Review: Seven Chances (1925)

seven chances

I only had one chance to get hitched, and for whatever reason she said yes!

Screen Version By: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, & Joseph A. Mitchell
Directed By: Buster Keaton

Charm is almost always present in a Buster Keaton film, and Seven Chances is no different. There’s almost always a social consciousness as well, even if Mr. Keaton is never as heavy on the thematic’s as, say, Charles Chaplin was. Seven Chances is the odd instance where a Buster Keaton film fails in the social consciousness department. I know that times have changed, and all that jazz, but I had a hard time getting past the blackface and minor black courtship that’s present in Seven Chances. Mr. Keaton’s films are usually timeless, but Seven Chances feels dated because of its insistence on using blackface and the way Mr. Keaton’s character, James Shannon, reacts when he finds out a possible bride is black.

There was no real reason for the blackface, so that leaves me to surmise that the reason blackface was employed on the hired hand was because the simple idea of blackface was supposed to be funny. I’m not one for jumping on a moral high horse, but blackface isn’t funny, especially not when it’s supposed to be funny just because a character has blackface on. When one further takes into account the reaction of James to a possible black bride, it becomes clear that Seven Chances has some serious race issues. It pains me to say this, but Seven Chances, a Buster Keaton film, is quite racist. There’s no reason for the racism to be present, it isn’t funny, and it greatly hurts the film.

I was able to look past the racism, well, look past isn’t the best way to phrase my final thoughts on Seven Chances. I wasn’t able to look past the racism of Seven Chances, but I was able to recognize how well made the elements were that had nothing to do with the racism. Mr. Keaton adopts his usual stone face to great measure. There’s an escalation at play in Seven Chances, as the film starts off small and works its way into the more physical, and larger, jokes. By the time James is dodging boulders I was laughing my behind off. That was funny stuff, and unfortunately it helped to highlight why the racist comedy of the film wasn’t needed. Seven Chances is a funny premise, with a great comedic actor/director at the forefront. The way the film progresses is very funny, and the emergence of the physical humor of Mr. Keaton takes place over time and adds a real style to the directorial choices of Mr. Keaton. This film was bound to be funny, it’s a shame the racism had to be present.

Seven Chances isn’t really lesser Buster Keaton, but it is a flawed and damaged Buster Keaton film. It’s very funny, but it’s also hard to watch because of its racist leanings. I’m sure that a lot of people will disagree with me, and if I had a lot of readers I’m positive many would come to Seven Chance’s aid with the “it was a different time,” defense. That defense doesn’t fly with me, and that’s why a well made film that should be one of the all-time great comedies will be more remembered in my mind for being racist than for being funny. Seven Chances is still funny, and it’s well made, but it’s a frustratingly socially inept comedy. All the quality jokes and production values can’t make up for blackface and racism.

Rating:

***

Cheers,
Bill

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14 responses to “Review: Seven Chances (1925)

  1. I have often said that this Keaton film was the best candidate for a remake. It has a great comic premise and some strong visuals that still stand up. And, of course, the remake would not include blackface. But then they did remake it in 1999 and it was awful (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120596/). So that shows what I know about movies.

  2. Putting Miss Lemon Face as the lead of your film is a recipe for disaster more often than not.

  3. “When one further takes into account the reaction of James to a possible black bride, it becomes clear that Seven Chances has some serious race issues.”
    Interracial marriage wasn’t legal in almost all the US during this time. Let’s assume this movie takes place in California where it was illegal to marry a black person until 1948 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-miscegenation_laws_in_the_United_States). His reaction had nothing to do with his own supposed racism as it had to do with the legality of marriage necessary for him to appease the requirements of the will.
    As for your idea that the movie will be defended with “it was a different time…” Well it was a different time! “Wearing black face makeup was a common theater technique in the early 1900s used by white performers in order to mimic and appear as a black person on stage. Blacks were not accepted on the Broadway stage during that period due to racial prejudice. The audiences knew it was only makeup and understood that this was the only way they could see an act of a pseudo-black performance.” (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_did_Al_Jolson_and_other_white_actors_wear_blackface_makeup_on_stage). You made no mention of the scene with an actual black actor in the movie by the way.
    If you’re looking for deep social commentary in an hour long Buster Keaton movie from 1925 than you are a dolt.

  4. Ah, the ignorant defending ignorance with more ignorance, lovely.

  5. Yeah , there was a scene in which Buster is looking at a mirror and he saw a black image in it. He got really surprised with that!
    Then, the mirror flipped, showing a tall young man who also looked quite surprised with him and laughs.

  6. If he was a right wing racist, he wouldn`t allow any Black actors or actresses to perform in his movies.

  7. This would not necessarily be true, as history has taught us that racists have no problem employing or working with the people they hate as long as the situation makes them money. However, the film can be racist, and it is, without that meaning that Keaton was a right wing racist. He clearly thought blackface was funny, and he probably didn’t think it was racist at all to perform blackface. Being able to look back at the film allows us to see that racism was present, and that conscious or not not Keaton made a film that was all too happy to revel in the supposed humor of racism.

  8. Hallo Bill,

    I agree with you when you you state that racism was ever present in those days and making use of its “appeal“`was a very common place in movies .
    Sometimes, we failed to notice that we also make jokes about people we dont like or dont know well. Most of teh times, these jokes are “unharmful “ and rather naive but there is an element of prejuduce hidden inside them.
    So, I believe the racist issue is transmitted through our gens as well as the macho behaviour. It is something that we have inherited from our ancestors.
    It is only natural to have a laidback attitude towards that when you grew up in a society where whites ruled and blacks were their slaves.

  9. Hey Johnny,

    What you’re saying is true. The key for me has been to enjoy the films for what they are while still acknowledging the racist. Seven Chances should have been a great film, but the racism stops that. Still, it is a good film that I enjoy, warts and all.

  10. The blackface role was definitely a huge sore thumb in the film. Not just because a white actor was in blackface (which is always problematic), but the stereotypical characteristics used to portray him: huge, flat shoes often splayed outwards from the body, slow movement, stupidity (the stop/go sign gag), etc. Keaton came up through vaudeville, and a comic blackface character would be standard procedure there.

    Of course, there are many other films from the period (and up through today) that are more aggressively racist, but that’s the best you can say about the “context of the time”: a racist culture will produce racism, even accidentally.

    What’s also interesting is his run-in with Julian Eltinge, the hugely popular female impersonator (and another vaudeville callback). He bribes the stagehand to let him backstage, and emerges with his hat broken around his neck. Rather than the kind of gay-panic joke you might get in a movie from the last 40-ish years, this quick gag treats Eltinge with a measure of respect- playing off the actor’s public “super-masculine facade” as a brawler. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Eltinge

    Once the race begins, though… some great Keaton moves. And the brief bit of early Technicolor at the beginning was fascinating.

  11. Yep, and that’s where the movie succeeds most as an entertaining jaunt. But, it’s the meatier issue of race, society, and context over time that provides the most ample discussion.

  12. True, from a social aspect, the blackface dates a film filled with otherwise timeless humor. But, from a comic aspect, it also weakens the film by diluting its inventive and surprising humor with dull predictable stereotypes. As soon as we see the hired hand, we know what to expect: how he will move and behave. That familiarity wins some cheap laughs, but gets old fast. One wonders why such an inventive comic as Keaton avoided bonehead slapstick, yet often resorted to cheap darkie gags.

  13. “There was no real reason for the blackface, so that leaves me to surmise that the reason blackface was employed on the hired hand was because the simple idea of blackface was supposed to be funny.”

    That is one possibility. Another is that the blackface was used for script economy: it is a shorthand that audiences are familiar with, so writers were spared the effort of establishing that character. In this case, the story’s tension is partially derived from the audience understanding that the key message that resolves our hero’s urgent dilemma is carried by a shiftless incompetent. What quicker way to signal those traits than blackface?

    So it is possible to blame it on writers’ deadline pressure – or laziness.

  14. It could be either, honestly. The two work hand in hand, the pressure to produce means one cuts corners and that leads to laziness. It’s also possible to put the blame on Keaton and his desire for a quick and easy laugh.

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