Buster Keaton is one of the most celebrated stars of the silent film era. I watched his short film College a few months back and found it to be rather unsatisfactory, but I had a suspicion it was atypical of his work in that respect. So tonight I gave Keaton another chance… in film aptly titled Seven Chances. Luckily, it won’t wind up taking that many tries to entertain me.
In Seven Chances, Keaton (who also directed the film) stars as Jimmie Shannon, junior partner in an investment firm with Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes). His life seems to be a classic case of good news, bad news. The good news is, his firm is well known and established. The bad news is, being swindled into a bad deal means he and Billy are about to be flat broke and jailed unless they can come up with the money to make good on their clients’ investments. (The nature of the bad deal is never explained, but it’s pretty clear they wound up taking part in a scam of some sort.) The good news is, a lawyer (played by Snitz Edwards) arrives with news that Jimmie’s estranged grandfather has passed away, and left him a fortune of seven million dollars — more than enough to make good on his company’s debts. The bad news is, it’s conditional on Jimmie being a married man by seven o’clock on his 27th birthday — and today just happens to be Jimmie’s birthday. Good news? Jimmie already has a sweetheart, Mary (Ruth Dwyer), whom he would dearly love to marry anyway. Bad news? Jimmie seriously puts his foot in it when explaining the situation to her. And so, unceremoniously dumped by Mary, Jimmie now has to find a bride, any bride, by the end of the evening or he’ll be destitute and imprisoned.
The efforts of Jimmie, Billy, and the lawyer to find Jimmie a bride form the meat of the one-hour feature. Though it’s a silent film, it nevertheless manages to mostly get its humor out of personal interactions. Only the occasional dialogue card is necessary to move the plot along; the rest is easily figured out in context, and the facial expressions of the actors (or gestures in the case of the legendarily stone-faced Keaton) sell the jokes. We don’t need to hear the exact words of the various young women Jimmie propositions in order to appreciate the humor of their rejections. In fact, the payoff is non-verbal as often as not.
There’s also some decent physical humor as well. At one point, Jimmie finds himself pursued by what can only be described as a monstrous regiment of women out for his blood. The chase scene, and the stunts that Keaton gets into as a result, are both hilarious and expertly directed. Adding a layer of humor to the sequence is that Jimmie isn’t entirely to blame for their ire.
Unfortunately, as with the Keaton short film College, there are some racial elements that can make a modern viewer uncomfortable. Mary’s hired hand is played by Jules Cowles in blackface, and while the few comic errors he makes aren’t objectively any more insulting than what Keaton’s character goes through, it’s difficult to not feel as though there’s a bit more of a sting when it’s done by a white man pretending to be a black man. Additionally, there is a scene during Jimmie’s quest for a bride when he approaches a woman to propose and then immediately turns away upon seeing she’s black. In fairness, it might not be the case that Jimmie himself was meant to be racist, or that Keaton was, but perhaps was just an acknowledgment that an interracial marriage was unlikely to be accepted by society, especially with an impending millionaire. However, even that possibility still involves a reminder of some very uncomfortable aspects of 1920s race relations.
Fortunately, those aspects are brief and do not detract too much from the rest of the film (in fact, there’s a good chance it would take most readers longer to read these two paragraphs than to watch the entirety of those uncomfortable scenes). Most of the movie is about Jimmie’s sad sack attempts to get a woman to marry him, or his frantic attempts to escape with his life. And most of it is therefore actually pretty funny. Keaton’s deadpan expression, especially in the chase sequence, just serves to amplify the humor of the situation. Seven Chances may not be a perfect film, but it can be a pretty fun one. On a side note, it’s also interesting from a technical aspect, in that while most of the film is shot in sepia tone, the first few establishing shots are in an early version of Technicolor. It doesn’t hold up as well as the monochrome, but it’s interesting to see some thought given into contrasting scenes by color so far in advance of The Wizard of Oz.