and Seven Chances is one of them. But the world will always have to wonder what Keaton could have done in the sound era, had he not signed that damned contract.

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