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Monday, April 23, 2012

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

For out-and-out laughs, the last two reels of SEVEN CHANCES must be the funniest sustained sequence in the Buster Keaton canon, maybe in all film. It’s no secret that the project was bought for/forced on Keaton, who found the misunderstandings of farce more tiresome than comic. Yet even in the exposition-heavy first half, he shows what graceful underplaying and clean story construction could bring to the ritual misunderstandings of the form. The gimmick is that Buster has to be married by 7 o’clock to get a 7 million dollar inheritance. When he blows the proposal to his longtime g’friend, he heads to his country club (look!, there’s Jean Arthur operating the phone switchboard) where he sequentially fails at proposing to 7 utterly indifferent girls. (And one hilariously deadpan hatcheck girl.) Formula stuff, but Keaton manages to find solid laughs in the situations, all while playing in his remarkably modern, ‘straight’ naturalistic manner. It’s still fresh & funny; and the simple narrative design gives him time for some charming throwaway visual gags. Watch for an amazing ‘invisible’ trick shot where he sits in his car while the background ‘dissolves’ to a new location.* But the film truly hits its stride (literally) when he leaves the club in disgrace to hunt up a bride (any bride!) while his pals advertise in the paper for a backup. SENSITIVITY ALERT: The next sequence has Buster proposing to various inappropriate women in a series of escalating politically incorrect gags: Blacks, Jews, Transvestism, Child Bride; it’s Equal Opportunity Offending.** Exhausted from his failures, Buster heads for the Church of Last Hope where he promptly falls asleep in the front pew, unaware that the newspaper ad has brought out every battle-hardened spinster in town. And so we come to those last two reels. The ladies are told that the newspaper proposal is just a joke. What follows is not, as often reported, a chase to marry Buster, but a chase to kill him! It’s Revenge of the Women.* The jilted brides take over every all-male activity, bricklaying to football, crane operator to train conductor. And, in a climax that is both technically & conceptually stunning, Keaton must choose between an avalanche of crushing boulders chasing him down a mountainside and the on-coming horde of jilted femininity at the bottom of the hill, waiting to tear him apart limb from limb. Farce rarely gave so much food for thought. The latest visual upgrade from KINO is a marvel, but we sure could use an aural upgrade with a full orchestral score. No?

DOUBLE-BILL/CONTEST: Two intriguing shorts are included on the DVD. Note that the 1904 Edison short, HOW THE FRENCH NOBLEMAN GOT A WIFE THROUGH THE NEW YORK HERALD PERSONAL COLUMN (catchy title!) is transferred slightly below natural speed which means that this very early film must have been shot at something over 24 fps. So much for all you’ve read about silent pics being shot under modern cranking speed. And the DVD also has a typically laugh-free THREE STOOGES short that uses the same basic plot from SEVEN CHANCES. And why not, since Keaton regular Clyde Bruckman co-wrote both films. But he also grabs a very specific gag from another Keaton pic he worked on. Naturally, the Stooges ruin the execution, but you can still spot that gag and name the other film to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY I: *In CASABLANCA, director Michael Curtiz uses the same background dissolve trick shot while Bogart & Bergman drive in the French countryside. But Curtiz did it with help from an optical printer and backscreen projection. And also take note of how similar the construction is between Buster asleep in the pew while the brides flit in and Hitchcock’s famous scene in THE BIRDS/’63 where Melanie Daniels sits on a bench smoking while the jungle-gym behind her starts to fill up with our fine feathered friends.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: **Note that while the inappropriate brides (Black, Jew, Transvestite, Child) are all played by appropriately cast performers, the slo-thinking ‘colored’ character is specifically, and quite obviously, played by a white guy in BlackFace. The distinction says much about what at the time was considered Racial Humor and what was considered Racist Humor.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Can't miss another opportunity to plug Walter Kerr's magnificent THE SILENT CLOWNS.

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