d. Buster Keaton / USA / 56 mins.
On the whole, Buster Keaton's films tended to be developed as original screenplays, with gags, scenes, or broad themes worked out well before he knew exactly what was going to happen in a narrative. Sherlock Jr. was to be about dreams, he knew, but how and why he didn't; The Navigator was to incorporate a $20,000 abandoned ship, but to what ends was not immediately clear.
Seven Chances, however, began as a previously written stage play, purchased for Keaton by someone on his staff. Keaton didn't care much for the play — its many plot complications did not suit the sort of bare-bones storytelling needed in silent comedy — but he took on the project obligingly and began morphing into something that was closer to his style. Unsurprisingly then, as it labors to set up the premise of a soon-to-be-27-year-old man (Keaton) who must be married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday to inherit his grandfather's $7 million, Seven Chances leads off as a fairly conventional comedy by 1925 standards. Yet as it progresses, the film becomes something distinctly Keatonian, the focus on the narrative becoming looser and looser until he embarks on one of the greatest chase scenes in the totality of silent cinema.
The crux of the film's first half essentially hinges on repeated rejection. Keaton's Jimmie Shannon does love a girl, Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer), and she loves him as well, but the courtship process has taken the two an inordinate amount of time (illustrated in an early and surprising two-strip Technicolor sequence that opens the film, where Keaton and Dwyer stand in front of a house as the seasons dissolve in the background and a cute Great Dane puppy grows and grows). Upon hearing the news of his potential fortune, he earnestly proposes to her, but errs in checking his watch as he does so and she kicks him out. Jimmie and his partner, Billy (T. Roy Barnes), desperately need the money to keep their business afloat, so Billy attempts to solicit any woman to marry Jimmie so the money can be his. But woman after woman rejects him (or, in the film's lousy ethnic humor, he recoils in a mistake of planning a proposal to women neither white nor Gentile). Finally, in an act of desperation, Billy places an ad in the newspaper detailing Jimmie's dilemma and saying he'll marry any woman who shows up at the church — and hundreds of eager and ruthless potential brides do.
The film has heart and moxie, even if it can seem disabusingly cynical on the subject of love. The one girl he does love rejects him on the basis of miscommunication; the girls he pursues simply to make it to the altar reject him on superficial grounds; and he rejects an entire mob of wedding-crazy and angry women to spare his own life. It is redeemed by its fairly predictable ending, which is necessary to illustrate that Seven Chances is not an entirely misanthropic affair and is ruled by its unmaterialized sentimentality. The beauty of Keaton producing this play instead of some other comedian (Charlie Chaplin might have just wanted the money, Harold Lloyd might have just wanted the girl, Groucho Marx would have wanted both but in a more lascivious way) is that he walks a tightrope of emotions. We as viewers sympathize with his plight of needing a bride to earn an inheritance, and we want to see him succeed, but Keaton portrays Jimmie as a character who is never satisfied with the journey and who keeps Dwyer's Mary close to his heart. By the time the final chase arrives, it earns its excitement and suspense because we have forged a connection with Jimmie.
Keaton has control over the first half, even if the premise isn't his, but the second half almost breaks apart neatly from the first to become unmistakably his. After the mob of women arrive at the church, he must escape them, and the chase scene that ends the film is among Keaton's best. He equals the sheer magnitude of the urban chase in his 1922 short Cops, but spreads the energy across a horizontal rural plane. He traverses a marshland and avoids the buckshot of hunters trying to bag a duck; he leaps objects and slides under cars; and most impressively, he evades an avalanche of rolling stones.
After a test screening of Seven Chances, during which the audience began laughing riotously after Keaton accidentally dislodged a few small stones while running downhill and caused them to tumble after him, he went back to the scene of the crime and filmed an entirely new sequence with what seems like hundreds of rocks, ranging in sizes from those about as large as a basketball to gigantic boulders. That scene alone is probably the most famous of the film, and a great example of Keaton's inherent comic instincts and his ability to improvise and deviate from the slated vision for the opportunity to earn more laughs. And it's here, in the miraculous finale, where the film's reputation is cemented.
15 August 2009
d. Buster Keaton / USA / 56 mins.