Wedding March: Seven Chances (1925)
Spring is looming and you know what that means: wedding season. There is something beautiful about the optimism and joy of a wedding, and movies on the topic are usually light as well. Let's explore some films of the golden age with weddings as a central theme.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: James Shannon (Buster Keaton) is in love, but he is too shy to tell the girl (Ruth Dwyer). They often spend time together, but the seasons keep changing, and he can't bring himself to reveal his vulnerability. He feels unworthy partly because his business is failing, and he and his partner (T. Roy Barnes) face looming disgrace. One day, a lawyer (Snitz Edwards) comes and informs James that his uncle died and left his millions to him on the condition that he be married by that very evening. This is the motivation he needs to propose to his one true love, but that goes wry and now he must find a willing wife in a few hours or lose the money and accept disgrace.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: The first half of the film is spent with a series of gags while we watch Buster propose to random women that he encounters. There are some really funny bits here, and as you point out there is a fine supporting cast. Right off the bat, this seems like a special film, with the opening sequences presented in an early version of 2-strip technicolor. While it doesn’t appear very special in modern restorations, these scenes were noted for their beauty in early reviews.
SG: The story is based on a Broadway play by David Belasco that producer Joseph Schenck purchased and forced Keaton to use. He was often dismissive of the film as a result, but there was no reason to be ashamed of it. The reviewer for Exhibitor's Trade Review said, "He is one comedian who doesn't have to break his neck to extract a laugh, although some of his antics in this film would do credit to Douglas Fairbanks, not to mention Paavo Nurmi." (Nurmi was a medal-winning Olympic long-distance runner.)
RB: To me, the first two thirds of the film play more like a Charley Chase film than a Keaton one. Many of the laughs come from situations vs the stunts and pratfalls that we typically associate with Buster Keaton films today, making this film a welcome change of pace. He purportedly only made the film because he owed Schenck money, which also may have added to the sour feeling that he had.
SG: In 1999, my family and I saw The Bachelor at the dollar theater. Imagine my surprise when years later I saw Seven Chances and realized the mediocre movie I saw in the late 90s was a remake of a masterpiece.
RB: I never saw that particular remake, but I am reminded of how we lived through probably the last time that people would go see movies simply to pass the time. Attending a movie theater in 2023 seems to be reserved for special events: premiers of blockbuster superhero or sci-fi films, vs small mediocre films that simply passed the time for a couple of hours. Seven Chances is not that sort of film, but, as we’ve discussed in the past, film history is full of thousands of films like the Chris O’ Donnell vehicle that you mentioned. For film buffs that attend the Picture Show, those are often the sorts of movies that we gravitate towards.
SG: True, and for those of us without cable TV who had to settle for the garbage movies that were on our limited channels, this rings especially true. That's part of the reason I started borrowing black and white movies from the library. I was tired of the same old garbage.
I did not get the Julian Eltinge gag the first time I saw this movie. He was a famous drag performer at that time, so the joke is that Keaton unknowingly proposes marriage to a man.
RB: Eltinge also purported himself to be something of a he-man, which kind of explains the fact that Keaton leaves the dressing room, having clearly been beaten up. Eltinge had a very
successful career on Broadway, vaudeville and movies until crackdowns on public cross-dressing in the early 1930’s put a damper on his career.
SG: The switchboard operator is reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, a very popular and scandalous romance novel published in 1907 and made into a film the second time in 1924. If you look closely, you'll notice the telephone operator is Jean Arthur.
Snitz Edwards is wonderful. I laughed many times at his facial expressions when he barely moved. He was an excellent comedian.
RB: He was one of my favorite parts of this movie, a very talented actor who also lent his talents to The Phantom of the Opera, Thief of Bagdad and dozens of other films. Buster Keaton was fond of him and used him in Battling Butler and College in addition to this film.
SG: One of my favorite jokes in the film involves the car. Keaton gets in, and without turning the engine or backing away, the background fades and he is in a new location. It looks simple, but imagine the effort it would have taken in the days before computers to accomplish this sight gag. They would have had to placed the camera the exact distance from the car in each shot with Keaton in exactly the same place for each one. It's an impressive feat.
RB: I liked that a lot too. Really clever and well done.
SG: In his book The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr said, "I do not know why this one place is exactly the right place for Keaton to sit in all of that vacant church. I only know that as he sits the lines and masses of the church go as still as he, grow quiet, freeze. He has placed his weight just where it will counterbalance the contending tensions about him, seated himself in the one spot that will halt the earth's busyness."
I spotted Kate Price in the crowd scene in the church, a frequent co-star in Mary Pickford's films usually playing hot tempered Irish women. We get to see a bit of that when she and the other potential brides chase Keaton through the streets, stopping at a construction site to dismantle a brick wall in progress in order to use the bricks to down their target. The church was actually the Greater Page Temple.
The rock sequence is like a video game come to life; it is surreal. It is a literal representation of the arc of the film winding down for an abrupt and satisfying conclusion.
Kudos to Robert Israel for the great score on the Kino release. Organ scores seem to have fallen out of favor with silent film distributors but I enjoy them. They help you feel like you're going back in time while watching. This one combines the organ with several other instruments.
RB: I agree that I really liked this score as well. What’s interesting is that even though we’re talking about silent films, but the score really does mean a lot, and a well-done score, as we know, can add a whole different dimension of pleasure to watching a film. This is a good one.
SG: An exhibitor in Madison, Wisconsin went all out to promote the film; he partnered with The Casualty Insurance Company to put on a parade with six damaged vehicles, each one more wrecked than the last. The final car displayed a sign that said, "The party that is riding inside took one chance too many. But you still have Seven Chances to see Buster Keaton at the Strand." I appreciate the elaborate lengths he went with publicity, but what do car wrecks have to do with the movie?
RB: There were a few promotional stunts like this done for the film, all, frankly, nonsensical in the context of the movie itself. Another similar one came from a taxi cab company that sent their fleet of cars out with banners reading “Buster Keaton takes Seven Chances But Our Drivers Never Take Any”. Doesn’t make much sense, but the film was a hit so it clearly worked well.
SG: Seven Chances is a tight, clever and funny comedy that would please film buffs and laymen alike. Five stars.
RB: Since the days of the Hollywood documentary series, and doubtlessly before, film buffs have lamented that so many people view silent films as only jerky, offspeed, Keystone Kops comedies. Seven Chances offers the film buff an opportunity to see a clever comedy with great character development that moves at a brisk, tightly edited pace. It also survives in multiple restorations, which makes it even easier to watch. Five stars for a fantastic example of silent comedy.