Just Get Me To The Church Alive: Two Versions of SEVEN CHANCES

Posted: July 14, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Bridezillas on the Rampage

Sheer Epic Hilarity

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ****

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. * 1/2

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era,  Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

*

This is it, folks: the single greatest span between original film and its first major remake that this blog has ever featured, or will likely ever feature. A child conceived on a date night that began with a night out at the movie theatre watching Seven Chances would have been about 74 years old as a grumpy old person catching a twilight matinee of The Bachelor.

Both films are about respectable young men with commitment issues, who have been been stringing along the same young woman without ever quite bringing themselves to declare their love or pop the question.

Both protagonists find themselves faced with professional ruination if they don’t collect the fortune promised by a grandfather’s will, provided the young man is wed by a certain birthday (27 in Seven Chances, 30 in The Bachelor).

Both leave that young man with little more than a day to arrange matrimony.

In both, turned down by the girl he really loves because he blows the proposal miserably, he must propose to a succession of others; in Seven Chances to a succession of vague acquaintances and distant strangers, in The Bachelor to the ladies he used to date, with whom things never quite worked out.

Both films turn toward disaster with a front-page newspaper story, that explains the fortune at stake, attracting hundreds of predatory women in bridal gowns to the church where this marriage of convenience must take place.

And both climax with our hero running for his life as a vast mob of scorned harpies pursue him with murder on their minds.

And yet Seven Chances is still remembered, closing in on ninety years after its initial release, as one of the greatest comedies of all time…while The Bachelor was forgotten even before it left the multiplex.

Maybe we’ll figure out a reason after we first cover the movie it’s trying to emulate.

Seven Chances (1925)

Of the three great silent-film comedians (the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Buster Keaton had the shortest golden age and the most difficult life. Chaplin continued to make great films well into the age of sound. Lloyd made a number of sound features that may have been inferior to his silent work and were certainly underappreciated, but are nevertheless amusing; and when it became clear to him that his time had passed, he stopped with plenty of money in the bank. Keaton, on the other hand, was plagued by alcoholism, a couple of spectacularly bad relationships with women, studios that refused him control of his own work and forced him into deals like acting as straight man to Jimmy Durante, financial woes, and decades of believing that he had been forgotten. (Fortunately, he lived just long enough to see his work re-discovered by a new generation.) Though he continued working until the 1960s and was permitted during those decades a few moments to show his genius, he was by any real standard pretty much over as a comic titan by the end of the 1920s.


 

Seven Chances is not his best film (that would probably be The General), but it’s a remarkably fun hour at the movies, and early on shows one of the elements that distinguished him from Chaplin and Lloyd:  his genius for concocting gags that could only be possible on film. Early in his career, he took apart a motion picture camera to determine exactly how it worked, and he was known for experimenting with special effects techniques that neither of his two great contemporaries would have tried. With one early film, The Playhouse (1921), he managed to appear on-screen as nine separate characters, in the same shot, using matte techniques that were unheard-of at the time and that he did not reveal for years. In another, the dazzling Sherlock Jr. (1924), he leaped from a movie theatre audience and onto a screen showing a feature, where he suffered a succession of indignities caused by scenery that insisted on quick-cutting from one environment to another. Moviemakers and film buffs still  examine these sequences frame per frame, to determine how he pulled off these sophisticated and hilarious effects with no tools but a technology still in what we could consider its infancy.

Though largely a straightforward narrative, Seven Chances still shows some of this kind of technical wizardry, with a scene where Buster’s character gets behind the wheel of his roadster, puts his hands on the wheel, and then, without moving a muscle or turning over the engine, arrives at his destination anyway, because the setting changes around him. The movie does this twice, and it remains a dazzling bit of stagecraft even in the age of CGI. (These days, the effect could be achieved digitally; then, it required meticulous planning, with the position of the camera in relation to the car, and Buster’s position inside the car, controlled to the millimeter.)

There’s a similar bit of virtuoso storytelling at the very beginning, where we’re treated to a succession of shots detailing the more than a year Buster has been spending time with his lady fair without quite getting around to telling her how he feels. We see the pair, and her dog, framed by her front gate, in a gloriously full technicolor summer scene. Then we get fall, and winter, and spring. The seasonal weather around them dictates the passage of time…but so, more hilariously, does the growth of her dog, which at first barely comes up to Buster’s ankles and then, over the course of a year, becomes a behemoth. It’s not just a great gag; it’s a vivid metaphor for the elephant in the room, the extent of this young man’s inability to open his mouth and say what he clearly wants to say.

The other marvel is, of course, Keaton himself. He was called the great stone face, because once he developed his persona he rarely reacted to anything except with his eyes;  and I have heard a number of people who don’t appreciate him opining that this meant he couldn’t act. Nonsense. He focused his attention through his eyes, which were as expressive as any pair of orbs every seen on film. He could express sadness, interest, happiness, embarrassment, terror, confusion, discomfort, and horror just by altering that focus. And there is never any doubt, at any point in any of his films, just what his characters are thinking and feeling. There is thus no doubt that his character in Seven Chances is gloriously in love, gloriously bereft when his love has said no, and then gloriously imperiled when the army of belligerent scorned brides chases him through the city streets. Even allowing for movie magic, he is also an astounding comedic athlete, one reason why the more contemporary folks who consider him a role model include one Jackie Chan.

And finally, there’s the avalanche sequence, excerpted above: product of a test-screening where the chase seemed to lie flat, until the audience laughed uproariously at a divine accident: three tiny rocks pursuing Buster down the side of a mountain.

Keaton listened to that test audience, re-thought the climax, and filmed one of the great wowsers of silent film: his characterpursued down the mountain by boulders of steadily increasing size, bouncing around him and dislodging still more as he gallops like mad to stay ahead of them. It doesn’t hurt the effectiveness of the sequence one whit to note that one “boulder” his own size actually strikes him and bounces off, revealing itself as a lightweight prop; you’re not supposed to notice that, and your enjoyment  and admiration for the sheer bravura of the action will not diminish one millimeter. The timing is perfect, and he’s still one of the great runners in movie history.

Not everything he does requires thrills to be effective. There’s a great sequence on a curving staircase where Keaton follows one strange young woman up to the second floor and, without a pause, follows another coming down, getting a no each time. There’s a bit involving a hat-check girl who has been observing the madness and doesn’t even allow him to blurt the big question out.

But it’s that whole last twenty minutes that amount to one of the great races to the altar in movie history, the chief reason why this movie is now considered a classic.

(One caveat: there are also a few uncomfortable gags involving black people, who are in a few cases presented as incredibly funny just because they’re black – but this was almost a century ago, and it takes up very little of the film. We note this with a level of forgiveness born of posterity, though your mileage may vary; in the meantime, we note it for the record, note also that some filmmakers of the time did far worse, and move on.)

 

Not nearly as good.

The Bachelor (1999) 

The Bachelor raises the stakes in a number of ways. The length of the movie balloons from almost one hour to almost two. The fortune at stake, adjusted for inflation, balloons from the original’s seven million to a hundred million. The lives at risk of ruination if our hero cannot get married by the deadline are not just the two owners of a small investment firm but the hundreds of workers who will lose their jobs if its protagonist cannot hold on to his pool-table factory. The action is moved from the still very rural Los Angeles of 1925 to the hills of San Francisco in 1999, which is not in and of itself a bad idea, as the hundreds of brides chasing Chris O’Donnell up and down those steep slopes should provide opportunities as fascinating as a mob the same size going after Buster Keaton on flat streets.

In addition, the terms of the will are far more stringent. The bequest that bedevils Buster Keaton in Seven Chances requires only that he get married by his 27th birthday. Nothing is said about him remaining married. He is shown, at one point, with two sets of train tickets, one to Niagara Falls and the other to Reno. His intentions couldn’t possibly get any clearer than that. In The Bachelor, the will specifies that any woman he marries must live with him in the same house for ten years, never spending more than one day a month apart from him…and establishing that she must, must, produce an heir. The ball-and-chain becomes weightier. Except for one key scene involving Brooke Shields, the comedy somehow diminishes.

The bride-search follows a different tack. In Seven Chances Keaton’s romantically clueless character popped the big question to a succession of women he barely knew, or didn’t know at all. It was a series of confrontations that began with, “Hello, will you marry me?” and always ended with disaster. The comedy comes in large part from the humiliation attendant on being forced into this impossible situation and doing it all wrong.

In The Bachelor, Chris O’Donnell’s Jimmy Shannon is a lifelong lady killer who has had a series of shallow relationships with women who he was never serious about. He is such a commitment-phobe that when he finally does meet one capable of capturing his heart (Renee Zellwegger’s Anne Arden), he blows his big proposal by summing up with a defeated, “You win.”

He’s thus less likeable right from the start…and when Anne says no and he finds out he must be married by Six O’clock the next day,  our empathy for him is diminished still further by this film’s admittedly more sensible but considerably less funny strategy of having him approach, not strangers, but women he’s actually dated.

The focus then becomes less the urgency of getting a woman, any woman, to say yes…but just why none of these previous relationships worked out. We learn that one of the women was too clingy, another downright boring, one too strident, and so on…and all of this requires a series of consecutive scenes that flirt with being amusing but fail to build tension. The problem is not just any resentment we might feel for being asked to feel pity for the plight of a good-looking, and soon to be rich, guy who has bedded and ultimately rejected all of these beautiful women – itself a far cry from the plight of the Keaton character who can’t even get to first base with the woman who he loves and who reciprocates his feelings; it’s that there’s no gathering momentum. The need for a separate scene with each woman reduces the rhythm of the film to stop-and-start, stop-and-start.

The Brooke Shields sequence deserves some props, mostly because the ex-girlfriend she plays, Buckley Hale-Windsor, is clearly the bitchiest and most unpleasant of the lot; of all of them, she clearly hates Jimmy the most, will be most intolerable living under the same roof with him, and is the one most equipped to feel the enormity of what she’s being asked to do. Agreeing to the marriage for reasons as mercenary as his, she nevertheless interrupts their wedding ceremony three times, to storm away and contemplate the awful price through furious clouds of tobacco smoke. This is as far as it goes a highlight of the film, and shows comic chops that, in 1999, few people knew Brooke Shields had. But it’s rueful-grin funny, not clutch-your-sides funny…and when that’s as funny as the film gets, you have a major problem.

The thing is, there are an awful lot of talented people in front of the camera, doing whatever they can to enliven a story that never sparks. This is a movie with a dream cast. Peter Ustinov, Ed Asner, Hal Holbrook, Sarah Silverman, Renee Zellwegger, Brooke Shields, and James Cromwell are all given funny stuff to do and say. Even O’Donnell, the weakest link, is not actively bad. The problem is that none of it sticks. It’s all stuff that you can look at and appreciate for being theoretically funny, without ever once feeling the need to laugh out loud. There’s a nice bit about the rapid notoriety of Jimmy’s horrifically failed proposal to Anne, and how it becomes famous city-wide…and yes, this is amusing enough, in a theoretical sense, but not funny. There’s another nice bit where Anne storms home afterward and starts preparing comfort food without quite looking at the ingredients, and yes, what she makes is so disgusting that it, too, should be funny…but again, what we get is the sense that it should be amusing, and not the actuality.  And there’s the visit to Anne’s parents, who are still so much in the throes of passionate love after a lifetime of marriage that their daughters can barely stand them…which again, is recognizably humor without quite achieving that lofty state.

And all of this is before Jimmy’s trapped in a church with hundreds of increasingly hostile brides, forced in an interminable scene to defend his taste in women to them. That is as leaden as it gets. It is the only identifiably awful scene in the movie.

And even that  is before Jimmy being chased through the city streets by an army of those brides. The sequence duplicates a little of what Keaton did, by having Jimmy approach an intersection with hundreds of pursuers behind him, only to find his situation worsened as more brides pour in from the cross-streets. But it doesn’t approach one-tenth of a ghost of a scintilla of a shadow of the epic nightmare of the same shots from the earlier film. Nor does it even attempt to match the earlier film’s cliffhangers and hair’s-breadth escapes. There’s of course no avalanche.

The closest thing the film comes to actually adding to Keaton’s vision is the moment where Anne joins Jimmy on a fire-escape, over a vast field of brides in white who have just been calmed by the realization that they have not been scammed and that an actual wedding is in fact taking place; she looks down on all those ladies dressed in bridal gowns, as far as the eye can see, and murmurs, “It’s so beautiful.” A nice moment. Which she then has to ruin by making a speech to underline it. Feh.

All in all, there’s activity, but no energy.

You could, of course, note in fairness that the films occupy different comic universes. Seven Chances intends to be over the top slapstick. The Bachelor aspires to be a romantic comedy and date film. The two subgenres have completely different priorities. But two of those priorities are making us care and making us laugh. Buster Keaton’s film has been doing both jobs for what is fast approaching a century. It transcends its time.  The Chris O’Donnell version? For whatever mysterious reason, it’s inert. And it had us checking our watches before the end of the first hour.

The Vows

There’s a difference between being engaged and wanting an annulment.

*

And now, the furious wife races down the center of the street, waving the brick she took from the construction site…

Second Commentary by Judi Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ***

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. **

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era, Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

Never watch a film you really need to see with a fanatic who has already seen it a bazillion times!

My viewing of Seven Chances came with a home-made commentary track supplied by my husband.  Not as much of a problem here as it could be with a sound film, but still VERY distracting. Now you may ask why is this my opening salvo for my half of this piece?  Simply put, the one thing that stands out in my mind about the 1925 version, was a chance viewing of two license plates on the cars in one of the proposal scenes and noting that they were sequential.  Call me a heretic or a non-believer, but this was not a great film!  It was very good.  Entertaining for its time.  Incredibly naïve by todays jaded standards, but not great.  The story line once again left me feeling (as many Keaton stories did) what an easily manipulated fool this man let himself be portrayed on screen.  I tend  not to enjoy the bumbling do-gooders who win in the end since usually some jackass relative or friend is made better too!And these are the typical Keaton film characters.  So this film’s unspoken, long-term love match and dire economic (criminal) plots just remind us of the used and abused fool the man always played.  If I need a bumbler to win I prefer Chaplin any day.

Now, the 1999 rom-com had nothing intrinsically wrong.  The casting of this film was great (with one HUGE exception), but did they bother to check for on-screen chemistry? I felt more of an emotional tug during the scene in the boat between O’Donnell and Cromwell, than any of the scenes with O’Donnell and Zellwegger.  I’m sorry if this film is any reader’s idea of great, but it really never elevated above sweet.  And why (here’s the aforementioned exception) did they cast Artie Lange?  His comedy act is playing obnoxious, and he carries that forward into this film.  Chris O’Donnell’s best friend and wingman would never be this shlub.  The sidekick should have been more snake oil salesman able to drag his buddy through this long night’s charade, while still keeping his spirits up.

Oh, and one quick mention how everycharacter is once again in it for themselves.  They need the poor groom to get hitched to save the business and their jobs and their lives.  What about his life?  His happiness?  What the hell’s wrong with wanting to stay single until you know you’re ready?  What’s so romantic about rushing to the altar?  Divorce lawyers love it, that’s all.  There should have been some out that any good lawyer could have found, especially since they never completed viewing the taped will. Didn’t anyone consider the timing factor?  When was the will taped?  How many years were then available to Jimmy?  None of this is considered just the rush to what is supposed to be hilarity and instead invokes sighs of indifference.

Since neither film ranked high on my rush back for another viewing meter and I need a palate cleanser, I’ll go back and watch Notting Hill for the umpteenth time and try to remember what rom coms are like.  As to Mr. Keaton, I feel the need to rewatch One Week and remind myself of the wonder of his physical comedic timing.

 

 

 

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Comments
  1. shsilver says:

    Judi-

    Try Buster Keaton’s “Cops” if you haven’t seen it yet.

  2. Sean P. Fodera says:

    I feel almost certain that this story has been remade more than once. I can’t remember the title, but I have a distinct memory of this storyline (and the great bride chase), but know that I have never seen either of the versions you discuss. Wish I could recall more.

    Still, great post. Makes me want to view a few more Keaton’s, which I haven’t done in a while. I remember that in high school, back in the 80s, our school was putting on A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and we had to watch the film version for a class at the same time. I was the only student who knew who Keaton was. Got me bonus points from the teacher.

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