Seven Chances (1925, Buster Keaton)

sevenchances

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Growing up in vaudeville, Buster Keaton began his career in films as a sidekick, assistant director and gag writer for the ill-fated Fatty Arbuckle during the 1910s. With his stonefaced demeanor, flawless deadpan comic timing and often staggering penchant for physical stuntwork, he quickly became one of the most unforgettable faces and personalities of the silent screen, thanks in large part to a series of shorts he directed and starred in from 1920 to 1923, put together by his own unit of self-sustaining writers, players and filmmakers. Not only did these frequently awe-inspiring films make his name in their time, they stand as the best way to appreciate his genius today, from the audacious sensuality and uproariously funny slapstick of One Week, in which a pair of newlyweds attempt to construct a new home; to the mindbending brilliance of his acting in The Play House, in which he plays every occupant, on and off-stage, of a theater. His popularity and iconic status made it inevitable that, like his peer Charlie Chaplin, Keaton would move into features that would drive his career through most of the remaining silent era.

It’s fashionable to compare and contrast Chaplin and Keaton’s work and to come down on one or the other “team”; since their films are both often phenomenal, it’s a somewhat arbitrary distinction to make. But it is interesting, insofar as Keaton might well be the better actor, Chaplin the better director, both by a matter of degrees. (Keaton was entirely self-taught as a cameraman and, even more impressively, an editor, which makes his talent all the more remarkable.) Certainly Keaton makes the stronger initial impression to an audience today. Unlike the Tramp persona put forward in most of Chaplin’s best-known comedies, the pork pie hat-wearing Keaton character, always looking a decade or two older than he really was, always bemused and baffled by the occurrences around him and the crises he stumbles into, never expressing the kind of iconoclastic mischief Chaplin sometimes did, avoids Mickey Mouse-like repetition or ubiquity simply by garnering most of its comedic prowess from context and from actions. His is a personality small enough to blend deceptively into its surroundings. Keaton’s face is hilarious in and of itself, but his mere presence is never the joke. Additionally, Keaton’s films seldom lapse into the setimentality that was common to Chaplin’s, making him an easier sell for young, hip teenagers and film students.

Chaplin, however, could use his comic exuberance and the audience’s relationship with him to tell a corker of a story, resulting in a succession of features — The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times — that speak in a stunningly universal language, each disparate and engaging and extensively worked-over. Keaton’s films have more of a sameness about them; their basic story structures of wild antagonism and the chasing of a romance against the odds tend to be nearly identical in much the same way Lon Chaney’s films were; popular as they were at the time, it’s mostly a cultist’s exercise to remember which one of his films is which. They also are less beholden to good taste, insofar as they frequently cop to cheap laughs — barnyard jokes and racially insensitive material — that makes them stick out as artifacts of their time in a way Chaplin’s work never has.

With that said, Keaton’s features steadily improved until they reached an impeccable height with this, the fifth feature in which he directed himself. Because Keaton was a vaudevillian and a gag man by trade, his films — short and long — can often be disjointed. One way around this was, as in his feature directorial debut Three Ages, a parody of D.W. Griffith’s blown-out epic Intolerance, to divide the story into manageable smaller chunks. Another was to use the feature format to explore a whimsical fantasy, the basic notion behind the dreamlike Sherlock Jr., which in turn probably took some inspiration from the third act of Chaplin’s The Kid. In between these two films was the more haphazard Our Hospitality; as always, it was a strong showcase for impressive stunts by Keaton as both actor and director, but its story barely hung together and seemed obligatory and dull when it occupied the screen instead of a comedy bit, similar to what later happened in some of the Marx Brothers’ films.

With 1924’s The Navigator, Keaton began to commit more carefully to a laid-out story structure rather than a series of jokes, realizing apparently (and inevitably) that the strict adherence to such a template increased the probability of gags being successful in context. The model was his better shorts, such as One Week, The High Sign and The Goat, all of which employ the usual full-force furious collision of deadpan, slapstick and elaborate visual playfulness but also retain a basic coherence that doesn’t wander off tangentially for the sake of a single payoff. It can be exhausting to watch even some of Keaton’s short films that don’t follow this format — The Haunted House, for instance, starts out telling one story and after twenty minutes so little resembles its initial premise it’s hard to imagine how the crew kept the continuity in their heads.

All of Keaton’s features have one virtue in common, though — they are economical, seldom lasting over an hour. With The Navigator, Keaton correctly surmised that he could generate a great number of hilarious gags merely through his setting, an abandoned cruise ship otherwise occupied solely by the woman who recently rejected his marriage proposal. With no dross or excess whatsoever, the film follows an admirably linear structure to an explosive climax, marred a bit by its appalling racism — the ship is attacked by a group of brutish, cannibalistic “natives” — but still impressive for its prowess and balletic timing, the usual outstanding special effects and stunts giving an exhilarating cap to all of the laughter.

In Seven Chances, the best aspects of the actor-writer-director’s career coalesce at last into a vibrant whole; the film works largely because it adheres to nearly the same structure as The Navigator. Here, Keaton’s well-to-do but painfully shy stockbroker faces twin crises: being too nervous to say anything to the woman with whom he shares a mutual crush, and the firm he works for being on the verge of bankruptcy. By the kind of magical coincidence that only ever happens in films, Keaton finds out he has a line on $7 million through a grandparent’s will, on the condition that he find himself a wife by the evening of his 27th birthday — which, in again a perfect twist of escalation, happens to be today.

Seven Chances is shorter than The Navigator by just over three minutes — so only a quarter-hour longer than the bare minimum to be considered a feature film. (Several firms use Keaton’s own Sherlock, Jr.‘s 45-minute length as the basis for the qualification of “feature length,” though a 40-minute restriction is slightly more widely accepted.) In that time, Keaton exhausts every comic and visual possibility he can from this premise. It begins with the primitive Technicolor in the romantic opening scenes, making a futile bid for Chaplin’s sentiment by playing up the autumnal melancholy of unrequited love — futile strictly because Keaton’s lovelorn sap is forced to admit his feelings initially because of a financial compromise, a condition that itself leads to the major conflict of the picture. It would have been relatively simple to make a film about Keaton’s hapless Jimmy trying to get married by 7:00 to a woman who thinks he’s doing it for the money. Instead this is resolved almost immediately; Jimmy just doesn’t know it.

So the way this incredibly elegant story plays out is with the basic irresistible condition of Jimmy, believing his great love is over and with coworkers depending on him, traveling around the city searching for a potential sudden mate. Add to this the drama of his sweetheart trying to find him and tell him she wants to marry him after all; and the insanity that results when one of his partners has an ad placed in the paper announcing that Jimmy is searching for a woman (“any woman”) and they all should meet at a church at the designated time. After skillful, Griffith-like cross-cutting, these fragments converge into an astonishing chase sequence and the unforgettable sight of Keaton’s Jimmy beating every odd to reach his wedding on time — ostensibly to make sure he gets the money for his firm, but we all know the real reason. The climax may not be as famous as the most memorable gags of The General or Steamboat Bill Jr., but it’s been just as frequently imitated — see the end of The Graduate and the opening sequence of A Hard Day’s Night for a start.

Griffith is called to mind in more than just the skillful editing in Seven Chances, unfortunately; there’s still another awkward group of malicious jokes at the expense of black people, not helped by the unsubtle emphasis on the relative affluence of all the white characters in this and just about all of Keaton’s films. In a head-to-head, it’s not insignificant that Chaplin nearly always played underprivileged characters, and never mocked them or depicted them as subhuman. (It’s probably significant to note here that Keaton often uses his wealthy and/or comfortable side characters to mock ignorance among the cushioned upper classes, as seen particularly in Our Hospitality and Steamboat Bill Jr.) This isn’t to suggest that Keaton himself meant these jokes to hurt anyone, or even that they would generally have been taken that way in 1925; the most uncomfortable moment today has Keaton following an attractive, stocky and well-dressed woman as she is seen from behind walking along a street. He clearly intends to proposition her, as he has so many others by this point in the film, until he picks up his pace to greet her and sees that she is a black woman, then picks up pace in alarm and takes leave quickly. It’s not impossible that this was an innocent enough joke in the ’20s, when interracial marriage was comparatively unheard of in most of the places in which Chances would likely be screened. But it’s this sort of oblivious pandering that takes the penchant for crowd-pleasing, held by Keaton and Chaplin alike, a bridge too far. Along with other, similarly disappointing moments, it has allowed a great film to age, and to become harder to see for what it truly is.

Broadly speaking, however, Seven Chances is the most outright joyous of Keaton’s films, with a quickness and spontaneity that make its typically harrowing climax all the more impressive — its oversized insanity feels natural somehow. And as the film ends and the non-hero emerges sorta-kinda victorious, Keaton will not allow his leading man — himself — to enjoy a victory lap, here with an adorable large dog, the one that ages before our eyes in the opening sequence, preventing a triumphant kiss between Buster and his new wife. It thus ends in much the way it began, with Keaton never fully peacefully allowed to “get the girl.” This sort of rhyming — along with all the escalation in between, building to an intense and breathtakingly elaborate climax — was carried over, in essence, directly from The Navigator, and it would play out with equal aplomb and circular poetry in his most famous film, The General, two years later. So would the depressing insensitivity; the hero of that film almost inadvertently wins a battle for the Confederacy.

The General is a well-deserved classic, once called the greatest film of all time by Orson Welles, who must have been enchanted by its size, economy, elegance and firepower; but Seven Chances is the Keaton film that is, apart from some of the best of his shorts, most likely to gain converts to that face, those limbs, what that odd-looking creature could do in front of and behind the camera. After Seven Chances, The General, Steamboat Bill Jr. (with Keaton not credited as director) and the films in between, a cash-poor Keaton entered a long, steady decline into career turmoil and alcoholism. He signed a deal with MGM in 1928 but, after the successful The Cameraman, it became quickly apparent that — with the entrance of sound — the studio didn’t know what to do with him, and his time of viability and popularity essentially ended, Keaton having ceded the control that made all the difference for Chaplin in the first ten years after sound came in. Arguably, Keaton’s sensibilities as a filmmaker and storyteller have had a longer-lasting influence than that of any other director of the period, with the structure slow burn-into-explosion a model for blockbusters decades hence, maybe none more self-evidently Keaton-like in its layout than Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. (All of the films Zemeckis wrote with Bob Gale, most notably 1941, Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand build methodically to Keaton-infected climaxes and loop-around endings.)

Keaton only ever wanted to be respected as a comedian and a performing artist, though, and his modesty and extreme, obvious skill set — and the continued awe across generations that someone could do all that he did in these movies without dying — allowed his visage and the best of his work to age gracefully. That continues even now. Seven Chances happens to be the one and only silent film I have seen, to date, with an audience. Back in 2008 (on the night before a tropical storm hit my region, so it was strange to see a crowd of people gathered anywhere), there was a 16mm screening at a local college, enticingly billed as a “Buster Keaton festival” even though only this film was played. I was an outsider, older than almost anyone else there (I was 24), brought in by an announcement on an events calendar declaring that it was open to the public, but detected that the reason a throng of students were there was that a film professor, who spoke briefly before the film started, had offered some sort of extra course credit to those in attendance. It’s the worst possible condition to see a film — with your enjoyment held hostage by grading, requirements, the sneering demonstrative derision of peers who don’t really and truly want to be there.

The thing was that the film played beautifully. Keeping in mind that these were mostly students in the film program who were probably not altogether new to silents, they laughed at all the right moments, and heartily. I was seated next to a young woman who was audibly touched by Keaton’s felt performance as a romantic lead, seeing not childlike naivete but the adult sophistication of the genuinely lovelorn. I was surrounded by people chuckling, then giggling, then cackling at the exquisite moments of comic business and misunderstanding in the midsection, when Buster basically can’t do a damn thing to get a date and ends up inviting all manner of mockery, scorn and suspicion as a result of his attempts. The group of about forty people watching the film with me was very racially diverse; this wasn’t the only reason there was silence and discomfort during the blackface scenes and the other racist moments, all that prevented this from being comparable to a general showing of any winning comedy, but it did make it significant that the universal laughter would start again immediately after this dated indulgence was over.

You could feel Seven Chances winning the crowd. I could feel it winning me; I saw it in a time of personal distress and it warmed and melted me while I was nearly inaccessible. It was like living inside that scene in Sullivan’s Travels when Joel McCrea leans over to someone and says “Hey, am I laughing?” All this even though I’d had to drag myself out to see the film. Maybe that’s why it means the most to me of all of Keaton’s works. Just as likely, it’s that it’s the most concise narrative of Keaton’s features, the least cluttered of his films to also lack the kind of cultural tone-deafness of The General. It’s demonstrably a silent film that could play with nearly all charms intact to a room full of people raised on Fincher, Nolan and The Big Lebowski. Along with One Week, it deserves what it doesn’t have: to be seen as a great filmmaker and delightful performer’s purest masterpiece.

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