The climactic avalanche of rocks that literally pushes Seven Chances to its conclusion is such a famous movie image that it’s instantly recognizable to many who’ve never even seen a silent movie, let alone this landmark 1925 comedy. The iconic status the sequence enjoys has, unfortunately, worked against the movie’s reputation, leading many commentators to treat the rest of the film like secondary business. Some have even gone so far as to say that the film is one of Keaton’s minor pleasures, as if it belonged in the same tier as Spite Marriage, or Grand Slam Opera. It’s a strange problem to have—a sustained, virtuoso sequence of action comedy and spectacle being too good for the rest of the movie. The fact is, however, that Seven Chances deserves examination and praise as a total picture, rather than a mere container for a five-minute stretch of cinema that’s now (albeit correctly) regarded as legendary.
In order to give the film its due, let’s begin at the beginning. A two-strip Technicolor prologue establishes the film’s stakes with a series of matching, picture-book tableaux, which sees the film’s hero, James Shannon (Keaton), caught in a limbo of inaction, forever courting, never quite wooing, the girl that he loves (Ruth Dwyer). The plot that is soon set in motion (he has seven hours to marry, in order to inherit seven million dollars) nearly kills him several times over, but from an engineering perspective, it’s nothing less than a ceaseless chain of omnidirectional momentum, solely for the purpose of displacing Shannon from the stasis he otherwise prefers.
Unusual for a comedy, Keaton’s hero actually makes the climactic decision well before the universe begins to carry him toward, and across, the finish line. That’s the inverse of the traditional comedy template, which requires the protagonist to choose personal growth following a traumatic event or displacement, rather than the other way around. The early scene of his marriage proposal to Mary (Dwyer) contains both his crucial lunge for the victory trophy and his fumble for the same. This pivotal moment is, out of context, perfectly tragic: Shocked by the sheer magnitude of his inheritance, and not exactly well-practiced in the art of saying how he feels, Keaton’s character couldn’t very well not have botched the simplest solution, and because it’s a matter of the heart, Mary couldn’t very well not have been annoyed by his crass presentation, only to forgive him mere moments after it would have done them any good.
This being Buster Keaton, the destination is inevitable, while the path required to reach it is circuitous to the point that it often defies both natural and cinematic law; many of the best jokes involve cuts that openly flaunt the 180-degree rule, and other similar violations of spatial perception. It could be argued that the action sequence doesn’t really have a defined beginning, so nonstop is the precise, balletic motion even in the first reels, as the lawyer (the brilliant character actor, and perhaps even more brilliantly named, Snitz Edwards) pursues Keaton and his colleague (T. Roy Barnes), or Keaton tries to get a quick “yes” from one of the girls at his country club. Like in many of the director’s best movies, Seven Chances is a compendium of different kinds of visual humor: the rejections he gets at the club range from slapstick, perceptual error (he’s nearly tripped up by jailbait), to mistaken identity. In a sublime moment, one candidate swings her head “no” behind frosted glass, so we see almost nothing but the abstract arc of refusal.
Of all the directors who trafficked in ingenious visual and physical gags, Keaton was the best in balancing the big stuff with gestures so small they bordered on the microscopic, and it’s here that Seven Chances excels, especially in establishing character. Unusually for his well-to-do heroes, Keaton’s James Shannon is quite at ease with himself and his privileged surroundings. In early scenes, he and Barnes have a kind of nonchalant, Hawksian rapport, and a nearly imperceptible tranquility. This is rare for Keaton, who would spoof the white-collar or blue-blood type in The Navigator and Battling Butler. Until Shannon is completely isolated from his friends and familiar environs by the seven-nation army of crazed women, Keaton leaves most of the business of reactive acting to Edwards and Barnes, effectively emphasizing the simplicity of his quest. Much of the film’s early rhythm is derived from throwaway movement, like the repeated striking of names from the list of prospective brides, or, from the prologue, Keaton making small talk with his girl.
The meat of the film, of course, involves Keaton being chased first by women, then by rocks of ever-increasing size. This part of the movie is prefaced by a terrific setup, an outstanding specimen of montage that represents the contraction of a massive steel spring, as hordes of women (beginning, as Hitchcock’s birds would, with only one or two here and there) descend on the church to claim their prize. What follows is the kind of effortless-looking, epic-scale crowd control that only seemed possible in silent movies—specifically, the kind Keaton had already mastered in his great 1922 short Cops. (Imagine taking one of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille’s “casts of thousands” and running them, like the bulls of Pamplona, through the streets of West Los Angeles.) Here, too, Keaton locates the micro in the macro, finding time for small, lovely moments, like the expression of crazed pride one of the bridezillas gets when she figures out the controls for the streetcar, or the instantaneous, night-day switch from remorseful to berserk when the mob realizes their quarry hasn’t been mashed by a passing train.
For the most part, Kino has fashioned an essential library item for silent-film aficionados, keeping the faith through the retention of light scratches on original intertitles, and beveled edges on the 1.33:1 frame. Thanks to the restoration and preservation work of the Library of Congress and Kino, the picture on the Seven Chances Blu-ray disc is as clean as freshly set concrete, with as much healthy grain as that entails: The open air of Culver City, Newhall, and other L.A. locales looks fresh and immediate, fully honoring one of the less-mentioned but crucial aspects of Keaton’s films, their documentary quality. Edge enhancement seems minimal, though I detected some minor haloing around plants and branches; similarly, solid whites seemed to bleed just a little. Such disturbances were mostly minimal and easy to ignore, except in rare cases, such as the shot of the swinging crane against the overcast sky. The two-strip Technicolor prologue, however, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, in spite of some irreparable flaring on the left edge. Some may quibble with Eric Grayson’s calibration of redded-out Technicolor stock with black-and-white Congress materials, as well as other archival resources, while viewers who don’t own an in-home telecine will be pleased as punch.
Robert Israel’s problematic score for Seven Chances may seem perfectly adequate to the undemanding ear, but his overreliance on snares and marching rhythms inadvertently clashes with the movie’s ceaseless, fluid visual dynamic. I’ll concede, at least, that his ensemble (which sounds, here as with his work on other movies, like the band on the veranda at the beginning of The Godfather, Part II) is infinitely preferable to the atrocity you can often still find accompanying Sherlock Jr.
A relatively full but disappointing house, directed at those with an affinity for archival business, the supplements section on Kino's single disc includes a stultifying commentary track featuring Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton, who seem capable of discussing the movie only in its broadest outlines, but in tones that suggest two retired old ladies reading aloud, breathlessly, from The Da Vinci Code. Eric Grayson's analytical look at the Technicolor prologue, and John Bengtson's tour of the film's locations, are nice items, if minor. The disc also includes two Seven Chances-esque short films. The first is a 1904 Edison short (directed by Edwin S. Porter) that anticipates the bridezilla chase by almost 20 years. Fans of Pulp Fiction will instantly recognize "Hold hands, you lovebirds" from A Brideless Groom, a 1947 Three Stooges one-reeler that uses the same premise as Keaton's film (a frequent collaborator of Keaton's, to the point where he's something of a comedy legend himself, Clyde Bruckman co-wrote both Seven Chances and Groom). Porter's film has a dreamy quality thanks to the slightly overcranked chase sequence (the first shot of the film plays at normal speed), but grows wearisome as How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns turns out to be as longwinded as its title. The Stooges short is typically brisk, violent, and amusing, in the tradition of their best stuff; a Marx Bros. entanglement in a phone booth is the highlight.
Understandably more concerned with providing a great visual experience than building context to enhance our appreciation of an often underestimated masterpiece, Kino's Blu-ray production has room for improvement, but for the visual presentation alone, it's an essential release.