Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances at Niles

I attended a screening Saturday night of one of my favorite Buster Keaton films, Seven Chances (1925). It was at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. It was my first visit there since COVID changed our lives.

This was part of the Broncho Billy & Friends Silent Film Festival, which ran Saturday and Sunday. The festival had been virtual the last two years, and I was glad this year to be there in the flesh. Besides, I couldn’t miss Seven Chances with live music and a full audience. I think it had been maybe 25 years since I saw it theatrically.

But there was more than the feature. John Bengtson, a sort of archaeologist who discovers where films were shot, showed us a slideshow of Seven Chances locations. There was also a tribute to the recently late Diana Serra Cary, once named Baby Peggy.

Musician and film historian Jon Mirsalis introduced the Seven Chances. He warned us that the film contains racist humor that’s extremely offensive by this century’s standards. He also told the audience that Julian Eltinge was a very popular female impersonator of the time; you need to know that to get one of the jokes.

No bride, and then too many

Best of all, Mirsalis validated what I’ve believed since 1972: that Seven Chances is a comic masterpiece that keeps you laughing. Mirsalis’ choice of musical accompaniment seemed strange at first, with music from the Astaire and Rogers era. But I soon realized how perfectly Mirsalis’ choices were.

The print was a disappointment. When it was new, Seven Chances started with a Technicolor prologue – something rare at the time. Last Saturday night In Niles, the Technicolor scenes were on 16mm, with tints instead of actual color. The rest of the film was in black & white 35mm. The print looked dull. Worst of all, the intertitles were in French at the top of the screen and in English at the bottom, and in both languages the lettering was extremely dark. My Blu-ray of Seven Chances has its problems, but it’s far better than the 16 and 35mm prints used at Niles.

The color prologue, from the Blu-ray

But then, there’s something that’s more important than the quality of the print: the audience – especially with a comedy. The crowd itself was worth for the price of the ticket. When you watch Seven Chances with people around you, you have very few chances to not laugh. The evening was a mix of a great comedy, music, and laughter all around.