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.

Go West (1925)

High Steaks

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Go West could be seen as Buster Keaton’s reaction to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid but with the child in question being replaced by none other than a cow in this contemporary era western. The pathos laden film is Keaton’s most innocent picture and one that really tugs the heartstrings in which Friendless (Keaton), an aimless drifter who doesn’t fit in anywhere finds himself working at a ranch where he befriends Brown Eyes, a dairy cow who is tossed in with the beef herd because of her inability to give milk.

Brown Eyes (played by the cow of the same name) is cinema’s first and last bovine movie star (at least to my knowledge). Keaton shares a natural rapport with the animal and the chemistry between the two does come off on-screen. There is a human female in the story (Kathleen Myers) but Brown Eyes is the only woman who wins Friendless’ heart. I do have to ask though is Friendless an early example of a vegetarian since I do personally hold the standard that I can’t become attached to an animal if I eat others in its species. Then again Friendless takes no issue with the rest of the herd going to the slaughterhouse. The naivety and childlike mentality Friendless holds is best portrayed when he discovers Brown Eyes is to be sent to the slaughterhouse along with the other bovine – like a child who has only just discovered there is no Santa Clause. It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when man and his cow are separated.

One of the most memorable gags in Go West is the 3-part running gag involving Friendless sitting down at the dinner table just as the other men get up – one of those gags that’s funny even when you know how it’s going to play out. The gag’s third act ends beautifully when Friendless rushes to the table and manages to finish his meal just as the other men sit down, but just look at the face on Keaton as he leaves the table – so elegant and satisfied. The other alpha males on the ranch barely even notice Friendless as they all tower above him, likewise throughout Go West, Friendless is only able to come into possession of a tiny gun, could there be phallic symbolism with this or am I looking into it too much?

Go West features some gorgeous western scenery and landscapes with that hazy shimmer of heat, along with the early adoption of deep focus cinematography and the use of painted backdrops which impressively blend into the real-world background. The climax of Go West involves Friendless trying to navigate herds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles to be sold at market. The herded insanity itself is impressive considering the logistics that must have gone into filming such a sequence but also the simple sight involving huge herds of cows walking through an urban metropolis is a funny image in itself. Move over John Wayne in Red River, Buster Keaton shows us how to rustle up some cattle!

Spite Marriage (1929)

Buster’s Last Gleaming

1929 would see Buster Keaton’s last silent hurrah in the form of Spite Marriage, bringing to an end a decade of astonishing creativity for the great stone face – creativity that one would never be seen again.

Spite Marriage sees Keaton playing a character who is less naïve and more dumb. While this doesn’t hurt the movie in any way you can see how Keaton’s creative control was being watered down at the hands of MGM. Near the end of the film an insert shot of a newspaper article reveals the full name of Buster’s character in Spite Marriage to be Elmer Gantry – why he shares the same name at the titular character from the famous Sinclair Lewis novel is unclear. The object of affection for Elmer in Spite Marriage is the mean and manipulative Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian,) who has a role which is less passive than Keaton’s other girls as she uses the dim-witted Elmer to her advantage. Keaton and Sebastian were reportedly having an affair at the time thus to question how genuine their on-screen interaction is.

spitemarriage

The playhouse at the centre of the film’s first half is putting on a Civil War lost cause melodrama, humorously complete with courageous, noble Confederate soldiers and overtly evil yanks. According to the DVD commentary, the play presented may be inspired by the 1895 play The Heart of Maryland by David Belasco. This assertion is also backed up by backdrops in the playhouse being printed with the words “Bosco Stock Company”.

Spite Marriage is more Chaplinesque than Keaton during the film’s first half from Elmer’s poor attempt to apply makeup to the mayhem he causes on stage during the stage play. The film’s most celebrated sequence is that of Elmer attempting to put knocked out Trilby to bed (good enough to inspire the film Roman Holiday some 24 years later). The sexy scene takes as much physical work on Dorothy Sebastian as it does Keaton, handling it like a pro as Keaton carries her like a ragdoll – I can only imagine how rehearsals for such a scene must have gone. Likewise, I feel the film’s synchronized sound effects do enhance the comedy from the cartoonish sound of Keaton walking to the squeak when Keaton is about to cut his ear with scissors when attempting to apply the fake facial hair.

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The film’s second half is more familiar Keaton territory in a section which harkens back to The Navigator. Sadly Spite Marriage is disappointingly light on stunt work. It’s clear MGM did not want to take risks on their contract star and the film commits the sin of having a stunt man take the place of Keaton. As a result Spite Marriage misses out on being top tier Keaton but the film is still a very pleasurable slice of comedy to bring film’s silent era to a close.

The Cameraman (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Cameraman is my 2nd favourite Buster Keaton feature after Sherlock Jr. A film which manages to hit every beat and even MGM themselves believed in the film enough that it became their comedy training film for new writers as the example of a perfect comedy; I can’t argue with that. Like the aforementioned Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman reflects a fascination with filmmaking in which Keaton has to act like he doesn’t know anything about the anatomy of a camera.

Once again Keaton (playing a character conveniently called Buster) is competing for dominance and the love of a woman in a world of alpha males. What makes the relationship between Buster and love interest Sally (Marceline Day) work so well? Her sympathy, or the fact that she is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t act like a complete jerk towards Buster, even the bell boy at the fictionalised MGM newsreel department is a jerk to him when Buster simply asks about the woman in his photograph despite him being a super sweet guy. Does MGM want people thinking their newsreel department is full of pricks? Or is it the little things such as her first encounter with Buster when he first bumps into her he smells her hair and goes into a trance without her noticing. You can feel the chemistry between them from their body language and even from close-ups of the two starring at each other. Likewise, there is the relatability of any man who has tried to impress a girl only for his effort to be a failure by the presence of a bigger, stronger man. – Plus there is the adorable factor from seeing the two of them together. When Buster gets a kiss from Sally as he leaves her off at an apartment and then walks away in the rain with a sense of elation has Singin’ In The Rain vibes; was Gene Kelly inspired by this?

The Cameraman is one of those rare films which is comprised of one great moment after another. The scene in Yankee Stadium, for example, has no effect on the rest of the plot but there’s no justification required in order to watch Keaton’s athletic prowess as he pretends to play baseball by himself.  Likewise, the sequence on the stairs is a wonder of Keaton’s ability to use the frame in what looks like to modern eyes as a 2D platforming video game. Another superb use of this comes in the pool sequence in which Sally walking by the poolside in a swimsuit then suddenly all of the men get out of the pool entering from the bottom of the frame out of nowhere. Likewise, keep an eye out for the on-screen nudity.  This sequence also gives arise to possibly the most bizarre moment in The Cameraman in which Keaton after losing his bathing suit in the pool begins eyeing a woman wearing an excessive bathing suit and starts approaching her while Jaws-like music plays (as part of the wonderfully quirky modern score by Arthur Barrow). Off-screen he steals the suit but we never see how; just what exactly did he do to her? It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

I have to ask if automobiles back then were designed for use in comedy such as an open top double decker bus which creates so many possibilities for physical comedy. However the most oddly designed vehicle present in The Cameraman has to be the 1927 LaSalle Convertible Coupe Fisher with its seat on the back of the car separate from the main seats of the vehicle. The seat is already inherently de-emasculating by itself, even worse when your girl is at the front with another guy and you’re completely cut off from them because the roof is up to protect them against the rain. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, when it rains you have no protection. Again I have to ask, was this vehicle designed for use in comedy?

The Tong War is among one of the greatest of Keaton spectacles with its large-scale carnage and extras galore; plus I do love the fascinating underworld of the tongs and opium dens as a setting. The moment in which Keaton is confronted by gangsters and is cornered is one of those oh so glorious “how is he going to get out of this?!” moments. By the end of the film, Keaton goes through so much misfortune that you badly want to see him succeed in the end. In the end, he gets his sweet, satisfying revenge while the douche who takes credit for rescue Sally from the out of control speedboat gets his comeuppance. The revenge is unintentionally obtained but more than very well deserved.

The High Sign (1921)

Keaton Komedy Klassic

The ‘High Sign’ has to be my favourite Buster Keaton short and it just so happens to be the first independent film Keaton produced, giving birth to his iconic unnamed character. However, Keaton himself was disappointed with the film and didn’t release it until the following year instead of making “One Week” his first solo short. I question why though as I feel the premise of The ‘High Sign’ is one of Keaton’s most inspired and possibly even worthy of being used as a set up for a feature. It’s true what they say, the artist is often wrong about their own work.

The opening prologue of The High Sign states “Our hero came from Nowhere- he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere”; and considering his superhuman stunts he’s like an alien who just landed on Earth. This opening prologue reminds me of a statement Roger Ebert made in his review of The General; “[Keaton] seems like a modern visitor to the world of silent clowns”

The ‘High Sign’ packs in so much humor and gags into its 20 minutes such as his set up with the dog, meat and string (it’s hard to explain); it’s like something Mr. Bean would come up with. The short also features the earliest example I’ve seen in film of a recurring gag with the high sign itself, a secret signal between gangsters. Keaton even messes with the audience’s expectation for comic effect by having himself walk past a banana peel on the ground only to not slip on it. Likewise, the short’s finale is a real “How did they do that?” sequence. The house with its traps and secret hatches is an astounding piece of set design and when all the rooms appear on screen at once which Keaton jumping between them, it reminds me of a 2D video game. I was laughing, in awe and even shocked (when the gangster’s neck is closed on the door) all at once. There is even a customer at one point who has quite a resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.

I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again; the genius of Buster Keaton will never cease to amaze me.