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, stone-faced 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.
* Next week: The Cameraman (1928) and Film (1965)