Director: Clyde Bruckman. Metro/Buster Keaton Productions.
Cast & Credits
Producers: Buster Keaton, Nicholas Schenck.
Writers: Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman.
Camera: Elgin Lessley, Byron Houck.
Sets: Fred Gabourie.
Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Jo Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane.
A movie projectionist (Keaton) who is also studying to be a detective in his part-time, finds himself wrongly accused of stealing a watch. Returning to his full-time job, he falls asleep during the latest romantic blockbuster and imagines himself and the girl he loves (McGuire) are transported into the movie to play the characters on the silver screen. Comic mayhem ensues.
In Seven Chances, a lawyer (Keaton) finds he has been left a large amount of money in a distant relative’s will – payable on condition he marries, by 7pm that evening. Easier said than done when none of the society girls he approaches do anything other than laugh at him.
I would never usually combine two film reviews into one, preferring to let every individual movie stand on its own. But it seems appropriate here. Not to diminish the quality of Keaton’s comedies as stand alone pieces, but as both here cover similar ground thematically, comically and in terms of construction, this seems a neat and tidy approach.
Of the two film’s recently shown at Stratford Picturehouse courtesy of The London Screenstudy, Sherlock Jr. is the more famous and certainly the funniest. Seven Chances suffers from a protracted and dull opening that includes a disposable, two-tone technicolour sequence chronicling how Keaton, as every season of the year approaches, cannot profess love for his woman. It doesn’t help that the colour is of the poorest quality, almost as if it was hand-tinted by employees of the Georges Melies’ movie factory back in the very early days of cinema. The crudely drawn black characters (sometimes portrayed by white actors in black face) are more disturbing. Once comfortable in your seat, you will find yourself cringing and shifting from side to side to shrug off such sensibilities.
But back to Sherlock and Arthur Conan-Doyle himself may have giggled with delight in the cinema at the delightful and raucous send-up Keaton and co. made. Sherlock shows how sophisticated Keaton’s films had become in the short-time he progressed from two-reel comedies (a reel relates to approximately 10 minutes of film, the amount of stock in a film reel at this time) to feature films, the last of his series of short films being only one year previous (he would make one more silent short in 1925).
The use of the framing device (the ‘film within a film’), which can be a clunky addition if handled by a director merely seeking artistic kudos, is ingeniously utilised in a short segment when Keaton jumps into the screen. Initially, he is booted out again by the film’s leading man, but he perseveres and we are treated to a segment that contains some of the smartest trick editing on the silent screen. Caught between cuts to different locations, he is allowed no rest by the medium he is trying to hijack and is thrust into arctic tundra, rocky outcrops and manicured gardens. Cinema has no respect for this man who toils for it.
The framing device also allows Keaton to satirically explore the beauty and unpredictability of the cinematic medium, playing with the notion of what is real and what is illusion (he replaces the film’s leading actors with people in his ‘real life’ and as he swims to freedom in the film, we then cut seamlessly to him as the sleepy projectionist sat on a stool, ‘swimming’ whilst seated).
Sweetly, the projectionist even needs tips from his on-screen peers for help with wooing and kissing his girl. Sherlock Jr. may be a comedy, but it is an ideological and technical stride ahead of the smartest films being made in France or the esoteric Russian montage school.
But let’s not forget the jewel in this little crown that is the comedy – both film’s culminate in the most extraordinary manner, a crescendo of increasingly dangerous and clever stunts. Keaton’s background working with circus performer parents is clearly in evidence here as well as his athleticism at, for instance, dodging falling boulders as well as hundreds of eager spinsters (the ‘all the single harridans’ number in Seven Chances). The staging of these scenes, particularly in Seven Chances, is eye-poppingly impressive but given how you almost need to catch your breath as each moment passes to the next, it also shows how he his talent could run away with itself if left unchecked.
Keaton is undergoing a mini-renaissance at present, with the BFI holding a season of his films. Clearly there is no need for reappraisal, but to give modern audiences the chance to enjoy his artistry again.