Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances (1925)
Directed by: Buster Keaton   
Written by: Clyde Bruckman & Jean C. Havez &  Joseph A. Mitchell  adapted by David Belasco’s famous comedy by Roi Cooper Megrue.
Starring: Buster Keaton (James Shannon), T. Roy Barnes (His Partner), Snitz Edwards (His Lawyer), Ruth Dwyer (His Girl), Frances Raymond (Her Mother), Erwin Connelly (The Clergyman), Jules Cowles (The Hired Hand).

I reviewed Seven Chances a couple of years ago for this site already as part of my The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before series. I wouldn’t change a word of that review except for one thing – when I listed the films that Keaton had made that were better than Seven Chances, I included his previous film The Navigator – which after watching them on back to back days, I no longer would. I still don’t think Seven Chances is quite as good as Keaton’s very best films – Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr. or The General for example – but it is still a comic masterwork, and is a more sustained pleasure than The Navigator, which I quite like, but does seem like a series of stand-alone gags without the kind of sustained comic momentum that Keaton had in his best films. Seven Chances has that momentum. I don’t think it reaches the heights of his best work simply because the story is kind of a good – Keaton’s producer bought him the rights to a hit Broadway play that he didn’t much like, but he was stuck with the basic outline – that of a man who has to get married by 7 o’clock that night if he wants to inherit $7 million – which is money he also needs to stay out of jail. From that premise, Keaton has made a film that starts off clever, and ends with one of the greatest comic chase sequences ever put on film.

The setup is simple. Keaton plays James Shannon, who needs money, and his grandfather has died, leaving it in his will that if he gets married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday, he’ll inherit $7 million. Shannon is in love with May (Ruth Dwyer) – and she loves him as well – so he goes to her house to ask her to marry him. She agrees, and then finds out about the money – and is offended. She doesn’t want to marry him just so he can get some money. This leaves him in a bind – and in need of a woman who is willing to marry him. He tries all sorts of things to find another woman – basically approaching every woman he meets, with comically disastrous results (I guess we’ll have to ignore the moment he approaches a woman from behind, realizes she’s African American, and then slinks away – and perhaps the moment he bribes a guard to get backstage to see a female performer – only to walk out with a black eye – as he realizes it was just a female impersonator). Out of options, his partner places an ad in the afternoon paper – saying that if anyone is interested, they should show up at the church at 5pm and they can marry a millionaire. Of course hundreds of women in wedding dresses show up. But then Keaton hears that Mary will marry him after all – and he runs to her house to get married. And here is where the real genius of Keaton’s film lies.

There is essentially a 20 minute sequence of Keaton sprinting across town towards the woman he loves, where he is chased by hundreds of angry women in wedding dresses. They seem to multiple all the time, so every time he turns a corner, he runs into another group of them. Keaton had a similar sequence in his short films Cops (1922) – where he runs away from the entire police force – but it’s even better in Seven Chances, if for no other reason than because the sight of hundreds of angry women in wedding dresses is hilarious. The stunt work by Keaton in this chase is amazing – nowhere moreso than in the closing moments of the chase, where he has to head down a hill surrounded by boulders crashing down around him. Keaton falls, picks himself back up and just keeps going. Like in all his performances, he maintains his great stone face – he is grimly determined to get to the girl he loves, and nothing will stop him.

Seven Chances, like The Navigator, is a rather thin story that is really just an excuse to hang gags from. It works better in this film because the comic momentum is better maintained – partly because Keaton never lets the pace lag at all – and in those breathless final 20 minutes he goes for broke, and has one of his best sustained set pieces. I think Keaton has done better than Seven Chances – but I’m not sure he’s ever packed more gags into a 56 minute runtime before. Seven Chances may not be Keaton’s best – but it’s still a masterpiece.

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