Seven Chances (1925)

For Love Nor Money

Much of the beauty of Buster Keaton’s films comes from their simplicity. Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) learns he will inherit 7 million dollars (105 million in 2019) providing he is married by the evening of his 27th birthday. Jimmie is not yet married and it just so turns out, his 27th birthday is today (the only question I would pose about the premise is how they define “by the evening” as being 7 o’clock but I digress). Seven Chances is split into two distinct sections, the preamble and then the action-orientated second half. The picture is only 56 minutes long and the pacing is just about perfect in this Metro-Goldwyn Production (just before the Mayer was thrown in). Seven Chances is one of three Keaton features which sees him play a rich nitwit, similar to the characters he would play in The Navigator and Battling Butler. With the film’s theme of Money vs. Love, the picture goes to the effort of getting the audience’s sympathy and making the protagonist less of a heal. The endearing opening prologue establishes that Jimmie loves his girlfriend Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but is too tongue-tied and shy to confess his feelings towards her. After Jimmie bungles a proposal to Mary with a tactless remark, he refuses to marry anyone else and has to be persuaded by his business partner to marry another woman. At one point, he even refuses to marry his gal because he wants to spare her from what he believes is the failure and disgrace that awaits him. Likewise, the film also establishes that Jimmie’s brokerage firm is in trouble after being tricked into a shady deal and thus himself and his partner face ruin and possibly prison, justifying his need for the money. If the main character’s motivation was that of pure greed then the film simply wouldn’t work.

The first half of Seven Chances involves Keaton making many socially awkward marriage proposals, first with a failed attempt to Mary and then to a series of women at a country club (his seven chances). Possibly due to its origins as a stage play, Seven Chances has a higher ratio of jokes which have a greater degree of input from other cast members or don’t involve Keaton at all, with T. Roy Barnes and Snitz Edwards receiving many comic highlights. However, the film’s best, unsung cast member would have to be the Anna May Wong lookalike of the hat check girl who displays great underplayed comic timing with Keaton (according to the article Married In Haste by Imogen Sara Smith, the uncredited actress is named Rosalind Byrne). Seven Chances also includes an early screen appearance from future screwball dame Jean Arthur as the secretary Miss Smith (or so her name tag suggests as she later shows Jimmie her wedding ring). It may be a silent film but she still conveys that wisecracking attitude and laidback persona with her body language and that expressive face (often seen reading a book while she is on the job).

As Jimmie becomes increasingly desperate to find a bride he runs up towards a woman only to see that she is black. Now keep in mind that miscegenation was illegal in California until 1948. Is Jimmie showing repulsion over her race or disappointment that he legally cannot marry her? The gag could be interpreted as a jab at such laws however at least one black woman does come to the church later on to marry him. Subsequently, Jimmie approaches another woman only to stop pursuing her upon discovering she is Jewish after she holds up a newspaper in Yiddish. Many reviewers mistake the newspaper to be printed in Hebrew which was not a widely spoken language among Jews at the time whereas Yiddish was (several newspapers in this language did exist in the US at the time and I’m curious as to what the text on the paper translates to). It’s not clear if the girl even speaks English as when Jimmie speaks to her she looks confused and just shrugs her shoulders. Does Jimmie avoid marrying her due to language barriers, the issues derived from marrying a Jewish woman or just anti-Semitism on his part (to derive some humour from shock value)? Likewise, another woman Jimmie encounters gives him a quick rejection to which he informs his partners immediately afterwards, “Wrong party” – make of that what you will. The only joke in the film in which context is required for a modern viewer is that in which Jimmie walks into a theatre featuring what appears to be a female performer, only for him to walk out seconds later in a ruffled-up state upon discovering the performer in question is Julian Eltinge, a cross-dressing performer of the time. I will say it is the weakest gag in the film as it’s not particularly clever.

The two-strip Technicolor footage from the film’s opening prologue hasn’t survived well and has a very washed-out look however the remainder of the film from the 4K restoration comes in a lovely sepia-tone print. As far as Keaton’s technical wizardry, the automobile transitions are a unique experiment as Jimmie hops into a car and the shot fades to a different location with the car and Keaton remaining in the same screen position. What’s particularly impressive about these transitions are the spokes on the wheels which remain in the exact same position in both shots – blink and you miss it attention to detail. Seven Chances also includes many shots of Keaton’s early pioneering of deep focus cinematography such as the interior shots of the church with a sleeping Jimmie on the front bench as scores of perspective brides make their way in via the background and all in clear focus. Speaking off…

The second half of Seven Chances is comprised of the set-up and execution of a colossal chase sequence. After failing to find a bride, Jimmie and co print an advertisement in the evening newspaper informing whatever lucky woman shows up at the Broad Street Church at 5 pm will become the bride-to-be for the forthcoming millionaire. Come 5 pm and the church has been beset with hundreds of prospective brides to which the church’s clergyman appears and announces he believes the whole thing to be a practical joke. Infuriated, the brides chase after Jimmie who subsequently discovers Mary wants to marry him after all.  This chase involves the most extras employed in a Keaton film, outdoing his 1922 shorts Cops which acts as a precursor to Seven Chances. The women in their makeshift bridal outfits destroy everything in their path like a stampeding herd of elephants in their pursuit of Jimmie. Keaton shot many of his films using locales in Los Angeles and Seven Chances is another great example of how he was able to use the city as his playground. From the trolleys, automobiles, open fields and orchards; it’s a wonderful showcase of vintage west-coast Americana. The sequence keeps upping the ante with every new obstacle from football players, beehives and duck hunters with much of the carnage reminiscent of what Peter Bogdanovich would execute in his screwball comedy homage What’s Up Doc?. The manner in which Keaton moves his legs as he’s running as fast as he can is like a character in a Hanna-Barbara animation and his stunt work really makes you say “is he really doing that?”. At one point he even runs into a barbed wire fence which he subsequently tries to untangle himself from – it looks painful. The film does feature some same shot edits on several of the stunts but it doesn’t ruin one’s state of disbelief. The chase culminates in one of the most surreal of Keaton moments as he gets Indiana Jones’d by hoards of falling boulders. In reality, the rocks were made out of papier-mâché however I do find the physics of the boulders believable, you can feel the weight of them as they roll and bounce around. It appears that Keaton does engage in The Prometheus School Of Running Away From Things as at several moments he could have just run to the left or right to avoid the boulders, but the scene is so entertaining I can suspend my disbelief. Buster Keaton was truly beyond us mere mortals.

The General (1926)

The Sauth Shall Rise Again!

Unpopular opinion time, The General is a good film but is not Buster Keaton’s best – I’ll start with the film’s merits. The General is one of several Keaton films set in a historical period and the film’s budget certainly pays off when it comes to recreating Marietta, Georgia circa 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. There are great amounts of historical detail within every frame from the buildings to the costumes and the grand locomotive, The General itself. On a purely visual level, The General may be Keaton’s most visually stunning film, full of lush shots of Oregon landscape (although the film itself is set in Georgia) which would make even John Ford jealous. The destruction of the locomotive on the burning bridge is one the most ambitious shots of Keaton’s filmography. However, my favourite shot in all of The General occurs during the climax in which Johnnie Gray (Keaton) holds the Confederate flag amidst battle – the type of cinematic shot that is forever imprinted in your mind. The scores by Carl Davies are the most ideal accompaniment for Keaton’s films and The General is no exception from quirky moments to more epic and militaristic arrangements, as well as rousing standards such as I Wish I Was In Dixie.

I’ll always say that the train is the ultimate cinematic device and as skillfully (and dangerously) executed the stunt work is in The General with all its comic touches, the action doesn’t quite have the high stakes or heart-pounding intensity as action sequences in other Keaton pictures, leading to a film that does test my patience at times. Why is this?  Why am I more on the edge of my seat watching Keaton run away from falling boulders in Seven Chances or battling hurricane winds in Steamboat Bill Jr? If Johnnie had been an actual coward and avoided enlistment rather than his love interest being lied to that Johnnie didn’t even get in line to enlist (which in itself is quite contrived), I believe the stakes in the film would be so much higher, thus making the pursuit of The General from the hands of Yankee spies more intense and suspenseful with Johnnie overcoming of his cowardice being the character’s redemption. With The General presented as it is, Johnnie has to prove himself by overcoming lies told by others rather than his own character flaws, which I believe weakens the film’s narrative.

There is the pink elephant in the room that The General is a film in which the hero of the story is a loyal son of the Confederacy. According to the Thames documentary on Keaton A Hard Act To Follow, it is stated that Keaton choose to tell the story from the southern perspective as in 1926, veterans of the civil war as well people whose fathers and grandfathers had fought were still alive, thus Keaton didn’t want to rile up half of his potential audience by appearing to make fun the side that lost. This does raise the question as to how The General was received in the Northern states? The General was released 61 years following the end of the civil war, which to put in context, would be the equivalent of releasing a movie about World War II in 2006. The General only contains one moment which could be seen as a jab at the Confederacy in which Johnnie states in a moment of foreshadowing dialogue “If you lose this war, don’t blame me”. Aside from that, The General remains an apolitical film in which the civil war setting is almost immaterial to the story. The film makes no mention of slavery, secession nor is either side portrayed as right or wrong. Nor are there any of the usual negative stereotypes associated with the American south (although humorously the film does contain the Colonel Sanders lookalike general who always seems to permeate any fiction about the old south). I have heard it argued that such depoliticized treatments of the civil war in themselves aid the lost cause narrative, yet Keaton himself was not from the south, being a mid-western man born in Kansas. The viewer can draw their own conclusions on what Keaton’s authorial intent was.

To compare The General to Keaton’s earlier work Our Hospitality (1923), a film which holds a number of similarities to The General with its use of a locomotive, the southern setting and the grand scenery, I’d argue is a much more engaging and creative film. While there is much I admire in The General, of all Keaton’s silent features, it’s the one I’m least keen to revisit.