Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Seven Chances

Friday, November 28, 2008

Seven Chances

Some of the greatest and most distinctive screen talents were often given rather flimsy material - since their qualities were so strong, a dance team like Astaire and Rogers or comedic geniuses like the Marx Brothers usually didn't require the highest concepts nor the most artful constructions within which to do their thing. Indeed, in vehicles like these the plot's primary purpose is not to get in the stars' way. Yet with Buster Keaton, almost every picture is not only a vehicle for his unique talents, but a clever high concept idea as well (not to mention the usually quite impressive formal qualities). Would anyone remake Top Hat without Fred and Ginger or A Night at the Opera without Groucho, Chico, and Harpo? Yet not so long ago, someone did remake Seven Chances, whose brilliant premise (a bachelor must marry by 7:00 or else lose his inheritance) promises to be a comedic gold mine. Now, I'm not saying it was wise of modern producers and screenwriters to invite comparisons between Chris O'Donnell and Buster Keaton. Nonetheless, it speaks to Buster's taste in ideas that, even without the comedic genius running in front of that army of brides-to-be, the story is worth retelling.


Actually, watching the film today, you begin to wonder if it could benefit from the addition of sound. After all, the early passages of Seven Chances are filled with dialogue, as Buster woos his sweetheart, is informed of his inheritance, and asks perfect strangers to marry him (his sweetheart has initially turned him down). Yet as the situation escalates, it becomes clear that talk is not only superfluous, but damaging...we know exactly what Buster is saying to each woman, and the humor comes not from the words but the reactions and twists (one cheerful girl agrees to take his hand, only to have her mother swoop in and hand her a doll...the bachelorette was actually a child!).

Still, the humor is surprisingly situational rather than physical; usually a Keaton film manages to handle both aspects simultaneously. But Seven Chances takes a little while to get going, and is also hindered by the fact that it's less visually rich than previous Keaton outings like Our Hospitality or The Navigator. Eventually, though, the film escalates until it reaches a long, drawn-out, increasingly jaw-dropping climax. At this point you know that no remake could possibly hope to recapture the magic, that sound would be a distracting nuisance, and that only Buster Keaton could sustain - nay, continue to develop - his scenario for this extended period.

Before we get to that point, Buster's allies (a business partner and lawyer) have placed a banner headline in the newspaper, bringing attention to the fact that any lonely woman looking for a rich husband should come to this-and-that church at 6:00. Buster arrives at the church slightly early and no one is there. He lays down and falls asleep in the pews. When he awakens, he's wedged between two large entities. Opening his eyes, he sees that two rotund women, cloaked in sloppily assembled bridal veils, are sitting on either side, apparently not noticing the sleeping lad nor realizing that he's their meal ticket. Buster sits up, turns around...and sees the entire church full of brides: it's literally swarming with hundreds of desperate women (none of whom, apparently, could afford a real veil). They come in all shapes, sizes, races, and ages.

Anyway, Buster manages to escape from his pew only to discover that his sweetheart is waiting for him at the house. Time is running out, so Buster begins trotting home. And then, well...it just keeps getting better and better. He dodges this way and that through the small city, as hordes of brides start pouring in from every corner, eventually chasing him down the middle of the street. He hides in a police parade (eventually they get frightened by the stampede and abandon him), he hops in an automobile (while the bridezillas commandeer a streetcar), and he leaps onto a crane which lifts him in the air and deposits him on the other side of a fence. And just as it seems possible that Buster has escaped the throng of foolish wannabe wives, he exits the workyard only to discover...

I'll stop there and conclude my post with the remainder of the chase. Seven Chances may not be Buster Keaton's best movie, but this just may the best sequence he's ever done:

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