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.)

Buster Keaton in BATTLING BUTLER (1926) – A tale of two Butlers

POSTER

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Buster Keaton rated Battling Butler as one of his favorite movies, and though it isn’t one of his greatest, it’s easy to see why Keaton thought so highly of it. Though much of the movie’s “gaggery” comes close to situation-comedy, the movie finishes with a genuinely emotional fight climax that’s every bit as involving as the boxing match in Rocky.

As with Seven Chances, Keaton had to make the best of a stage-show adaptation that had been foisted upon him by Joe Schenck. In this case, the play was a musical comedy about a pampered rich man, Alfred Butler (played in the movie, of course, by Keaton), who happens to have the same name as a championship boxer. When rich-man Butler is forced to impersonate the boxer in order to impress his wife (who married him under the mistaken impression that he was the boxer), he fears for his life when he is forced to compete against a fighter with the charming moniker of “The Alabama Murderer.”

[From here on, for brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to Keaton’s Butler as “Buster.”]

The movie’s biggest debit is that much of its comedy derives from the kind of mix-ups associated with farce, the very genre that Keaton so abhorred. To cite just two examples, the real Butler gets quickly exasperated when he mistakenly assumes that Buster is trying to make time with his wife – yet Butler follows Buster around for seemingly half the movie before he decides to make an issue of it. And when Buster/Butler signs a hotel register, wouldn’t you think he’d notice that the same-named Butler signed in directly above him?

BattlingButler1

Also, though Keaton has played milquetoasts before, never had he played such a brazen coward. Granted, most regular Joes would be as terrified of fighting in a boxing match as Buster is. Still, after you’ve seen Buster fearfully jump into the referee’s arms two or three times, you tend to lose a little sympathy for him.

The one area where Keaton came up with something unique and stunning is the movie’s ending. In the original play, rich-man Butler is saved from having to box, but Keaton felt he’d be cheating his audience if he didn’t fight after an hour of build-up for it. And Keaton delivers in spades. After an hour of farce, the climax – with the cold-blooded Butler pounding Buster, only to have Buster rise in fury and counter-punch him – is completely dramatic and thoroughly believable. (Director Martin Scorsese has acknowledged the climax as an inspiration for the boxing scenes in his 1980 movie Raging Bull.) Keaton proved to be few comics’ equal in terms of gag construction and gasp-inducing stunts; this climax proved him to be a superb dramatic actor as well.

The supporting actors are nothing to belittle, either. Snitz Edwards (shown above with Buster), Keaton’s wonderful sidekick in Seven Chances, again proves to be a great second-banana as Martin, Buster’s sympathetic valet. Mary O’Brien proves one of the more charming and intelligent Keaton heroines. Best of all is Eddie Borden as the boxing manager. Indeed, the movie’s funniest scene is probably when the manager spies on the preliminary match and pantomimes the loser’s injuries to Buster in gruesome detail.

Keaton’s happy memories of the movie were bolstered by the fact that Battling Butler was Keaton’s most financially successful feature. In retrospect, the laugh factor is so-so on the Keaton scale; it’s the sincerely emotional ending that makes the movie work.

Buster Keaton in COLLEGE (1927) – Gets an “A” for effort, a “D-” for execution

POSTER

(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)

College is by far the weakest of Buster Keaton’s independent features, and for far too many reasons. After seeing his pet project The General get critically and financially pummeled, Keaton caved on all counts with his next movie.

The first strike against College is that Keaton allowed others to handle the writing and directing. Strangely enough, some of those personnel, such as director James Horne and writer Carl Harbaugh, later became associated with Laurel & Hardy’s best features. (L&H nemesis Charlie Hall can also be seen briefly, as the coxswain of the college rowing team.) For College, that unfortunately results in Buster’s usual industrious persona being turned into a Stan Laurel-like simpleton, seemingly incapable of handling menial tasks.

Ronald

Then there’s the movie’s titular subject. Keaton plays Ronald, a high-school bookworm who embarrasses his girlfriend Mary (Anne Cornwall) by giving a valedictorian address on “the curse of athletics.” Mary goes off to college with her more athletic fellow graduate Jeff, informing Ronald that she will have nothing more to do with him until he gets more athletic. Predictably, Ronald follows Mary to college and fouls up in every collegiate sport at which he competes.

The second strike against the movie is – never mind the curse of athletics – the curse of movie comedians who never made it through high school trying to conjure up a credible comedy about college life. The Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy also fell victim to this malady, resulting in some of their most middling movies.

Strike Three is that the movie’s premise just doesn’t ring true for Keaton. Having seen his physical agility clearly demonstrated in all of his other movies, it’s downright painful to watch him getting outrun by two little kids on a track field, or proving himself completely ignorant in even the basics of sports. It doesn’t help matters to continually cut away from Keaton to shots of other college athletes guffawing over Ronald’s ineptitude; if everyone in the movie thinks he’s a zero, why should the viewer sympathize with him? The moment Mary tries to blow off Ronald at the high-school graduation, we’re meant to root for Ronald making the grade in college sports, but you’re more likely thinking that if all Mary wants is a dumb jock, she’s getting what she deserves.

images

The movie is far more “gaggy” than Keaton’s previous features, which means that instead of having a stake in Buster/Ronald’s outcome, we’re left to judge the movie on the basis of its individual gags, most of which are quite predictable.

Blackface

The absolute nadir of the movie, and perhaps of Keaton’s independent movies, is a blackface scene in which Ronald, desperate for as job on campus, impersonates a “colored waiter.” This demonstrates the movie’s absolute dearth of characterization; even if the scene was funnier to segregated 1920’s audiences than it is now, it’s the kind of “comedy” that any nondescript comedian could do. And needless to say, it almost makes the racial stereotypes of Keaton’s Seven Chances look downright benign.

(Even Snitz Edwards, who provided funny support in Seven Chances and Battling Butler, has little comic material here, save one brief moment where he hilariously recalls a lost love and cries over her photograph.)

The movie’s climax shows Ronald, laboring to save Mary from the brutish athlete who has locked her in her room, suddenly has the impetus to succeed at every athletic task he had previously bollixed up. This scene, too, is lacking for a couple of reasons. Keaton, resigned to trying to do a more crowd-pleasing movie than The General, could not give himself to train for months for the shot in which Ronald pole-vaults into Mary’s room to save her. Instead, he hired Lee Barnes, an Olympic pole-vaulting champion, to double for him in long-shot. It was the only time that Keaton caved to fakery in a movie stunt; previously, it had been a matter of pride for him to do his stunts “on the level.” This alone shows how dispirited Keaton was by The General‘s failure.

Then when Ronald reaches Mary’s room, he throws objects at Mary’s bully in a fit of rage. This is obviously an attempt to reprise the dramatic climax of Battling Butler, but even in that mid-level comedy, Keaton’s milquetoast character gave us more to root for, thus the dramatic conflict was more satisfying. Here, it seems to happen in a void.

Weirdest of all is the Cops-like black-comedy ending, where Ronald and Mary go from marriage to parenthood to squabbling to separate graves in eleven seconds. Why did Keaton, who copped out at every other level of the movie, suddenly decide that such a “personal” touch was necessary for the fade-out? One imagines that it left 1927 audiences scratching their heads.

The movie’s most bittersweet touch was to have the rowboat for Ronald’s rowing team bear the name of Damfino, lifted from Keaton’s short The Boat – a movie that would be a far worthier investment of your time than College.