I mentioned in my post for last year’s Buster Keaton Blogathon that I was a tad miffed I missed out on grabbing Seven Chances as my topic.
This year I SWOOPED in and grabbed it before anyone else could. HA!
Why so happy? This movie completely changed my attitudes towards 1) silent movies and 2) physical comedy.
I recounted in last year’s post how when I was a kid I was dragged by my mother to see a rock concert film that happened to be playing as a double feature with the documentary, Four Clowns. Four Clowns is about silent film comedians Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charley Chase. It includes a substantial excerpt from Keaton’s Seven Chances.
I was probably around 11 years old, and thought silent films and especially silent film chase scenes were BO-RING. The extract from Seven Chances changed that attitude in me forever.
Seven Chances is based on a 1916 play by Dave Belasco. It concerns one Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) who has a bit of a problem confessing his feelings to the woman he loves, Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer). Jimmie is a junior partner at a brokerage firm that is about to hit the skids financially. He and his partner (T. Roy Barnes) are terrified they are about to be served with a summons and keep dodging a lawyer (Snitz Edwards).
Turns out the lawyer has amazing news for Jimmie: his grandfather has left him a fortune. Jimmie and his partner are ecstatic because this would solve all their solvency problems.
However, there is a catch: to inherit, Jimmie must be married by 7 P.M. on his 27th birthday.
Of course, that day is Jimmie’s 27th birthday.
Already in love with Mary, he rushes to propose to her, but completely mucks it. Returning to the country club where Jimmie and his partner were finally hunted down by the lawyer, he tries to propose to other women. There are seven women there his partner knows (the “seven chances” of the title) and every attempt is a failure.
Meanwhile, Mary has second thoughts. She sends a note via her hired hand (Jules Cowles). Jimmie’s partner tells him to show up at a church by 5 P.M. and he’ll have a bride there for him, if Jimmie can’t find one in the meantime. His partner puts a story in the afternoon paper about how Jimmie needs a bride by 5 P.M. and includes the name of the church.
Jimmie walks through town trying to find a woman who will marry him. The hired hand tries desperately to track him down and keeps missing him. Finally arriving at the empty church, Jimmie falls asleep in the front pew. Women in wedding veils begin to arrive and sit in the pews. After a time, the trickle of women turns into a tsunami, as they all try to cram themselves into the building.
Jimmie wakes up and is astounded to see himself surrounded by so many women. The minister is also appalled, and tells the women they have been the victims of a prank. Jimmie manages to escape out the window and runs right into the hired hand. Realizing Mary will marry him, he tries to get away from the horde of furious women.
One of the greatest chase scenes in cinema now commences through the streets of Los Angeles. Just the visual of these women (and I wonder if they are ALL women) of various shapes, sizes, and ages running after him is itself hilarious. They all wear some kind of veil, which are clearly makeshift—some look as if they grabbed a dish towel, or a napkin, or a curtain off their window. It’s that kind of detail that shows how witty Keaton’s humor really is, and how it doesn’t depend merely on pratfalls for laughs.
The most famous part of the chase is when Jimmie loosens a few rocks while running down a hill and those rocks start a chain reaction, resulting in massive boulders rolling behind him as he tries to outrun them. This scene made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt the first time I watched the film. It is so ingeniously orchestrated and edited that it’s hard to believe much of it was actually added after the movie’s initial previews. Keaton noticed a brief scene of the rolling rocks made the audience laugh the most, and was wise enough to go back to shoot more footage to amplify the sequence.
While the action sequences are superb, there are many gags that are subtle, playing on audience expectations and assumptions. One of my favorites is when the hired hand tries to stop Jimmie’s car by holding up a traffic sign. The side shown to the audience says “stop” but the car doesn’t stop. Then the hired hand turns the sign around and you realize the other side says “go.”
Of course, the most fascinating part of Keaton’s movies is that he did his own stunts, and many of them are death-defying. While the boulders were fake, he really did hang from the hook of a crane at one point. (The “brides” think they have killed him—then get angry again when they realize they haven’t.)
Seven Chances is the movie that taught me purely visual and physical comedy can be utterly sublime. I wonder to this day if I would love film as much as I do if I hadn’t seen Four Clowns at such a young age.