Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Seven Chances (1925)

by on April 11, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun April 15 at 12:30 and Tue April 17 at 7:45 at Nitehawk Cinema [Program & Tix]
*Live musical accompaniment by Hayes Greenfield, Todd Turkisher, & Paul Socolow
Nitehawk continues their noble enterprise of monthly silent film offerings with eclectic live musical accompaniment. See their site for bios on the musicians. The Keaton short “One Week” will screen before the feature. You can read Alt Screen’s general overview of Keaton here.

Their trailer for the event:

Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

A dazzlingly balletic comedy in which Buster has a matter of hours to acquire the wife on which a seven million dollar inheritance depends. Having insulted his sweetheart by explaining the necessity of marriage, been turned down by seven possible candidates at the country club, and (in a series of innocently inept gags) found his path beset by uglies, blacks or female impersonators, he advertises – only to find a horde of applicants besieging the church. From this leisurely start, the film takes off into a fantastically elaborate, gloriously inventive chase sequence, in which Buster escapes the mob of pursuing harridans only to find an escalating avalanche of rocks taking over at his heels as he hurtles downhill. Added only after an initial preview, the rocks make for one of the great Keaton action gags.



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Buster Keaton is a bachelor who stands to inherit a fortune if he finds himself a bride by seven o’clock in this 1925 silent feature, which Dave Kehr has described as “a cubist comedy . . . based on a principle of geometric progression” from the number seven.Adapted from a stage-bound play by David Belasco, it takes off into the stratosphere only at the climax, but that outlandish chase sequence alone is well worth the price of admission.


Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen for The Village Voice:

One of Keaton’s most darkly satiric and epically innovative films. The whole movie reflects a state of excruciatingly painful total war between men and women, and yet Seven Chances is oddly exhilarating in keeping with the informing credo of one of the screen’s great romantic optimists. The first half, playing out of the multiple anguishes of Keaton’s rejected suitor, traces the outline of David Belasco’s production. The staging, however, is uniquely cinematic and, at one point, even startling, as Keaton changes only the background of a stationary car to denote motion, a piece of film grammar that he seems to have sprung from the cutting room floor of Sherlock, Jr. The second half, alternating between Keaton’s heroic steeplechase through cascading boulders toward true romance and his nightmarish flight from hundreds of would-be brides, adds touches of pure genius. With awesomely instinctive metaphors, it builds explosively into a one-of-a-kind misogynous fantasy. Keaton’s Valkyrie suitors, hundreds of desperate women, their heads covered with tacky little bridal veils and their hearts set on the security of marrying rich, commandeer public transportation, send phalanxes of policemen running for their lockerrooms, flatten football players like locusts plowing through wheat, and tame the machinery of an ironworks factory as if they were running a quilting party. Seven Chances is at once both Keaton’s most deeply reflective film and his most frenzied.



Billy Stevenson for A Film Canon:

For the first half of Seven Chances, Keaton’s logistical ingenuity finds expression in narrative-based comedy, as he attempts to procure a bride in time to satisfy a clause in his grandfather’s will. In the second half, Keaton returns to his trademark physical comedy, traversing a landscape that consistently reconfigures and reconstitutes itself according to his requirements. Yet this reconfiguration is far more grudging than in Sherlock, Jr., bringing Keaton much closer to the violent flux that surrounds him. Chased by a massive crowd of desperate, brick-wielding brides, he encounters barbed wire, bees, an angry bull and an assortment of other violent possibilities that eventually extend to the mechanical world, personified by a temperamental crane that swings him around a scrapyard and into the path of an oncoming train. At these moments, the aptness of the nickname “Buster” becomes clear – although this exploitative dimension is neutralised by Keaton’s proportionate oblivion to it. There is never any sense that he is performing, just because his body rarely registers the violence it encounters. If anything, it becomes more like the object encountered, giving the final sequence, in which he strategically dodges a torrent of boulders running down a hill, the character of a collaboration, rather than a confrontation.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The basis is a mossy play Buster Keaton didn’t really care for, but the resulting work is so vibrantly cinematic that one stupefying transition (a car ride melted via rapidly dissolving backgrounds) could still be pilfered seven decades later (the Vegas airplane flight in Scorsese’s Casino). Keaton shyly courts his beloved (Ruth Dwyer) through the seasons in a postcard composition that emphasizes the picket fence that will be dismantled during the climax. The thrust is that the failing young businessman will inherit $7 million if he’s wed by 7pm on his 27th birthday — meaning the very day he receives the news. He asks for Dwyer’s hand, pausing mid-proposal to check his pocket-watch; she learns of the fortune and kicks him out, the rest of the movie is a mad dash to the altar executed with the utmost formalist verve. The club teeming with potential candidates puts Keaton’s camera to work: A note with the question is thrown to the belle up in the balcony and its pieces rain down back into the frame, vertical craning follows the hero up and down a flight of stairs as he’s turned down twice, a deadpan grace-note finds a hat-check girl shaking her head just as Keaton is about to open his mouth. Unbeknownst to him, his hurried partner (T. Roy Barnes) places a newspaper ad explaining the situation; the dejected groom steps into the empty church and falls asleep in the front row and, with the inevitability of a nightmare, the building fills with swarming, pissed-off figures in improvised bridal veils. The mass of female wrath chasing him down the streets of L.A. is a dilation from Cops, plus also an awe-inspiring visualization of a hassled psyche that misses no surrealism (a row of clocks all set differently when the hero is desperate for the time) en route to an astounding avalanche of the mind. A superlative visual comedy, and a gold mine — The Ladies’ Man, City of Women and Dr. T and the Women all flow from it.


Jaime N. Christley on this “underestimated masterpiece” for Slant:

The climactic avalanche of rocks that literally pushes Seven Chances to its conclusion is such a famous movie image that it’s instantly recognizable to many who’ve never even seen a silent movie, let alone this landmark 1925 comedy. The iconic status the sequence enjoys has, unfortunately, worked against the movie’s reputation, leading many commentators to treat the rest of the film like secondary business. It’s a strange problem to have—a sustained, virtuoso sequence of action comedy and spectacle being too good for the rest of the movie. The fact is, however, that Seven Chances deserves examination and praise as a total picture, rather than a mere container for a five-minute stretch of cinema that’s now (albeit correctly) regarded as legendary. Like in many of the director’s best movies, Seven Chances is a compendium of different kinds of visual humor: the rejections he gets at the club range from slapstick, perceptual error (he’s nearly tripped up by jailbait), to mistaken identity. In a sublime moment, one candidate swings her head “no” behind frosted glass, so we see almost nothing but the abstract arc of refusal.
Of all the directors who trafficked in ingenious visual and physical gags, Keaton was the best in balancing the big stuff with gestures so small they bordered on the microscopic, and it’s here that Seven Chances excels, especially in establishing character. Unusually for his well-to-do heroes, Keaton’s James Shannon is quite at ease with himself and his privileged surroundings. In early scenes, he and Barnes have a kind of nonchalant, Hawksian rapport, and a nearly imperceptible tranquility. This is rare for Keaton, who would spoof the white-collar or blue-blood type in The Navigator and Battling Butler. Until Shannon is completely isolated from his friends and familiar environs by the seven-nation army of crazed women, Keaton leaves most of the business of reactive acting to Edwards and Barnes, effectively emphasizing the simplicity of his quest. Much of the film’s early rhythm is derived from throwaway movement, like the repeated striking of names from the list of prospective brides, or, from the prologue, Keaton making small talk with his girl.
The meat of the film, of course, involves Keaton being chased first by women, then by rocks of ever-increasing size. This part of the movie is prefaced by a terrific setup, an outstanding specimen of montage that represents the contraction of a massive steel spring, as hordes of women (beginning, as Hitchcock’s birds would, with only one or two here and there) descend on the church to claim their prize. What follows is the kind of effortless-looking, epic-scale crowd control that only seemed possible in silent movies—specifically, the kind Keaton had already mastered in his great 1922 short Cops. (Imagine taking one of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille’s “casts of thousands” and running them, like the bulls of Pamplona, through the streets of West Los Angeles.) Here, too, Keaton locates the micro in the macro, finding time for small, lovely moments, like the expression of crazed pride one of the bridezillas gets when she figures out the controls for the streetcar, or the instantaneous, night-day switch from remorseful to berserk when the mob realizes their quarry hasn’t been mashed by a passing train.



Sean Axmaker for Turner Classic Movies:

Keaton is a master at such acrobatic comedy but its his startled deadpan reactions and distinctive double takes that push his inimitable mix of gymnastic physicality and crack timing into slapstick genius. Rather that stop to milk the reaction shot, he uses it to slingshot the gag into its next stage, shifting the sequence into even higher gear and throwing his entire body into the reaction.
Between the proposals and the propulsive chase, Keaton also slips in an ingenious bit of cinematic transition. Climbing into his car to drive to the country club, he and the car remain stationary while the location around him dissolves to the next scene, at which point his calmly climbs out. He uses the same techniques he mastered in Sherlock Jr., applying surveyors equipment to perfectly position himself and the car in the frame in two different shots, but rather than the sudden shock of a cut in the former film, he uses a lap dissolve and his own nonchalant reaction to suggest the passing of time. The finished effect is seamless and all the more impressive given the tools at his disposal.
It’s a one-joke film, for all that, with a simple narrative and character journey that lacks the narrative and creative richness of his greatest films, from Sherlock Jr. to The General. But Keaton creates so many ingenious, inventive, and hilarious variations on the joke that it sustains the film and builds that joke into one of the greatest and most hysterical comic set pieces in film history.



Alt Screen contributor Imogen Smith in her book Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy:

While Keaton brought inanimate objects to life, he tended to turn human beings into ciphers, or as his wife Eleanor put it, “breathing props.” Psychological depth is beside the point; his genius was for action. The chase that concludes Seven Chances is as exhilarating as anything he ever did. As he races through the streets, the camera races alongside him, and you feel out of breath just watching. He leaves the town and any conceivable tie to the stage and flees into the wilderness, leaping gorges, somersaulting down slopes, riding a tree as it falls—becoming one with the landscape. He traces a bullet-like flight across the countryside, jumping over a cart, diving under a truck, crossing a river in a single arcing swan-dive. When, arriving finally at his girlfriend’s house, his coat gets caught in the gate, he just drags the whole thing off its hinges and into the house with him.
The concentrated fervor with which Buster’s heroes pursue their goals is out of all proportion to the goals themselves—the girls are generally cute but ordinary. Love’s real purpose is to goad Buster’s characters out of their passivity, timidity or incompetence. In each film his soulful eyes settle on someone who will inspire his selfless gallantry and perseverance, and he never wastes time worrying if the object is worthy of these gifts or not. This makes him naturally aristocratic; it is almost a case of noblesse oblige. He may be a schlemiel, but he is always a true gentleman, a flower of chivalry.
The real passion of Keaton’s films, more than the symbolic Girl, was work; the achievement of a task. Boil away the generic narratives and the ambivalent ironies, and the skeleton that’s left is purposeful action; desire; that gaze that burns through the screen, seeing only its goal.


Grady Hendrix on “One Week” in The New York Sun:

Keaton’s movies are stunningly pessimistic, destructive, and surreal. In his world, the last stop on the “A” train is Alaska, the only good use for a building is to knock it down, and marriage is a trap. These attitudes blend in “One Week,”, in which newlyweds receive a build-it-yourself house as a wedding present. They wrestle with the instructions, finally producing a monstrosity that spins like a pinwheel in the first high wind and ultimately explodes into kindling. Anyone who’s ever put together a bookshelf from IKEA can identify.


William K. Everson in his program notes:

Considering that it is only the second of Keaton’s non-Arbuckle shorts, and thus only the second film designed and co-directed by Keaton himself, “One Week” is an amazing little work, not only in that it pre-dates so many of the later Keaton gags and general bizarre and dream-like style, but most notably in that it is such an outstanding comedy by any standards. Nonwithstanding the great work that still lay ahead, this is still one of Keaton’s cleverest and funniest sorts, milking a single situation with a marvellous array of sight gags, both subtle and slapstick. Near-surrealistic, like many of his films, it is both simply and beautifully done. Surely no comedy has ever needed titles less.


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