Seven Chances Review
This DVD is part of Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton's silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn't expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score - in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
Seven Chances marked a bit of a step back for Buster Keaton after the masterly trio of Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr and The Navigator. Though it's never less than hugely entertaining, it's nowhere near as ambitious as its predecessors, though it does at least end with a sensational climax that ranks among his best.
When Jimmie Shannon's uncle leaves him seven million dollars in his will, it seems as though his fortune is well and truly made... until he reads the small print: in order to quality, he has to be married by 7pm on his 27th birthday, which just happens to be that very day.
Still, he's got a girlfriend, so this doesn't seem like an insuperable problem - until he puts his foot in it by appearing to admit that he's only interested in the money rather than her. She understandably storms off in a huff, leaving him desperate to get hitched in just a few hours. His friends helpfully draw up a list of seven likely prospects (the "seven chances" of the title) but they all turn him down, and by 5pm he's proposed to everything in a skirt, including a tailor's dummy, a transvestite and a Scotsman - and been rejected by all of them.
So it comes as something of a shock when his friends' newspaper advertisement to find a bride for him pays spectacular dividends, as the church fills up with women in bridal outfits, though as most of them look more than a little psychotic that's not necessarily a promising sign. Jimmie certainly doesn't think so, and ends up fleeing for his life (it's the old Cops scenario all over again, except this time the pursuing hordes are women in bridal gowns rather than policemen), which entirely inadvertently led to one of the all-time great Keaton set-pieces, though he didn't realise its potential until the first test screening.
Mid-chase, when running down a hillside, he dislodged a small rock, which got a totally unexpected belly laugh. Encouraged by this, Keaton and his team went back on location and filmed him dodging a veritable avalanche of rocks and having to utilise his formidable acrobatic skills to the full in order to avoid them.
The climax lifts Seven Chances up from being a fairly run-of-the-mill Keaton feature, though it's consistently amusing and inventive pretty much throughout its relatively brief running time. Keaton himself never thought much of it (indeed, he virtually wrote it off before coming up with the chase scene), but it's worn better than the likes of Battling Butler - and it's been given a huge boost by the quality of the DVD.
Things get off to an alarming start, with an opening sequence that appears to be tinted Dayglo orange - though there's a rational explanation for this: it's because it's a newly restored opening sequence shot in two-strip Technicolor. The rest of the print, which is in monochrome, is quite simply superb - easily the best print in Kino's entire Keaton collection, and arguably the best silent film DVD I've seen to date (April 2000) in terms of picture quality.
There's remarkably little print damage (just the occasional dust spot and even more occasional tramline), the dynamic range is for the most part gratifyingly wide, and the sepia tinting works beautifully, adding a richly burnished tone to the images without falling prey to the distortion that marred The Saphead. If all the prints in Kino's Keaton collection were like this, I'd be ecstatic.
It's less impressive musically, if only because Robert Israel's score too often falls prey to generic silent-film clichés, and there's not much evidence that it was designed to fit this particular film. It's never obtrusively inappropriate, but I've heard better. There are ten chapter stops.
One of Keaton's earliest shorts, the 18-minute Neighbors (1920) is mostly set in the yards of two facing tenement blocks inhabited by warring families, the constant tension providing countless obstacles in the path of true love between Keaton and the girl next door - and that's pretty much it in terms of plot: most of the film is knockabout slapstick.
But as a showcase for Keaton's phenomenal acrobatic skills, Neighbors ranks with the best of them, making full use of the potential offered by three-storey buildings facing each other and joined by a network of clotheslines, and a spectacular climax which sees Keaton standing on the shoulders of a friend who's doing the same thing to another friend, who somehow manages to walk across the yard without falling over. The film is also historically important not only due to the casting of Joe Keaton, Buster's father, but also because it preserves on film many of the vaudeville routines that Keaton literally grew up with (including the legendary "human mop" sketch).
The print is perfectly watchable, albeit a little contrasty, not to mention replete with spots, scratches and tramlines (though these never seriously affect appreciation). But on the whole it's been very well preserved, with no sign of any really serious damage. The mostly piano-based score is once again by Robert Israel, and although it's pretty standard silent-film fare, it is at least clearly synchronised to the action. There are five chapter stops.
Keaton's penultimate 1920s short, the 22-minute The Balloonatic (1923) is yet another romantic saga, and is a bit of a mixed bag, with a somewhat disjointed narrative that starts with Buster visiting a funfair and inadvertently getting carried off in a balloon, which drops him in the middle of an untamed wilderness in which the woman he made an unsuccessful pass at in the Tunnel of Love just happens to be camping.
The rest of the film is a battle of the sexes, with each trying to prove to the other that they're better equipped to survive outdoors and deal with the local wildlife, which starts out with ducks, rabbits and squirrels and ends up with bulls and bears, not to mention a waterfall sequence that foreshadows the rather more elaborate climax of Our Hospitality. It's worth noting that this is just about the only one of Keaton's shorts where his female co-star is more than a match for him in terms of resource and invention - in most of his other films, she'd be little more than a prop.
The print is often very contrasty, and has suffered a modicum of damage - there are plenty of spots, scratches, tramlines and even chemical blotches, though none of this seriously affects watchability. The organ-based score is by John Muri, and is pretty conventional silent-film atmospherics. There are six chapter stops.
All in all, this DVD offers relatively minor Keaton fare - though the quality of the print of Seven Chances sets the standard not only for the Keaton collection but for silent film presentation on DVD in general. As ever, I'd recommend one of the better-known titles (The General, The Navigator, Our Hospitality or Sherlock Jr) for Keaton beginners, but there's a lot to enjoy here too.