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SEVEN CHANCES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, Ray Barnes, Snitz Edwards
Director:  Buster Keaton
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Two short films
Length:  96 Minutes complete
Release Date:  January 11, 2000  

Film ***

Those who saw or remember the recent Chris O'Donnell movie The Bachelor may have heard the title Seven Chances somewhere along the way…the modern film was based on this classic Buster Keaton silent.  Naturally, as a big Keaton fan, I tend to prefer his version all the way, even though in many ways, it doesn't fit the mold of the true Buster Keaton movie.

The story is simple:  Keaton plays Jimmie Shannon, a young banker in love with Mary (Dwyer) but too shy to tell her.  After some unfortunate dealings, he and his partner find themselves in dire straits, both financially and legally, but soon a lawyer arrives with a possible way out.  Jimmie is to inherit $7 million, provided that he be married by no later than 7 P.M. on his 27th birthday.  The problem?  His birthday is today.  He wants to wed Mary, naturally, but when that goes awry, he's forced into a frantic search for a bride to save his skin.

When his chances dissipate one by one, his partner makes a desperate move:  advertising for a bride in the evening paper.  The response is a little too enthusiastic:  hundreds of women dressed in wedding attire show up at the church to take the hand of the bewildered Jimmy.  They soon become convinced it was all a joke, leaving poor Jimmy to run for his life.

In the meantime, Mary realizes the truth about Jimmy's feelings for her, and sends word that she'll take the vows with him after all.  Can Jimmy get away from the enraged mob, collect his true love, and make it to the preacher before the fateful clock strikes seven?  Maybe.

I say this isn't a typical Keaton film, and truth be told, it was a picture he never wanted to do.  His producer (and father-in-law) Joseph Schenck bought the rights to the play by Roi Cooper Megrue as a vehicle for Buster, and Buster reluctantly agreed to make the film out of obligation.  Much of the film lacks Keaton's impeccable sense of physical comedy and outrageous stunts, though it seems to make up for it with a quiet warmth and appealing charm. 

The story behind the movie's legendary finale is a good one:  Keaton had crafted and constructed an outrageous chase sequence involving the hundreds of would-be brides, similar in scope to his short comedy masterpiece, Cops.  But something wasn't working.  He made the chase bigger and bigger, though he instinctively knew that bigger didn't automatically translate to funnier.  When screened for a test audience, they barely laughed, and Keaton could sense disaster. 

But something toward the end of the chase drew a big laugh from the crowd.  What was it?  During the end of the chase, when Keaton was tumbling down the side of a big hill, he accidentally dislodged a few rocks with his fall.  You can see in the film that he looked up with surprise to find the rocks following him down!  “I really had to scram to get out of the way!” he recalled.  The audience liked the concept of the rocks, but the chase had ended just as it was coming to life.

Keaton quickly went back and shot additional footage to match.  He and his crew constructed a number of rolling rocks, ranging from about tennis ball size into ones much bigger than he was.  He built upon the rock chase, making it bigger and better and more frantic, and even found that he could use the rocks as a means to disperse the women waiting for him at the bottom of the hill.  In a picture that was almost devoid of Keaton's famed physical touches, the finale proved to be one of his greatest triumphs.  The agility he displays in dodging those rocks and boulders is amazing…and hilarious.

Seven Chances became a moderate success for Keaton, but would always be remembered for the great rock chase that happened by accident, and recalled with great fondness by film historians for that inimitable scene.

Video ***1/2

The video quality of this Image DVD is one of the very best I've seen for silent era films.  The sharpness and detail are amazing throughout.  Even smaller objects or objects in deep focus are crisply rendered.  If you've only seen public domain or other versions of this film, you're in for a treat.  The print itself is remarkably clean:  spots, nicks and scratches are at a minimum.  The film is also presented in a beautiful sepia tone, which helps enrich the images and give them an even cleaner look.  Buster Keaton fans can rejoice with this DVD presentation.

Audio ***

The audio consists of a simple but terrific stereo recording of a new orchestral accompaniment.  The music matches and enhances the images perfectly, and the sound is lively, dynamic, and perfectly clean and noise free throughout.

Features ***

As a bonus, this disc includes two Buster Keaton shorts.  Neighbors (1920) ranks amongst his funniest works, as he plays a young man who literally loves his neighbor, a beautiful young girl from next door.  However, to disagree with Robert Frost, good fences don't make for good neighbors in this scenario.  The second short is The Balloonatic (1923), mostly a string of wild gags with Buster's mishaps in a hot air balloon as the bookends.  The visual quality is not quite as good on the shorts as it is on the main feature, but still perfectly watchable.

Summary:

Seven Chances doesn't rank amongst the very best of Buster Keaton's films, but mediocre Buster is still better than a lot of comics' best.  This is a simple, charming tale with a famous, rousing finale that continues to please fans of Keaton and silent comedies in general.  With this quality disc presentation from Image, it's definitely worth picking up.