Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Old Stone Face, Part 1

Film: Seven Chances
Format: Internet video on laptop.

A question I am asked infrequently, but regularly enough that I need an answer for it concerns silent films. “How,” people ask, “can you pay attention, or stay awake?” Silent films, goes the consensus, are boring, old, and not worth paying attention to.

I’ll admit that some silent films are ones I’m not looking forward to seeing. I find silent dramas tedious, for instance. Many of the film conventions of the silent drama don’t really work for a modern audience. The overacting is pretty evident, but was necessary for the time. We’re also used to having at least the dialogue spelled out for us, and with silent films, much of the dialogue is just mouths flapping, with title cards that give us more the sense of the conversation than the actual words. That’s a problem with drama, since a lot of the meat of a drama is in the conversations.

However, silent comedies, or at least good silent comedies, hold up. Chaplin is as funny now as he was 70 years ago. The same is true of Harold Lloyd, and the same is true of Buster Keaton. All three of these men were true masters of their craft. I’ve seen only a smattering of films of each of them, and thus have not yet fully formed an opinion of them, and at the moment, I can’t rank them. Each is brilliant in his own way.

A case could easily be made for Keaton being the best of a grand bunch, and a film like Seven Chances is a pretty strong argument for placing Keaton at the top of the list. Keaton’s films still work today because he doesn’t stick with a single type of humor. There are plenty of sight gags, and quite a bit of slapstick, but much of his comedy requires a little thought to process as well. As a viewer, I appreciate this, but I also appreciate the fact that the man was a physical genius, willing to risk himself bodily for his craft, and did his own amazing stunts, many of which hold up to this day.

Seven Chances starts slowly. We begin with Jimmie Shannon (Keaton, both actor and director) and his partner Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes), who are stockbrokers. Sadly, they’ve made some bad choices and are now in desperate need of cash. As it happens, a relative of Jimmie’s has passed away, and bequeathed a $7 million fortune on the boy, provided he is married by 7:00 pm on his 27th birthday. As it happens, the day he finds out about this inheritance is, of course, his 27th birthday. Now he has to find someone to marry him…now.

And that’s it. That’s the set up and the payoff. Jimmie essentially spends the movie proposing to anything he sees in a skirt and being repeatedly shot down for one reason or another. There’s some evident racism from the 1920s present here; one girl he chats up proves to be Jewish, which sends Jimmie running based on nothing more than her Hebrew-language newspaper. Beyond that, though, the proposals and reactions are consistently different and consistently comic. It starts slow—perhaps the first third of the movie is pretty straightforward set-up. After that, however, the jokes start coming and do not stop.

One does require some explanation. Jimmie buys his way backstage of a show to propose to the main attraction, whose name is Julian Eltinge. This is a missed joke for a modern audience, but certainly sent the 1925 crowd roaring—Eltinge was a well-known female impersonator. For a modern audience, substitute the name “Rupaul.”

What keeps an audience watching here is the magnificent stunt work. It’s important to remember that a lot of the stunts—Keaton leaping off a cliff or falling out of a tree—were done for real, with rudimentary or no safety equipment, by the guy starring in and directing the film. Each instance had to be a time to hold one’s breath for the entire cast and crew, but Keaton manages to pull off each one without even changing his characteristically stoic expression. That’s real talent.

So how do you watch a silent movie in this day and age of THX and Dolby and surround sound? You watch the stuff that’s still as funny now as it was when your grandparents were too young to take a date to the movies. That, now and forever, is the essence of Buster Keaton.

Why to watch Seven Chances: You’ll laugh a lot.
Why not to watch: You’re a Philistine.


  1. I know I'm supposed to pick The General as my favorite Keaton movie, but despite that film's many charms, I have to go with Seven Chances. That scene where the rejected brides commandeer the steam shovel, that just kills me!

    1. Hey, I pick Sherlock Jr. every day and twice on Sunday. It's all a matter of taste, after all.