“Seven Chances” - Buster Keaton (1925)

Buster Keaton (Joseph Frank Keaton,1895-1966) had a distinguished and productive fifty-year career as a producer, director, writer, and actor.  But what elevates Keaton into the pantheon of movie-making greats is the string of silent films he made during the 1920s.  These films –  including Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928) – all featured Keaton as the modest but determined protagonist fighting a comic uphill battle.  Of all of those Keaton films during that run, though, perhaps the most manic and brilliant of them is Seven Chances (1925).  Like many of his films, this one builds up its pace as it goes along, but in this case the frenzied intensity that it ultimately achieves is unparalleled and a work of genius.

Keaton’s cinematic style revolves around the theatrical persona that he always portrayed.  This was supported by his patented porkpie hat (which singled him out), his perpetual upright posture, and his customary deadpan expression (which earned him the moniker “The Great Stone Face”) in response to the numerous setbacks that befall him.  In some sense you could say that Keaton’s character personified the innocent Everyman within all of us – the hopeful boy scout struggling to avoid being overwhelmed by life’s capricious interventions.  Keaton developed his famous deadpan expression and his ability to withstand potentially dangerous pratfalls as a child vaudeville stage performer for his family’s traveling medicine show.  As a consequence, in all of these films, Keaton performed all his own stunts.  And part of our astonishment in watching his films concerns how he managed to survive the large number of life-threatening scenes that he staged for the camera.  Remember, this was all done on constrained budgets and before the special-effect technology available today.

Another fascinating feature of Keaton’s cinematic style was the unique way he fashioned his narrative structure.  He generally avoids the usual technique of setting the viewer up with tense anticipation of some event  that is expected to occur; instead he presents a stream of unexpected events that continually surprise (and amuse) the viewer [1].  This is the essence of his humor. 
All of this is on display in Seven Chances, which was based on a story by David Belasco that had been fashioned into the hit Broadway play, Seven Chances (1916), by Roi Cooper Megrue.  In fact Keaton wasn’t particularly enamored of this play, and he added some scenes toward the end of the narrative that make the film an extraordinary work.  In particular, the famous stone avalanche scene was only added after Keaton gauged a preview audience’s reaction to an early cut of the film.

The story of Seven Chances has four rather distinct acts.  Each successive act quite literally accelerates the pace of the film.  The first act involves mostly standing around; the second act involves walking; the third act involves running; and the final act is an even more desperate sprint.  Throughout the course of these acts, the film moves more and more into an expressionistic nightmare of almost cosmic proportions.

1.  Jimmy’s Circumstances
The opening scenes (presented only in this part using an early version of Technicolor) covering a period of more than a year, show five almost static shots of the shy and tongue-tied Jimmy Shannon (Buster Keaton) unable to tell his girlfriend Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer) that he loves her.  Telling a girl that he loves her will soon be his mission in this story.

Then the scene shifts to Jimmy’s workplace.  He and his partner Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) run a brokerage firm that is facing huge deficits.  To avoid prison, they need money fast.  However, a lawyer with some promising news approaches them, and after several missed connections and misadventures, Jimmy and Meekin learn what is on offer.  Jimmy is to inherit seven million dollars [2] if he is married by 7pm on his 27th birthday, which just happens to be that very day.  So Jimmy has to get married within a few hours to collect the money.

Jimmy rushes over to Mary to propose to her, but she is offended by Jimmy’s blundering mention of the money he stands to earn if her can marry someone on that day, so she kicks him out.  Soon Mary, after talking to her mother, has a change of heart and wants Jimmy back, but she can’t get in touch with him.  The heartbroken Jimmy returns to Meekin, who convinces him that they should head over to their country club and hitch Jimmy up with someone else.

2.  The Seven Chances
Jimmy is familiar with seven single women at the club, and this act is mostly a string of sight gags showing Jimmy’s hurried and unsuccessful proposals.  Not knowing about Jimmy’s potential inheritance, the women all laughingly dismiss Jimmy’s proposals out of hand.  After failing with the seven women, Jimmy even tries the club’s hatcheck girl to no avail.  Then he runs out into the street and approaches random women, including a real, and in those days famous, female impersonator, Julian Eltinge.
Now it’s getting late.  Meekin posts a front-page notice in the afternoon newspaper calling for any woman to appear at the Broad Street Church by 5pm in order to marry into a seven million dollar fortune.  Meekin tells Jimmy to show up at the church and be ready to marry.

Up to this point, more than halfway through the film, the comic scenes have been conventionally humorous, but now things start getting surreal.

3.  The Chase
Jimmy shows up at the church and takes a snooze in one of the pews.  While he is sleeping, the church gradually fills up with an enormous crowd of avaricious women who have read the newspaper notice and are hoping to marry a millionaire.  They have all come with makeshift bridal veils and are intent to tie the knot.

When the alarmed church minister sees the huge crowd, he announces to them that the whole thing must be a hoax.  Infuriated, the women all vengefully turn on Jimmy and he runs for his life. The chase is on, and this is where the film gets interesting and takes an expressionistic turn.

The mob of angry women, when observed by a gradually receding camera, becomes more of an abstraction, appearing more and more like a marauding horde of predatory brigands intent on destroying everything in its path.  There are a number of shots showing the increasingly destructive powers of the out-of-control mob of rampaging women, as they chase after the terrified Jimmy.  Even the police in the area run away and hide.   

Jimmy has by this time learned of Mary’s change of heart, and when he happens to run by Meekin, Jimmy yells at him to bring the minister to Mary’s house and that he will try to meet him there before 7pm.

4.  The Final Sprint
Now things become even more surreal.  Jimmy runs out into the countryside with an enormous, unruly horde of brick-carrying women in hot pursuit.  When he scampers down a hillside, he accidentally dislodges some rocks which quickly sets off a massive avalanche.  Jimmy is soon dodging gigantic boulders that are as big as he is and threaten to crush him.

At this point, nature itself has turned on Jimmy – the entire universe appears set on his destruction.  In fact the rockslide is so horrific that it makes the hitherto implacable horde of enraged women flee in terror.  The film has now become an expressionistic nightmare.

Jimmy is still trying to make it to Mary’s house, and it is now just minutes before 7pm.  You will have to see for yourself what happens in the end.

It seems that Buster Keaton embellished the original Seven Chances play with these last two acts of the film.  What he achieved is a level of slapstick that pushes the boundaries of credibility and even humor.   The idea that “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned” has been taken to its limits, and the film spoofs the more tender gender by holding up an absurd caricature of its opposite temper.  But Keaton managed to put it all together and maintain a tenor of mind-bendingly outrageous humor throughout.  And for this reason Seven Chances stands as a testament to one of the masters of film expression.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).   
  2. $7 million in 1925 would be close to $100 million today.

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