Directed by: Buster Keaton » Written by: Clyde Bruckman » Based on the Play by: Roi Megrue, 1925 » Region/Time: U.S.A., black & white, silent, 56 minutes.
Starring: Buster Keaton as James “Jimmy” Shannon » T. Roy Barnes as His partner, Billy Meekin » Snitz Edwards as His lawyer » Ruth Dwyer as His girl, Mary Jones » Frances Raymond as Her mother, Mrs Jones » Erwin Connelly as The clergyman » Jules Cowles as The hired hand.
“I have to marry some girl.”
“I don’t mean some girl – I can marry any girl! I – I mean, it don’t matter who I marry, but I must wed someone!”
Seven Chances was Buster Keaton’s least favourite film of those he made. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when he watched it again with an audience (who loved it) that he realised how fantastic it really was. His judgement on his own film was clouded due to his experiences making it. The plot was forced on him by producer Joseph Schenck, who had bought the rights to the original play. Buster had to make the film against his wishes. The final result, however, is thirty minutes of the play and a final thirty minutes of Buster’s own invention – and what a glorious half hour it is. Buster had previously produced the short film Cops (1922), in which he is chased by an ever-increasing mob of policemen intent on doing him harm. His ingenious escapes and breathless athleticism madeCops a smash hit and in Seven Chances, he manages to outdo himself.
Supposedly given his nickname “Buster” by Harry Houdini before he was one, Keaton, along with his mother and father, was a vaudevillian. Their stage show (The Three Keatons) was an “instructional” on how to discipline a difficult child. Buster was frequently thrown through walls or into crowds. Buster discovered that people would not laugh if he feigned being hurt or angry, but if he kept a straight (or slightly puzzled/surprised) face, the audience would fall about in stitches. So it was that, embarking upon a film career, he earned the additional nickname “The Great Stoneface.” He became an independent film producer in 1920 and produced a series of short and long films that are among the greatest comedies ever made.
The storyline is relatively simple. A Man, Jimmy, is in love with His Girl, Mary, but cannot bring himself to propose. He and His Business Partner are in financial difficulties and may have to go to jail if they don’t get some money and quick! Jimmy’s Lawyer comes to his rescue, however. It seems a rich uncle of Jimmy’s has died, leaving him $7,000,000 (US), but only if he is married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday. Naturally, it is Jimmy’s birthday this very day. Jimmy hurries to Mary to ask her to marry him, but unfortunately, makes it sound like he is only proposing so that he can get the money. She says “no,” and he returns to His Partner and His Lawyer, miserable. They suggest he just ask someone else, and come up with a list of “seven chances” that he can ask. Mary overhears Jimmy saying that he only loves her and doesn’t care about the money and she sends her servant, The Hired Hand, to catch up with Jimmy and stop him proposing to someone else.
Jimmy goes on to propose to any woman who will have him, including lesbians and young children, all to no avail. His friends come up with a better idea and put an ad in the paper saying the lucky woman will wed a $7 million dollar bachelor. Naturally, thousands of women show up at the church.
Jimmy flees in fear, finds out that Mary really will marry him and sets out to meet her to get married. It is at this point the movie goes from a comedy to a sublime chase movie. As Jimmy walks down the street looking for a cab or streetcar to take him to Mary, the thousands of spurned brides begin to chase him down the street. There follows half an hour of Jimmy sprinting away from the mob.
They even try to slow him down by throwing bricks at him. He falls off of moving cars, gets swung around on cranes, throws his body into flips down cliffs and into rivers – all with athletic abandon. In every shot, it is clearly Buster Keaton performing these stunts, in the vein of the early Jackie Chan movies (whose idol is Buster Keaton). He jumps over cliffs, jumps onto 100 foot high trees and spends the last five minutes dodging papier-mâché boulders. While they are clearly not real, the staging required to get a series of boulder to fall down the cliff in the correct sequence and pace is astounding.
In that final chase sequence, Buster Keaton is not so much laugh-out-loud funny, as a creature from another world with supernatural timing and athleticism. If it weren’t so obviously difficult to do correctly (not to mention the insurance), I would wonder why no one has tried to make films like this since his heyday. If you do like this style of “comedy” but cannot bring yourself to watch a silent film, then some Jackie Chan films, District 13 and the first Tony Jaa movie, Ong Bak, share some elements of Buster’s amazing athleticism, although generally married to the action movie genre instead of warm comedy.
Finally, there is no way to talk about his film and not address its one outstanding flaw – the character of The Hired Hand, played by a white actor in blackface. This grotesque characterization really doesn’t fit into the world of the rest of the movie (or, indeed, the rest of Buster’s movies). Blackface was a stage device first used by white actors to play black men onstage starting in the late 1700s. By the late 1800s, the traveling minstrel shows included exaggerated stereotypes in which blackface characters were frequently portrayed as inept or stupid (along with venal Jewish characters, drunken Irish characters, cheap Scotsmen, gullible farmers and slow white Southerners (as you can see, some of these are still in use today (I’m looking at you, Mike Myers), and will surely be found offensive when viewed retroactively). Blackface and other stereotypes were common in the silent era, in which characters were unable to speak and could only convey information through action or appearance. There were only a handful of popular silent stars who were not white, such as Paul Robeson and Anna May Wong, both of whom continued to be popular into the sound era. Thankfully, The Hired Hand has only a minor role in the film (and might have actually had a few funny gags, if he weren’t played by a white man in make-up) and does not disrupt the final sequences. The most positive thing to get out of this is that at least blackface is obviously unacceptable to a modern-day viewer.
Up Next in the Film Canon: An updated western/samurai flick almost single-handedly ends a rather self-important era of filmmaking.