SEVEN CHANCES (1925, Buster Keaton): 9/10
I normally don’t publish reviews of older films on here, but I just caught up with this sensational featurette on account of it being readily available on Netflix Instant right now (so really, if you can’t find 55 minutes to watch this thing, I can’t help you). And it’s great enough that I have to say some words about it and hope that if any of the 11 people reading this blog haven’t seen it yet (so, basically, just you Mom & Dad), you rectify that post haste.
SEVEN CHANCES is a magnificent, sublime silent comedy. The first act is a subtle setup with comic mistimings and raising the stakes. Its sight gags are quiet but terrific, such as showing Keaton driving from one place to another by sitting in a stationary car and letting the background dissolve from one location to another.
The second act raises the sight gags to more slapstick level – Keaton tosses a proposal note to a woman on the second story, and we see her response when a rain of confetti falls from above the frame onto Keaton’s head. This middle act also comprises the few troubling moments now nearly 90 years later — as Keaton’s desperation grows, so does the “outrageousness” of his would-be brides; it starts with a bizarre pedophilia joke when he almost walks away with a 12 year-old until her young mother yanks her out of Keaton’s hand and stuffs a play-doll into her chest… then he hits on a girl until he realizes she’s Jewish (she spreads her newspaper to reveal Hebrew lettering), causing Keaton to blush and run away… then he goes up to a black woman, sees her skin tone, and disappears quietly. (The only place to go from there, after black people, is a mannequin). Funny at the time, I’m sure. Hard to shake the weirdness today but of course you can’t really blame it for being made in 1925. It was made in 1925.
Then the third act is just balls-out genius. All of a sudden it’s a Michael Bay action movie but good. Keaton’s footrace home includes him getting hoisted by a crane, tumbling down a sand dune, narrowly missing getting run over by a freight train, sliding under cars, swimming through lakes, outrunning bees (and a bull about to charge), and of course a neverending avalanche of boulders. This shit would be amazing in 2013, let alone 1925 — and it puts today’s CGI to shame. The stunt work, camera movement, and editing are all top notch, making the entire thing an absolute thrill to behold. Of course, this act also is marred by some dated sexism (the mob of golddiggers is worse than the anti-Semitism or blackface) but that doesn’t negate the jaw-dropping expertise of Keaton’s staging whenever we see that mob appear or congeal or disperse. It’s a visual marvel.
Even better, I like that features in 1925 were okay with being 55 minutes long. SEVEN CHANCES crams in as much story as you’d find in one of today’s rom-coms that clocks in at twice that length. Unlike Keaton’s hair and clothing at the film’s close, there isn’t a single thing out of place in this near-masterpiece: not a frame too tight nor a frame too loose. They sure as shit don’t make ’em like they used to…