US (1925) Dir. Buster Keaton
I watched this film on March 11th, which is not just my birthday (cheesy grin) but also the same date this film was originally was released in 1925, a coincidence I was not aware of until today.
Seven Chances is one of Buster Keaton’s most celebrated films yet he himself would not look upon it favourably. This is because it was essentially forced upon him as a means to pay off a debt to Joseph Schenck, Keaton’s producer and brother-in-law to his wife Natalie Talmadge (allegedly the reason for that debt).
Originally a 1916 stage play which was a rare flop for the noted producer David Belasco which Keaton didn’t enjoy either, Schenck had bought the rights to it and it was burning a hole in his pocket. Backed into a corner Keaton reluctantly took on the project and he and his writers revamped Roi Cooper Megrue’s script for the big screen.
The story is basic and rather materialistic which may be one reason why Keaton hated it – Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) of brokerage firm of Meekin and Shannon learns that the company is on the brink of bankruptcy. A lawyer (Snitz Edwards) arrives with news that Jimmy’s grandfather has bequeathed him $7 million but only on the proviso that he marries by seven o’clock on his twenty-seventh birthday!
Of course this news reaches Jimmy on his birthday and his partner Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) encourages Jimmy to find a bride ASAP. Jimmy is in love with Mary (Ruth Dwyer) and rushes to propose to her but he muddles his words and she rejects him. After failing to find a woman at the country club Billy has an idea – he has a story run in the local paper inviting brides to turn up at the church. Only Billy didn’t tell Jimmy his plan…
It is quite easy to see in the early scenes that Keaton’s heart wasn’t in this film from his enervated body language and uninspired gags, but it soon picks up and the second half literally sees a change in energy and effort, highlighted by one of Buster’s most famous chase scenes. In the short film Cops, Keaton was pursued by a swarm of policemen whilst in Go West he ran with a herd of stampeding cattle; here he is being chased by hundreds of women in wedding gowns!
However it wasn’t just this remarkable spectacle of sprinting brides which made this particular chase so memorable it was the hillside tumble involving a rockslide that tested Keaton’s athletic prowess and stamina. After a test screening in which the biggest laughs came from a few rocks impeding Jimmy’s getaway, Keaton extended the scene with more rocks, including giant papier-mâché boulders and the end result remains to this day a master class in impeccable timing and physical dexterity.
That isn’t to say the rest of the film doesn’t have anything to offer but it is a departure for Keaton who usually maintains a steady level of physical slapstick comedy throughout his films, whereas this story offers little opportunity for it. Instead the reliance is on subtle sight gags – some predictable, some genius – mostly set around Jimmy’s fruitless actions at the country club.
In one tightly choreographed scene Jimmy takes two trips up and down a staircase in trying to woo three passing ladies, moving from one to another after each rejection. The funniest is the hatcheck girl who had witnessed his antics and deters him with a steely shake of the head before he can even ask. He does finally find a willing girl but her mother puts a stop to it and for good reason.
To modern audiences there will be elements of this film which will not sit right due to our more enlightened sensibilities although in the grand scheme of things, there are far worse offenders. Specifically, there is the fact that Mary has a slightly simple black worker whom she tasks with sending Jimmy a note when she learns the truth about his proposal, played by a blacked up Jules Cowles.
Elsewhere Jimmy approaches a woman then backs off when he notices she is black but in this context, the miscegenation laws up until 1967 in many US states were strict on mixed relations so we can hope that the idea behind this was more of a legal concern for Jimmy than a racial one. Of course in 1925 some audiences would view this moment differently.
Then we need to look at the stipulate of the inheritance in which Jimmy is essentially being railroaded into marriage without any elaboration to the clause, and by virtue of him proposing to any woman he meets, he himself comes across as shallow. Presumable the get out is that it is to save the company but that is one hell of a sacrifice to make.
Similarly this also reflects on the woman who turn up at the church hoping to marry a millionaire and quite a cross section respond to the story, tall short, young old, black (yes, I know…), white, fat, thin, etc. all arriving via various modes of transport in a fun montage. But admittedly, this is also where the fun really starts.
Jimmy dozes off waiting in an empty church as per Billy’s instructions and has no clue about the newspaper story so when he awakens and finds himself surrounded by hundreds of eager brides, his reaction is priceless. However Jimmy’s protestations lead the women to think they’ve been duped and they are not happy.
Keaton may not have liked this film but it shows that at the height of his powers he was able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Taking a script meant for a single setting and turning it into a spatial, physical and comedic tour de force deserves praise.
Political correctness be damned for 56 minutes, Seven Chances is an uncharacteristic but sublime entry in the Buster Keaton canon.