not in our stars, but in ourselves
23/52: A movie with a number in the title
The popular analogy, in pop culture terms, is something like this: Buster Keaton is to John Lennon as Charlie Chaplin is to Paul McCartney. While I’d argue that Keaton was more of a George Harrison than a Lennon, you get the idea. Keaton was more acerbic, witty, cynical, iconoclastic; Chaplin was more sentimental, crowd-pleasing, grandiose, self-important. In Seven Chances, however, Keaton gets to be awfully sweet. Well, in his own fashion, anyway.
The premise is simple and ridiculous, in the usual vein of film farce: Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) needs to be married by 7:00 p.m. on his 27th birthday in order to secure a $7 million inheritance. This is good news for two reasons. First, he’s desperately in love with Mary (Ruth Dwyer), and has long wanted to tell her. Second, he and his business partner, Meekin (T. Roy Barnes), are in dire financial straits, and they need lots of money – fast. Jimmie proposes to Mary, and she accepts – until he explains that he has to marry some girl by 7:00 p.m., any girl, in order to get a lot of money. Mary’s feelings are rather hurt, and she rejects him. Meekin isn’t willing to let this opportunity pass, so he tells Jimmie to ask someone else. Jimmie fails to mention, in asking other female acquaintances to marry him, that he’ll be a wealthy man if they say yes; they all laugh at him and refuse. Meekin decides to put an ad in the afternoon paper, informing the single ladies of the area that they just have to show up at the Broad Street Church by 5:00 p.m. in order to marry a millionaire.
Up to that point, the movie does drag ever so slightly. Keaton was supposedly not a fan of Seven Chances, and I can understand why. While all the pining for Mary is lovely and sweet, the courtship game proceeds a touch too long. It’s the same joke, repeated again and again: Meekin tells him to go ask that girl, the girl laughs, Jimmie is terribly embarrassed, and then Meekin sees another girl. I would be remiss, as a killjoy, if I didn’t also mention here among the movie’s flaws, that there are several supporting characters in blackface, playing the usual racist caricature of a slack-jawed hired hand or voodoo queen (yes, really). It’s unnecessary, and indefensible, and it certainly took me out of the film.
Most is forgiven after the brides inundate the church, and Jimmie runs away. Keaton’s physicality is one of the most miraculous things recorded in all of cinema, and he doesn’t disappoint. At first, it’s just hundreds of angry women racing after the hapless Jimmie, who gives them a hell of a workout. As the chase progresses farther and farther from the city center, and into industrial lots, farms, hunting ranges, and some awfully treacherous desert hills, Keaton’s stuntwork goes from impressive to insane. Each Keaton movie brings with it a very real sense that, at any moment, something could have gone horribly wrong: he could have fallen off the cowcatcher on the train, or been crushed by the collapsing house, or – in Seven Chances alone – plummeted off a crane, fallen down a ravine, drowned, or broken his neck while tumbling down a hill. I doubt that any movie made now, even if it relied only on the toughest stunt actors in the business, would be permitted to begin production if it involved the sheer number of death-defying stunts that Seven Chances involves – and in this case, they’re all featuring the star. Keaton didn’t use stunt doubles. That’s all him. He’s the living embodiment of T.E. Lawrence’s (as embodied by Peter O’Toole) maxim: “Certainly it hurts. The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” One hopes that Buster knew some good masseurs and had plenty of arnica oil.
All this fabulous physical comedy aside, I’m always surprised by how sweet little Buster can be. I don’t know why I was surprised. Keaton’s other films usually involve some pretty girl or other, and some wild adventure in the name of true love. What I like about Seven Chances is that the love story with Mary feels true, and lovely – but it’s not giving a free pass to the institution of matrimony. Of course, I don’t blame any of the hundreds of brides for wanting a life of luxury instead of the fate-worse-than-death that was spinsterhood. You know. The patriarchy, and all that rot. But the fact remains that marriage is a racket. When Mary asks, after it seems that he’s too late to marry her and inherit the money, if they wouldn’t be happy together even if they were poor, Jimmie shakes his head sadly. She’d be forced to share in his disgrace as a failed businessman, and he can’t do that to her. Money is the only thing that would ensure that they can both be happy together: not because they don’t love each other anyway, but because the world will tear him to shreds if he doesn’t have it – and her, too. Where no woman (besides Mary) would look at him twice when he was asking desperately for one of them to marry him, they all come running when they think they can make a few million.
And yet, and yet. Keaton might not think much of marriage, but he seems to think rather highly of true love everlasting. What can I say? He may not be a sap, but I am. This is what I mean when I say he’s more of a George than a John: George could be awfully sardonic, and cutting, and bone-dry – but he also felt things deeply, thought about them deeply, loved deeply, and on and on. Ditto Keaton.
While Seven Chances isn’t peak Keaton, it’s still plenty of fun. The physical comedy is worth the price of admission (which could, of course, be $0 if you’re sniffing around YouTube); the genuinely touching (in this viewer’s humble and sappy opinion) love story is a wonderful bonus.