Since I first discovered Buster Keaton almost 40 years ago, I’ve considered Seven Chances one of his best features. That was an unusual opinion in the 1970s, when even Keaton fans barely knew this picture existed. But its status has been rising in recent years, and I’m hoping that Kino’s new Blu-ray release will help it rise further.
Seven Chances’ poor reputation stems from Keaton himself, who had personal reasons to dislike the picture. His producer, Joseph M. Schenck, bought the rights to a 1916 Broadway farce and ordered Keaton to turn it into a movie (the only time in their eight-year relationship when he did this). Keaton disliked the story, and this probably colored his view of his adaptation.
Despite his objections to the story (or perhaps because of them), Keaton and his writing team brilliantly turned the static, talkie stage farce into 56 minutes of stunningly hilarious comedy. See it with a large audience, and you will have few opportunities to not laugh.
On its own, the plot is pretty bad. Keaton plays a girl-shy stockbroker who’s facing bankruptcy and possibly prison if he can’t raise a great deal of money very quickly. The problem seems solved when his grandfather dies, leaving him $7 million dollars (in 1925 money). But in order to collect, he must be married by 7:00 pm…that day. Keaton’s objections to the plot were somewhat vindicated in 1999, when a remake titled The Bachelor bombed critically and commercially.
Comedy is built on timing, and few films are as expertly paced as Seven Chances. The prologue, filmed in Technicolor (more on that below), is stately and slow, with a mock-poetical tone that allows the audience reaction to build from mild chuckles to belly laughs. It also tells you something important about Buster’s character.
Then the main story begins. Comic set pieces follow briskly one after another as Keaton sets up the story and his character searches for a bride. How many ways can a shy, awkward man propose marriage to a woman he barely knows (if he knows her at all)? Keaton finds endless variations on this theme. He successfully proposes to the one woman he truly loves, then blows it. He gets rejected twice in a matter of seconds without breaking his pace. He totals his car. He has a scene with a hat-check girl that I won’t even try to describe.
The picture climaxes with what’s easily the greatest comic chase I have ever seen. After spending most of the picture searching for a bride, James finds himself with too many of them. Hundreds of women in bridal gowns chase him through the streets of Los Angeles with intentions of either matrimony or murder. And when he finally gets away from the angry brides, he accidentally starts an avalanche.
Warning: Some of the jokes in Seven Chances deal in racial stereotypes–they were common and acceptable in the 1920s. But a few cringe-inducing scenes are worth it for the many laughs.
Seven Chances is a masterpiece of comic construction and comic timing. Keaton hated the movie, but he should have been proud.
How It Looks
This release premieres a new restoration of Seven Chances’ Technicolor credits and prologue. Until the introduction of dye-transfer printing in 1928, Technicolor prints were highly unstable, and the ones that have survived have little or no color. (Technicolor negatives from this period don’t have this problem, but Seven Chances’ negatives are not known to survive.)
I saw this picture seven or eight times before I even knew that the prologue was shot, and meant to be seen, in color.
Using the very poor sources available, film historian Eric Grayson has restored the colors to something approximating their original look. The colors often look washed out and smudged, but given what Grayson had to work with, this is an impressive achievement–and the best this prologue has looked since 1925.
Most of the movie, in black and white, looks excellent. The images are crisp and clear, with strong blacks and many layers of gray. A few scenes look washed out, presumably because they came from an inferior print source.
How It Sounds
Robert Israel’s jaunty, jazz-age score sets an excellent tone for the comedy, placing it within its time and complimenting Keaton’s pacing. Israel uses stylized sound effects sparingly, and is wise enough not to tell us when to laugh. The score sounds as if it was recorded by a small ensemble plus an organ.
Kino included two mixes of this score: a 2-track, uncompressed Linear PCM version, and a 5.1 mix losslessly compressed in DTS-HD Master Audio. I suspect that Kino created the 5.1 mix by fiddling electronically with the original 2-track one. To my ears, the 2-track mix has a cleaner sound, although the 5.1 one has better bass.
And the Extras
This is the first version of Seven Chances I’ve seen with any extras that really pertain to the movie.
Commentary by film historians Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton: They cover some interesting ground, discussing how Keaton altered the original stage play, and describing other versions of the story done before and after this one. They also talk about the supporting cast, including the great Snitz Edwards in what is probably his best performance. But they also waste a lot of time describing what we can see on the screen.
A Brideless Groom: This 1947 Three Stooges two-reeler recycles Seven Chance‘s plot. Coincidence? Unlikely. Screenwriter Clyde Bruckman worked on both films. Made during the post-Curley Shemp years, it’s only moderately amusing.
How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns: The title is almost longer than the movie. This 1904 Edison one-reeler, a possible inspiration for Seven Chances‘ climax, consists mostly of women in bridal outfits chasing a man.
Visual essay on the film’s location: John Bengtson, the acknowledged expert on where the silent comedians shot their films, shows us many of Seven Chance’s locations. Bengtson’s essays are always worth watching.
Technicolor restoration: Eric Grayson discusses the condition of the color prologue and how he restored it. Not as interesting or as informative as it should have been.
In Seven Chances, Buster Keaton created one of cinema’s great laugh machines. If you don’t have an opportunity to see it in a real theater with live accompaniment, get the Blu-ray (or the DVD), invite some friends over, warn them about the racism, and enjoy the laughs.
Filed under: Blu-ray Review, Comedy, Silent Films | 1 Comment »