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Seven Chances
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by Jay Seaver

"In which Buster Keaton must marry a woman for his own money."
4 stars

SCREENED WITH LIVE ACCOMPANIMENT BY JEFF RAPSIS: The play "Seven Chances" was a hit on the stage before Buster Keaton made a movie from it in 1925, but those seven chances wind up minimized, as if they are only still in the movie because Keaton and the screenwriters figured that the audience would want to know what the title was about without them. That's more than OK, though, as the more cinematic material Keaton put in is frequently gold, including one of the greatest chases in movie history.

Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) has two problems: He's been seeing Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer) for a year but has gotten tongue-tied every time he means to propose (or even say he loves her), and, more immediately, the firm in which he's a partner with Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) has been left holding the bag on a bad investment, with them facing insolvency or even jail time. Fortunately, there's a solution - a probate lawyer (Snitz Edwards) has just informed them that Jimmie will inherit seven million pre-Depression dollars if he marries by seven o'clock on his twenty-seventh birthday. That's today, and while Mary is initially thrilled by his proposal, she changes his mind when she suspects his motives are more mercenary than romantic. Heartbroken, but not wanting Billy to suffer, he sets his sights on the seven girls he knows at the local country club. When that doesn't go well, Billy gets a story printed in the evening newspaper, and suddenly Jimmie's problem is no longer a lack of girls to marry; it's quite the opposite!

While Seven Chances has in many ways stood the test of time as well as many of Keaton's silent classics, it is rather dated in some particulars, and not just in innocent ways like having to explain the concept of an "evening newspaper" is to some of the youngest audience members. One gag, which should give current screenwriters who load their scripts with pop-culture references pause, only works if the viewer knows who Julian Eltinge is, a nugget that many in 1925 would know but which will send most in the present day to Wikipedia. Less obscure (and less amusing) examples of it being a product of its times include how discovering that a girl is black or Jewish is an immediate deal-breaker, and there's something a bit off about Jules Cowles's portrayal of the Jones' black hired hand, though to the filmmakers' credit, they do not make jokes based on the premise of non-WASPs being inferior.

(I'd prefer not to spend that much time on the subject, but it is there, and may surprise people planning to show this otherwise-entertaining film to their kids.)

What the film does make jokes about is Jimmie's rather endearing sweetness. Though I suspect that the "Jimmie proposes to many women and gets shot down by each of them" story would work much better in a talkie than in a silent like this - the audience must imagine what Jimmie is saying to get such a dismissive response from the ladies - Keaton does a fine job of portraying how , as much as Jimmie doesn't want to do this anyway, the rejection stings. There are plenty of fun visual gags, energetic supporting turns from Barnes and Edwards, and a fun sense of increasing desperation as Jimmie's attempts to get any girl to marry him lead to bigger and more potentially horrifying misunderstandings. And then, when it seems like it can't get any worse...

Well, then you have The Chase. While much of what had come before could have been done on a bare stage with snappy banter and been quite funny, the moment Keaton zooms out to show dozens (or hundreds!) of prospective brides converging on the church where Jimmie is holed up is a grand and brilliant foreshadowing of comic doom, leading to a crazy chase as Jimmie takes it on the hoof, attempting to outrun an absurd tidal wave of angry spinsters in wedding dresses in the hopes of reaching his true love before the clock strikes seven. Jimmie adroitly avoids, commandeers, and plows through various obstacles as only Buster Keaton can, and Keaton's filmmaking prowess is a match for his physicality, as he masterfully creates impending disaster out of innocent moments, cuts between angles for just what any given moment needs, and somehow manages to make every ensuing moment more frantic than the last. It's a brilliant sequence that makes up much of this 57-minute movie's second half somehow managing to be both frantic and graceful. Good musical accompaniment helps, too - at this particular screening, accompanist Jeff Rapsis manages to twist the traditional bridal march into chase music, interspersing it with a separate theme for perhaps the greatest rocks in cinematic history.

On top of that, the film is just generally charming and sweet despite what could be a crass backdrop, a real testament to Keaton's skill as both actor and director (a scene where Mary overhears a conversation between Jimmie and Billy unbeknownst to them is staged and acted to perfection). If it were all Buster Keaton doing things well-suited to a silent movie, it would be a masterpiece, rather than "merely" brilliant for long stretches.

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originally posted: 07/15/11 06:41:15
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  11-Mar-1925 (NR)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2001

  N/A (U)


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