Buster Keaton in SEVEN CHANCES (1925) – Hilarious in spite of itself

SevenChances1

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Based on a popular Broadway play, Buster Keaton had Seven Chances foisted upon him by his brother-in-law and producer Joe Schenck. Keaton never liked farce, and he always regarded Seven Chances as the worst of his 1920’s movies. But there are far unfunnier things in the world than Seven Chances.

For one thing, Keaton, who usually worked in a vacuum where getting laughs was concerned, here had a couple of co-stars who were amusing in their own right. The story is that rich man Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) is facing financial ruin, and he and his partner (T. Roy Barnes) are doing their best to evade a lawyer (Snitz Edwards) who is stalking them. The lawyer finally tracks them down and gives them the great news that Jimmy is to inherit $7 million from a late relative. But there’s a catch: Jimmy must be married by 7:00 p.m. on his twenty-seventh birthday – which, it happens, is that very day – or he must forfeit the inheritance.

Barnes and Edwards are perfect matches for Keaton comedically. In particular, Edwards, a prune-faced silent-movie veteran, adds much laughter to the proceedings. Also, the movie’s laughs rely on title cards far more than in any other Keaton movie, but funny they are. At one point, Jimmy has inquired with numerous women at his country club, and all of them have turned down his abrupt marriage proposal. Jimmy turns to his partner and (via inter-title) asks, “Who bats next?”

Keaton also adds some interesting directorial touches. When Jimmy drives to his potential fiancee’s house and then drives back home defeated, we never actually see him driving the car; instead, the movie fades from Jimmy’s car sitting in his own driveway to showing the car sitting in front of the girl’s house, and then back again. Seen in retrospect, Keaton might have conjured up this bit of editing due to his boredom with the rest of the movie; nevertheless, it makes for an interesting, attention-getting visual.

The movie’s one unfortunate aspect is the “laughs” that it derives at the expense of African-Americans. To give just two examples: Jimmy is walking down the street when he sees a potential “bride” walking ahead of him. He catches up with her and starts to chat with her, but then he sees that she is black and quickly jaunts ahead of her. Also, there is a black man who is given a message by Jimmy’s erstwhile girlfriend Mary and is told to rush the message to Jimmy; the movie keeps cutting back to the man to show him leisurely sauntering to Jimmy on a horse, Stepin Fetchit-style. There is the lame excuse that such “black humor” was the norm in the ’20s, but it does nothing to endear Keaton to African-Americans today.

The movie’s famous climax shows hundreds of Amazonian brides giving chase to Jimmy through the city streets. The climax is part of Keaton folklore, in that the never-ending chase was a dud until it got Keaton some unexpected laughs from a preview. Keaton and his crew re-ran the movie and noticed Jimmy getting “chased” by some pebbles as he runs downhill. Keaton ordered 1,500 papier-mache boulders of various sizes to be built and then re-filmed the ending with Jimmy dodging the various rocks. Seen today, the chase is funny enough on its own, but the boulders certainly punch up the joke. (George Lucas later paid homage to this scene in Star Wars – Episode I, when inept Jar-Jar Binks dislodges some lethal orbs from a cart and then runs away in fear of them.)

If nothing else, Seven Chances shows that Keaton could take even generic Broadway material and stamp it with his personal style. For simply mining laughs, it stands as one of Keaton’s funniest movies.

Bachelor

(Footnote: In one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, Seven Chances was remade three-quarters of a century later as The Bachelor [1999], starring Chris O’Donnell as the rich boy, Renee Zellweger as the jilted girlfriend, and Hal Holbrook as the rich man’s lawyer trying to pimp his own daughter to the potential millionaire. It only proved that nobody could do Keaton’s kind of material but Keaton.)

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