Buster Keaton, having disliked the Belasco play on which it was based, and having been contractually compelled to make it, for several decades considered Seven Chances his “least favorite” among his silent features; but when he encountered it years later, he warmed up to it, in large measure because he had given it such a purely cinematic form. It is celebrated for its climactic chase—structurally, the phenomenal sequence for which the entire film is headed from the start: fresh, graceful, gorgeously devised for the camera’s eye by director Keaton, and brilliantly edited by him. Especially the sight in long-shots of a multitude of would-be brides delights, dressed in their ever-ready bridal gowns, pursuing Buster-as-Jimmie after the newspaper has reported he will inherit seven million dollars if only he will marry someone by7 o’clock on his 27th birthday, which happens to be that very evening. Will he make it?
A lot is at stake—and the contrivance has some still rejecting this glorious comedy: Jimmie and his brokerage firm partner may be prison-bound without the unexpected windfall necessary to extricate them from their current difficulties (for which, the plot stresses, they are duped innocents). To these viewers, the mechanical nature of this wind-up defeats the perfect subsequent pitch. After all, Keaton had made Sherlock Jr. (1924) and would soon make (with Clyde Bruckman) The General (1926)—indisputable masterpieces.
However, those dismissing Seven Chances perhaps are overlooking the terrific unity that it achieves. All its charm and hilarity are focused on a classic theme, here rendered with great, compelling power. All doubters might give this film another chance.
Time, in a headlong rush, seeks to overtake each of us, who inevitably becomes another victim it will crush. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may . . .
The exquisite opening sequence sets the theme. By the white picket fence surrounding her home, shy Jimmie keeps trying, and keeps failing, to declare his love to patient girlfriend Mary. Beginning in summer, the poignant sequence unfolds throughout the four seasons; both funny and tragic, Mary’s pet begins as a tiny puppy and ends as humungous: given its shorter-than-human-lifespan, an encapsulation of time’s pressure on Jimmie to get going with this relationship that’s expressive of his heart’s desire. When news reaches him of his provisional inheritance from his grandfather’s estate, Jimmie is finally emboldened to ask Mary to marry him; but the clumsy way that he puts it, when he tries explaining why they must wed that very day, makes it seem that he loves money more than he loves Mary, and she, hurt, rejects the proposal. Egged on by his business partner, who is desperate to keep out of prison, Jimmie proceeds to a country club to find any woman to marry him as a substitute for Mary, for whom, of course, there is no real substitute. Everyone rejects him; his “seven chances” evaporate in a tide of derisive laughter. Meanwhile, time for Jimmie to succeed keeps dwindling.
There are two parts to Jimmie’s ultimate race with time, each moving in an opposite direction. One is headed to a church, where his partner has pledged to bring a bride for Jimmie. The other is headed to Mary’s house, once Jimmie gets word that Mary will now marry him there. During the first phase, Jimmie passes a clockmaker’s shop, where his panic over time is exacerbated by the fact that each and every clock scanned in the storefront window is set at a different time, providing no certainty as to time. During the second phase, in addition to the flock of unwanted brides that had gathered at the church, Jimmie is pursued downhill by a flock of sliding rocks: this, again in superlative long-shot, a stunning visual metaphor for time’s aggressive pursuit to overtake us all. Jimmie’s rush entangles him in barbed wire, which in turn “chains” him to Mary’s white picket fence, a piece of which he manages to break off and thereby acquire as an additional burden of weight and awkwardness slowing him down. Someone’s wristwatch indoors presents the bad news: Jimmie is too late—and mindful of the disgrace he is about to face legally, he declines to ruin Mary as well by marrying her. But this is a comedy, and we’re not done yet.
Seven Chances may not be a masterpiece, but it is pretty awesome—and hopeful, even as ambiguous dust settles as to just how much the seven million dollar fortune has influenced feelings of love.
Look for young Jean Arthur as the cheeky receptionist who flashes her engagement ring with a smile when confronted with Jimmie’s marriage proposal.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB INLONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.