powered by AFI
Almost every Buster Keaton comedy has its great sight gag - Buster sitting dreamily on the drive shaft of a locomotive, oblivious to the fact that it has begun moving in The General (1926), Buster liberating a train full of cattle to save his pet cow from slaughter, sending them into the streets of Los Angeles in Go West (1925) - the list goes on. Seven Chances (1925), the film immediately preceding Go West and The General, and a project Keaton himself was to disparage, lives on because it rides one of Keaton's most inspired sight gags -- and just maybe the greatest chase scene in film history.
As Keaton recalled it, he felt it was destined to flop, but was in no position to reject it. Keaton was married to one of the Hollywood's then-illustrious Talmadge sisters (actresses Constance, Norma and Natalie). Natalie was Keaton's wife and Norma was married to producer and studio mogul Joseph Schenck, who produced Keaton's films. Apart from family dynamics, Keaton owed Schenck money. Schenck, meanwhile, had paid $25,000 for film rights to David Belasco's Broadway comedy, adapted by Roi Cooper Megrue, and wanted to erase the red ink attached to the purchase. Keaton had seen it during its unsuccessful stage run in 1916. Even back then, it seemed to him a creaky, overly contrived farce about a young man who, in order to inherit a fortune, has to marry fast.
With misgivings, Keaton turned it over to his writing team - Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joseph Mitchell. The problems were obvious. Firstly, the material is static and stage-bound. Secondly, related to the first, it confines Keaton, brings him inside from the outdoors, where his usual loner battling a hostile universe has fuller scope. Thirdly, it transforms him from an archetype, a persona, to a mere type - a fumbling twit, in this case a stockbroker who with his friend and business partner face ruin and jail as the result of a massive deal gone sour. Kept at arm's length from stoicism for most of the film's 56-minute running time, he's a helpless wreck, forced to resort to labored stage business before he can uncork the kind of inventiveness that put his films into orbit. His use of cars is only a small example of his creative stalling tactics. Sometimes he simply crashes when taking his eye off the road, as, for instance, when he desperately proposes to a woman driving a car alongside him. Sometimes, they're sublime, and a genuflection to his audiences' ability to handle the sheer surrealism he uncorks, as when we see him simply sitting in his roadster, and the backdrops are switched to denote travel from one location to another.
Much of the plot machinations in the early stages of Seven Chances involve him and his partner (T. Roy Barnes) dodging a visitor to their office, obviously a lawyer -- wizened, putty-nosed character actor Snitz Edwards, who Keaton liked enough to hire for two subsequent films: Battling Butler (1926) and College (1927). After too much bobbing and weaving, they learn that he isn't there to make their lives more difficult. Just the reverse. He has arrived with good news - Keaton's natty James Shannon stands to inherit seven million dollars. The catch in his dead grandfather's will is he must marry by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday - which, not by coincidence, is that very day. He has a steadfast girlfriend, Mary (Ruth Dwyer), who has been patiently waiting (a sweet little montage showing her puppy growing to full maturity against backdrops of changing seasons lets us know how long) for him to pop the question. When he finally does, he gets it wrong, explaining that he wants her to marry him so he won't forfeit the money. She, disappointed that there's no mention of love in his proposal, sends him packing.
Re-enter his desperate partner. He drives Keaton to their country club and sets him loose on seven women (again seven!), prodding him to propose serially. He does it so badly and awkwardly that they all assume he's joking, and laugh him off. Although he's ready to give up, his partner isn't. He plants a story in the afternoon editions of the newspaper (this, remember, is back when cities not only had newspapers, but newspapers updated several times a day) saying that a bride must be found by 5 p.m., with all interested parties invited to show up at the Broad Street Church by then. Keaton's Jimmy half-heartedly allows himself to be taken there earlier in full nuptial regalia and promptly falls asleep in the front pew. Enter, handful by handful, the 500 female extras Keaton hired.
When Jimmy awakens, he discovers, to his mounting horror, that the church is stuffed with would-be brides decked out in calico, lace curtains, tablecloths and other improvised bridal wear, in addition to many in regulation garb, all riding a massive collective cloud of greed and hope. When the pastor arrives, he recoils, declares it all a monstrous joke. Then things get ugly. The 500 suddenly jilted women want blood. Jimmy escapes through a basement window with all of them in hot pursuit through the streets of Los Angeles and beyond. They trample a football game in progress and, later, a cornfield, but not before they commandeer a trolley. One inspired bit involves the horde passing a bricklayer at work. Not losing a step, they grab his bricks to throw at Jimmy until we see the bricklayer left scratching his head, wondering how he's going to complete his wall. Meanwhile, the stampede escalates and so does Keaton's inspiration - although it arrived in two stages.
Keaton told his biographer, Rudi Blesh, that they had decided to end Seven Chances with a fade-out on the chase, not being able to think of anything to top it. But at a preview, Keaton added, they got lucky. Said Keaton: "Do you know, three little rocks saved me! Our fade-out was on me, running down the side of a hill, all those weirdos after me. A real dud, and we knew it. However, we previewed it. Medium laughs, a few giggles through all that chase. Then, suddenly, just before the fade, a real belly laugh. . . so we ran the ending slow at the studio. There it was. I had accidentally dislodged a rock. It started to roll after me. On its way, it knocked a couple more loose and there were three little rocks chasing me. . . So we went back and milked that gag. . . built a hundred and fifty rocks of papier-mache on chicken wire, from baseball size up to a boulder eight feet in diameter.
"We found a longer ridge, and. . . triggered them in sequence. We assembled the gals again, a hundred feet back and used a starter's gun. On your marks, get set, and bang! I only had to kick the first little one and then keep going. The key words are 'keep going' because it built up to an avalanche right on my heels. So naturally, I stumble - if it's not in the script, I stumble anyway - and the big one knocked me twenty feet in the air. When I staggered up and staggered on, it was for real."
That four-minute sequence rescues Seven Chances, compelling us to excuse the triteness that precedes it for the chance to partake of one of film's little miracles. That chase sequence, with Keaton literally improvising his nimble broken-field scamper through an avalanche of boulders, making Indiana Jones's escape from the Temple of Doom look like a walk in the park, is sight gag nirvana, and would be even if we didn't know that the Great Stone Face's switch from deadpan to stress (he was too cool to ever make terror a possibility) was prompted by actual on-the-ground circumstances.
If a preview gave Keaton the key to that inspired sequence, his instinct and unerring reflexes served the genius that made it happen. Even during his prosperous years, Keaton's films were usually out-grossed by Chaplin's and Harold Lloyd's, but it's in this sequence, as in so many others, that there's no mistaking the deeper bedrock on which his bleak, unplacating genius rests. Nobody so resilient can be thought a pessimist. But Keaton's world view is that of someone who expects no favors from the universe. There's something like a heroic dignity in even his pratfalls. Of how many among great silent clowns can it be said that he was embraced by surrealists and existentialists alike, glad to wait their turn alongside his lasting worldwide following?
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck; Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Director: Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman (Screen version); Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell; David Belasco (play and adaptation); Roi Cooper Megrue (play)
Cinematography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley
Art Direction: Fred Gabourie
Music: Robert Israel (1995)
Film Editing: Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Cast: Buster Keaton (James 'Jimmie' Shannon), T. Roy Barnes (His partner Billy Meekin), Snitz Edwards (His lawyer), Ruth Dwyer (His girl Mary Jones), Frankie Raymond (Her mother Mrs. Jones), Erwin Connelly (The clergyman), Jules Cowles (The hired hand).
by Jay Carr
Keaton, by Rudi Blesh, Macmillan, 1966
Buster Keaton - Tgempoest in a Flat hat, by Edward McPherson, Newmarket Press, 2005
Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down, by Tom Dardis, W.H. Allen & Co., 1979