Sunday, July 30, 2017

Film Review: Seven Chances

"Seven Chances"
**** (out of ****)

The first time I saw Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances" (1925), as a teenager, I believed it was a somewhat entertaining comedy, with some good visual gags, that ultimately was a second tier "Buster Keaton comedy". It didn't neatly fit into the cannon of Buster Keaton comedies, accentuating the strengths of Mr. Keaton's "Great Stone Face" character. Watching "Seven Chances" again recently my opinion has completely changed.

To be honest, I don't know how well "Seven Chances" utilizes the "Great Stone Face" character but I have never seen a comedic premise executed as perfectly. "Seven Chances", at 56 minutes, doesn't waste one moment of screen time. The story is told in a straight forward manner. Its beauty is in its simplicity.

In comedic terms "Seven Chances" has an ingenious plot. Based on a stage play of the same name, Keaton plays James Shannon, a broker who due to a questionable financial deal faces disgrace and ruin. The Gods smile at James when an attorney (Snitz Edwards) informs him his grandfather has died and in his will has left a fortune of seven million dollars (remember this is 1925) to James, provided he is married by his twenty-seventh birthday. On this very day James turns 27. He now has until 7pm to find a bride.

The movie begins by stating James is in love with Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but has been unable to utter the words "I love you" to her. For what is about to follow, the movie needed this to establish the fact James loves Mary and is a likeable character. When James discovers his deadline he rushes over to Mary's home to propose. She accepts until James explains why they must marry that same day. Feeling insulted Mary decides she no longer wants to marry James. Now James needs to find a woman, any woman, willing to marry him.

This entire premise plays itself out within the first half hour of the picture. The remaining 25 minutes (give or take) becomes a "chase comedy", with James running away from a mob of women, all willing to marry him after it is revealed he is set to inherit a fortune. It is one of the most famous chase sequences in a Buster Keaton comedy and may be one of the greatest chase sequences in any silent comedy, perhaps only matched by one from another Keaton comedy, "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). The chase culminates to a situation with James ducking from an avalanche of giant boulders rolling towards him and eventually the would-be brides.

As iconic as the image of rolling boulders may be, it is what leads us to that point that cracks me up as Keaton and his gag writers, including Clyde Bruckman (who worked on "The General" (1926) and Harold Lloyd comedies) create a cavalcade of sight gags with James encountering a female impersonator, nearly engaging an underage girl, mistaking a mannequin for a woman and running into a Turkish bath on ladies day. The writers have imagined every possible awkward scenario to place James in, building momentum towards the comedic climax.

Compared to other Buster Keaton comedies however "Seven Chances" may feel slight. The material could have been made into a two-reeler comedy. If you take out the chase sequence, it might have made a good Charley Chase comedy (look him up if you don't know who he was). Plot-wise the chase adds nothing to the story. Although Keaton was known not to care about sentimentality in his movies, "Seven Chances" creates no character build up, which would provide the audience an emotional investment in the story and the fate of the character. Instinctively Keaton fans might get defensive and say that is true about all of his movies. They are short changing Keaton. I like his character in "The General". I want him to succeed.

The question becomes how well does the "Great Stone Face" character work in this movie? In demonstrating his athletic ability, "Seven Chances" is characteristic of a Buster Keaton comedy but Keaton's comedies were also known for their technical innovation and themes of man versus technology. "Seven Chances" is more situation comedy than some may be used to in a Keaton movie. It is not unlike "Battling Butler" (1926) in that sense, which was also based on pre-existing material.

The reason "Seven Chances" succeeds is because of the humor. "Seven Chances" is essentially a one-joke movie but there is an onslaught of sight gags that make us laugh. The movie is consistently funny, always going for a big laugh and hitting its target. In terms of laughs "Seven Chances" ranks with "The General" and "Sherlock, Jr.".

Some of Keaton's best moments in the movie may be the subtle touches he gives the character. Take the scene where James proposes to Mary. James is sitting outside of Mary's home on a bench. He is rehearsing his proposal. Unknown to James, Mary sees him and sits next to him. James, still rehearsing, pops the question. Unable to contain her excitement, Mary says yes. James turns his head and faces Mary. He doesn't do a double take. Naturally he doesn't change his facial expression to one of surprise, he simply flows with the situation, as if nothing has happened. That is typical Keaton.

In the same scene, after accepting James' proposal, Mary sits closer to James. James moves his hat towards the edge of the bench to give him more room. As Mary shows him affection, James moves the hat closer to him. The actions don't bring attention to themselves and some may not notice the movements but this is what made the stone face character so funny.

Keaton originally did not like "Seven Chances" even though it did well at the box-office. The movie often gets lost in the shuffle of Keaton's comedies as much praise is thrown at "The General", "Sherlock, Jr." and "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) but "Seven Chances" is just as good. Over the years the movie's reputation has grown. It may not always be characteristic Keaton but it is one of his best movies.

This movie (perhaps moreso than the stage play) served as inspiration for the Three Stooges comedy, "The Brideless Groom" (1947), one of Shemp's most famous outings with the team and the romantic comedy "The Bachelor" (1999) starring Chris O' Donnell.