Today we’re talking about a film that has an absurdly contrived plot, paper-thin characterizations, and simplistic dialog. It favors broad slapstick over dramatic nuance, and has a very predictable ending. Is there any way I can in good conscience recommend such a film? Well, when we’re talking about Buster Keaton and the film Seven Chances, yes, absolutely I can.
I first discovered Buster Keaton when I went and saw a screening of The General with live music accompanying. It was an amazing, and eye opening, experience. The General is more likely to be considered Keaton’s masterpiece, and it is an fantastic film. But I’ve seen Seven Chances more often, and overall I think it’s probably more out and out funny and more audaciously enjoyable.
Keaton, if you don’t know, is one of the leading pioneers of American silent film, especially comedy film. He’s usually put along side of (or just behind) Charlie Chaplin as the leading light of this category of story telling. I’m not familiar enough with either director’s entire catalog to make a completely informed decision, but if I had to pick I’d rather watch a Keaton film over a Chaplin one any day.
Keaton’s great strength was his incredible agility, stunt work, and physical comedy. Buster Keaton, who stars in his movie as well, always looks like small and unimposing figure on screen, but he had an ability to run and leap and tumble and fall that allowed him to either take his characters through a wide variety of physical mishaps, or have him narrowly avoid them, leaving audiences (and me, for certain) positively breathless in delight.
To make it stronger, he had an ability to do this with an assured deadpan expression – the look of a man who never seems quite certain what is happening around him, but who was able to portray this steady befuddlement with only the merest of facial movements. For this look, he came to be known as “The Great Stone Face,” and this look of innocent uncertainty adds to the humor, and makes Keaton’s screen-personas more sympathetic and likeable.
Keaton also had the ability to striking and memorable images to the screen. Perhaps the most iconic is in a film called Steamboat Bill, jr, which I have never seen. That contains the famous shot of a wall falling down on Keaton’s character, which he survives simply by “happening” to stand at the very spot where there is an open window. The General, on the other hand, has a full wide shot of a locomotive attempting – and failing – to cross a burning bridge over a gorge. The result is the crashing and utter destruction of what certainly to me looks like a real train. (Imagine you were the cameraman and made a mistake on that shot!)
Seven Chances features no less than two of these screen images, which have helped to cement it as one of my favorite films.
First, you have the brides. See, the plot of this film involves Buster playing a guy who has only a few hours to find a bride that will enable him to inherit a fortune, desperately needed to by both him and his business partner. When a misunderstanding causes his girlfriend to reject him, he embarks on a quest to find a willing woman more or less at random (my favorite is the cute hat-check girl, played by someone named Rosalind Byrne). These efforts prove to be both funny and fruitless, prompting the desperate action on the part of the business partner to put an add in the paper, saying that any woman who shows up to marry this guy at a certain time will marry into big money. And of course, the add proves to be a rousing success. Buster falls asleep at the church when it is still empty. When he wakes up, it is jammed full of brides of all shapes and sizes. The look on his face when he realizes that he is surrounded is priceless. But even that does not compare to what we get when the woman realize that he does not intend to marry any of them (as he’s reconciled with his girlfriend). The whole last third of the movie is a massive chase scene as literally hundreds of veil-wearing woman pursue Buster in a fit of rage, with revenge in mind. Workman, football players, the police – none of them are a match for this scorned mob. And early in this sequence, there is the enduring image of these woman all chasing him down a street, as he runs for his life. Absolutely classic. (If this sounds familiar, it may be that you’ve seen the inevitably inferior 1999 comedy The Bachelor with Chris O’Donnell).
Secondly, you have the conclusion of this chase, which ends when the women are scared away by an avalanche of rocks. This is not such a big deal in and of itself, but what is truly a wonder to behold is seeing Buster dodging these rocks – leaping over them, ducking under them, and narrowly avoiding being crushed. He makes full use of his (I assume) massive bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to create a scene that really you can’t even imagine was made without the use of CGI, even though the rocks themselves are obviously props.
But he did, and now it ours to enjoy. So go and enjoy it! And if it’s a new zone for you, go and explore the cinematic world of Buster Keaton. Unless you’re just dead-set against silent films or black & white or something like that, I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t enjoy it.