Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Seven Chances

Seven Chances was, unlike his previous features, not a project of Buster Keaton's own choosing. It was selected by producer Joseph M. Schenck, based on a hit Broadway show, and this goofy romantic comedy is not especially well-suited to Keaton's talents. The story is very familiar, because it's been made and remade countless times since then: the lawyer Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) learns that he is set to inherit seven million dollars from his grandfather, but only on the condition that he gets married by seven o'clock on his twenty-seventh birthday, which happens to be precisely the day he receives this news. He immediately proposes to his longtime girlfriend Mary (Ruth Dwyer) — who he'd endlessly, shyly dithered in confessing his love to in the prologue, filmed with a very early Technicolor process — but she's understandably peeved when he admits that he's only proposing because of the inheritance. As a result, he has to scurry around, proposing to any girl he vaguely knows or runs into on the streets, desperate to find someone to marry by the deadline so he can receive his badly needed inheritance.

Much of the comedy in the first half of the film is fairly limited, and doesn't play at all to the physical, formally inventive strengths of Keaton. He does manage to liven up Jimmie's series of proposals and rejections with some clever visual gags, like having him toss up a note to one girl and getting a "no" response when a shower of shredded paper falls back down on his head. In another shot, he proposes to one girl on the way up a staircase, and another on the way down. Best of all is the scene where his friend (T. Roy Barnes) proposes to one girl on Jimmie's behalf, pointing over to where he thinks Jimmie is standing, except that Jimmie has wandered away, leaving behind the wrinkled old lawyer (Snitz Edwards) to smile sweetly and shyly at the girl.

Several of the proposal gags revolve around comic misunderstandings, some of them wildly inappropriate and racist: Jimmie thinks about proposing to a Jewish girl and a black maid until the former holds up a Hebrew newspaper, revealing her heritage, and the latter turns towards him, revealing her black face. There are also some unfortunate blackface shenanigans involving a dopey manservant who doggedly pursues Jimmie with the news that Mary wants to marry him after all. In another scene, Jimmie sees a woman on a poster at a stage show and sneaks into the backstage area, hoping to propose to her. While he's inside, a crate is removed from the front of the theater, revealing that the "woman" is actually Julian Eltinge, a then-famous female impersonator, so that when Keaton wanders out of the theater a moment later, looking baffled and put off, with his hat smashed around his neck, that would have been all audiences at the time would have needed to know to get the joke.

The film picks up its pace in its final twenty minutes, when Jimmie's friends place an ad in the newspaper announcing the situation and asking a bride to step forward. Understandably, more than one bride shows up, and for the remainder of the film Jimmie's on the run from a swarm of angry women in bridal veils, an army that stampedes through the streets like a massive human wave, crushing everything in its path. This is when Keaton's brand of wild physical comedy really pays off with this material, and the whole rest of the film keeps up a frenzied, manic pace that hardly lets up for a second. This elongated chase sequence is packed with great gags, like the scene where the woman stop by a brick wall and begin stripping it of bricks to throw at the runaway groom; when the women move on, the wall has entirely disappeared. They also race across a rugby match, with Keaton vaulting athletically over the line of players and the women simply crushing them flat, leaving behind a field littered with bodies, the medics bringing out stretchers to pick up the flattened athletes.

Keaton shows off his athleticism and daring throughout this chase, grabbing onto a crane and flying through the air, hanging above the women. The best sequence, though, is his half-controlled slide down a massive hill with huge rocks tumbling down after him. He dodges and ducks, racing back and forth across the slope, as the rocks careen by all around him, and even if they're very obviously not real boulders, the kineticism of the sequence is viscerally exciting in the way that Keaton's best action/comedy always is.

Keaton himself thought Seven Chances was one of his weakest features, and it's certainly not one of his strongest as a whole, but it's still fairly charming and eventually builds to that looney extended chase sequence, which makes the film worthwhile in itself. If the rest of the film doesn't have the density or consistent brilliance of Keaton's best work, it's only because that's such a high standard to uphold.


Sam Juliano said...

Ed, I must say I am pretty much in full agreement with your assessment here, though it seems that the film has been steadily gaining in reputation in recent years, in large measure because of the chase sequence, one of Keaton's all-time finest. There's an underlining cynicism on love pervading the film, one that's partially mitigated by some sentimental trappings. It's true that this type of story, rife with sub-plots wouldn't normally play to Keaton's strengths, and the film does take a while to really get started. The chase matches the one in the short COPS, expanding it considerable of course, and the spectacular rockslide near the end alone places this film in the pantheon of comedy classics.

Another stupendous review in your distinguished Keaton series!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. The chase is definitely amazing and the obvious highlight of the film, it's so much fun. The rest of it is more hit-and-miss but certainly has its moments. Good point about the cynicism regarding love; that was always a big part of Keaton's approach to romance, never more so than in the unforgettable final moments of College.