Buster Keaton‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated.
Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact that his epic landmark, Birth of a Nation, is one of the most monstrously racist films produced in cinematic history. Griffith’s onetime assistant, Tod Browning, might earn a footnote in such sophomoric lists. Browning, of course, went onto his own directorial career, which included Freaks (1932). There is no serious argument that Browning, with static camera and discomfort with sound, could compete with Griffith aesthetically. However, Browning was ahead of his time socially. In his art, Browning bravely empathized with outcasts. Yet, Browning’s standing usually excludes the advanced social ideologies in his art. His skill with a camera, or lack thereof, is considered primary. In artistic evaluation we still rank technical skill highest.
While Keaton is not guilty of promoting racist epithets, he absolutely endorsed period racial stereotypes, repeatedly. Perhaps most so in Seven Chances, which he directed alone. To be fair, no Chaplin film went so far as Browning’s liberating manifestos. However, Chaplin certainly came close to the Browning ideal in his tramp characterization and his features Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Amusingly, both films are still seen, by right-wing extremists, as something akin to communist propaganda.
Keaton ranks lower than Chaplin in my assessment primarily for this reason. Certainly, Keaton was more skilled in narrative, originality, innovative camerawork, and set design. However, Chaplin was light years ahead of Keaton in social sensitivities. On this issue, Keaton was a product of his time. Chaplin was that rarity of rarities; an authentic religious figure who rose above his time, which ultimately counts more than his saccharine heart and aesthetic deficiencies.
Despite the brilliance to be admired and enjoyment to be had out of Seven Chances, there are moments to make you cringe: Keaton, searching for a bride, sits down on a bench near a pretty girl. He starts to flirt, but realizes she is reading a Hebrew newspaper and quickly springs up, running in the other direction (oddly, the film had a Jewish producer). Similarly, Keaton comes upon one of many brides to be, discovers her to be African-American and, again, does an exit stage left. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake is an excruciatingly embarrassing blackface vignette. We can, with effort, move past these and acknowledge the film’s artistry. Simultaneously, however, we cannot evaluate the work fully without factoring in the stinging racial stereotypes.
A simple plot evolves into an epic, surreal finale: cinema at its most animated. Keaton stands to inherit seven millions dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his twenty-seventh birthday. Unfortunately, he receives this news on the afternoon of his twenty-seventh birthday. Keaton’s girlfriend would be the natural choice for a mate, except that our hero is a tad awkward at expressing his love. The local gals cruelly mock Keaton’s marital efforts—that is, until they learn he is a potential heir. News of our shy protagonist’s inheritance leads to an epic deluge of wannabe brides pursuing him in a chase of mind-boggling comic inventiveness. With this climax, and the film’s timelessly shrewd satire of western avarice, it is no wonder Seven Chances was an audience favorite in revivals. Keaton literally seems to be a live action, stoned face Speedy Gonzalez, fleeing foolish virgins and an avalanche of boulders (a justifiably famous scene that was improvised). Naturally, a wise maiden is waiting in the wings, even if she is devoid of personality or development.
The 2011 Kino edition beautifully restores a color tinted sequence.
Note: This was one of Keaton’s least favorites among his films. The script, based off a famous play by David Belasco, was purchased by Keaton’s producer and adapted by four writers. Actresses Jean Arthur and Constance Talmadge have brief, uncredited roles.
2 thoughts on “SEVEN CHANCES (1925)”
Actually, I think Seven Chances is, indeed, one of the milestones of silent cinema. It’s greatness is indisputable. However, it is, at this point, part of cinematic history and, as history, we have to be forthright and objective. From the perspective of an academic education, it is actually narrow to take a one-sided approach. No film is flawless. No work can or should be approached with an overly simplistic “I like it,” or “I hate it.” This goes on far too much in what passes for contemporary criticism. One can like a film, find worth in it, and still acknowledge its flaws.
We can indeed say that this was a product of its time. However, as stated: other artists (i. e. Chaplin) rose above societal norms and refused to engage in communal stereotypes. Those artists are to be lauded for being ahead of their time. In aesthetic areas, I would absolutely rank Keaton as far superior to Chaplin (and, indeed, most artists of the period). However, this could be an argument of style over subtance. Keaton was unfortunately, not as socially advanced as his peer (yes, that is important and we need not throw the proverbial blanket on it). Additionally, for Keaton, women were little more than porcelain props. Chaplin’s best films often treat women as his equal, fully-fledged human beings.
Still, I am curious as to why you might immediately parallel my observations on right-wing propaganda with my attention to the racism of this film? Do you see right-wing povs as being synonymous with racism? If that is the case, I have to wonder if “political correctness” is such a bad thing after all. Actually, I think it is an overused label, which weakly attempts to dismisses warranted criticisms.
Additionally, having taken several film aesthetics classes over the decades, I have often found younger classmates immediately put off (or resistant) to films of the past, which display racist perspectives. My posts often do take such readers in mind and my hope is that they see acknowledgment of racial stereotypes (as opposed to sweeping them under the rug) and YET, come away being inspired to honestly recognize the greatness of said work, in spite of its antiquated social backwardness (Fantasia is another such example).
Regardless, I actually consider myself politically moderate. There are conservative politicians whom I have supported and/or shown historical respect for. Admittedly, these are, by and large, Rockefeller Republicans (Eisenhower, Neslen Rockefeller, Jim Jeffords, Charles Percy, Robert Dole, Christine Todd Whitman, Richard Lugar, and David Petraues are a few). I see an epic difference between Conservative and right-wing. Even with that, my observations do not spring from an outright political POV. Rather, thay are birthed from an inherently catholic social perspective.
Overall, I am not in agreement with you, but thanks for the feedback.
I just don’t see the wisdom in judging films out of context, or imposing today’s sense of political correctness on the past. It was not generally acceptable in Keaton’s day to marry out of the faith, and interracial marriage was against the law in most states. A Jewish audience would have laughed at the scene where Buster runs away, and a black audience would have understood his reaction as well. It was not a comment on the “worth” of the non-white people involved.You have a very narrow idea of film criticism. The gratuitous swipes at “right-wing propaganda” shows where your real interest lies.