In his day Buster Keaton’s popularity trailed that of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, but now those reputations have switched around. These two ‘lesser’ Keaton features generate more sheer fun than anything going. Seven Chances and Battling Butler are great on remastered Blu-ray — better materials, no missing frames — but do yourself a favor and find a way to see a Keaton picture with a big audience!
Seven Chances & Battling Butler: The Buster Keaton Collection Volume 3
Cohen Film Collection
Street Date August 20, 2019 / 29.98
Original Music composed and Conducted by Robert Israel
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Starring, and Directed by Buster Keaton
1925 / B&W + Color / 1:37 Silent Ap / 56 min.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Ruth Dwyer, T, Roy Barnes, Jean Arthur, Constance Talmadge.
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley, Byron Houck
Art Direction: Fred Gabourie
Written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell from a play by Roi Cooper Megrue
Directed by Buster Keaton
Kino Lorber went through several cycles of rather good remasters of Buster Keaton classics, so why is the Cohen Collection covering the same filmic territory now? Well, the Cohen Group owns the film library of Raymond Rohauer, the ‘interesting’ collector-entrepreneur who saved and promoted Keaton’s films, keeping his fame alive. Silent films were all but forgotten, soon after sound came in. James Agee’s 1949 magazine articles championed silent comedians, and helped revive arthouse screenings. By 1970 when I hit film school both Chaplin and Keaton were big business on and off campus. Harold Lloyd was less screened, despite the fact that he lived only a few minutes away — friend Robert S. Birchard had been a frequent visitor to his mansion, for screenings. Seven Chances was by chance my first Keaton encounter under optimum circumstances — in UCLA’s Melnitz Hall in 35mm with Chauncey Haines playing the organ. Judging by how loudly we students laughed, you’d think the theater was in danger of falling down.
We therefore found it difficult to believe that Buster Keaton told biographers that he thought Seven Chances his worst film, and that he encouraged Raymond Rohauer not to revive it along with his other silent work. This crazy chase film may not have the most sophisticated of plotlines, but in form it is almost perfect. Keaton’s scenarists adapted Seven Chances from a stage play by Roi Cooper Megrue, but as much of the film is action that sweeps across a city and into a valley beyond, quite a few changes must have been made. Along the way Keaton indulges tricks of technical virtuosity that could only be appreciated by his fellow filmmakers — and that will still impress even the most jaded fan of digital manipulation.
The story sounds like a setup for a clever two-reeler comedy. Law partners James Shannon and Bill Meekin (Buster Keaton & T. Roy Barnes) have been suckered into an illegal stock transaction and are convinced that their arrest and disgrace are imminent. They avoid what they think is a summons server by escaping to the country club. The little man turns out to be Shannon’s own lawyer Caleb Pettibone (Snitz Edwards), there to tell Jimmy that a rich relative has died: he’ll inherit 7 million dollars if he’s married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday, which happens to be today. Jimmy blows his proposal to his girlfriend (Ruth Dwyer) by making it seem that any woman will do. She changes her mind and tries to send Jimmy a message, but Bill and Caleb force Jimmy into a panic, proposing to every woman in sight. In just a few minutes Shannon makes himself the laughingstock of the country club. In desperation, Bill puts an ad in the afternoon papers for a bride, any bride, immediately. After an exhausting afternoon, the hopeful groom falls asleep waiting, not realizing that hundreds of prospective brides are converging on the church. Jimmy’s ordeal is just beginning.
Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances divides neatly into halves, with the protracted proposal set pieces in the first, and most of the action and stunts in the second. The comedy may not be a monument to cinematic experimentation, yet builds its laughs like the proverbial house afire. After ten minutes or so setting up some mistaken identities, we spend a couple of reels at the country club and the girlfriend’s house. Jimmy’s lack of communication skills convinces his steady girl, who has been dying for a marriage proposal, that she’s being insulted. The dozen or so society girls at the country club have just as many ways of turning him down, each more blunt than the last. Torn into fifty pieces, Jimmy’s romantic note showers down on his head, as firm a ‘no’ as one could imagine. A hatcheck girl with the haircut made iconic by Louise Brooks observes all this nonsense with a suspicious eye, as if looking out for the interests of the female species. Jimmy keeps retrieving his hat, then turning it back in again and recovering his tip, until she’s ready to have him thrown out.
Keaton films had their share of humor now considered racist, and this one ends up with at least four ‘darkie’ jokes guaranteed to get Keaton into trouble with the P.C. police, even though none of the gags are mean-spirited. The girlfriend’s messenger is a slow witted man in blackface. Jimmy also unknowingly accosts a Jewish woman and an African American on the street — how embarrassing. His facial expressions say it all. Audiences in 1925 were expected to recognize Julian Eltinge as a famous female impersonator. Buster rushes backstage at a theater to propose, and gets a rude surprise. But the ‘unacceptable’ prospective brides are simply variations on a theme. At one Jimmy thinks he’s gotten a ‘yes’ from one of the society girls and is greatly relieved. Then she’s revealed to be an 11 year-old child wearing her mother’s coat.
The big joke in Keaton’s classic short Cops was the surreal sight of a human tidal wave of uniformed policemen pursuing Buster through the city. Here in Seven Chances the mob is composed of brides of every shape and size, each convinced that they’re one ‘I do’ away from the fulfillment of their dreams. Nowadays it’s probably just as un-PC to show the gallery of plain, harsh and outright frightening-looking women crowding around Buster. Some act coy and another grabs him as she would a goose for the slaughter. Devouring women: it’s the stuff of comic nightmares. When we see Buster running in the streets pursued by this army of women the surreal associations are difficult to shake off. Freud had dreams like this, I imagine. Keaton’s female horde destroys everything in its path — brick walls, a field of corn and perhaps even Buster himself when the mob inadvertently drops him onto the path of an onrushing train.
For the last couple of reels Buster remains in constant motion, in top gear. He races down city streets and past modest homes. A squadron of cops on parade flees in panic when confronted with the human flood of brides bearing down on their column. Buster crosses the landscape like a dynamo. He leaps gorges and almost gets shot by duck hunters. He performs an incredible flip-flop down a steep sand hill, a tumble that we thought only a cartoon character could do. But the wildest is saved for last. Running down a long incline, Buster trips over one rock, which jostles two more, which start an avalanche of bouncing boulders. Predating video game graphics by at least sixty years, Buster must dodge and weave to avoid being crushed. Even if the rocks are fake, they clearly have mass and move quickly. In this inverted-Sisyphus image Keaton crystallizes a philosophy of life … just keep dodging disaster and hope for the best. The oft-told story is that Seven Chances was finished without this big ending, but that Keaton added it when preview audiences began to laugh at a couple of rocks ‘chasing’ Jimmy Shannon down the hill.
That’s the big scene, but Keaton aficionados also have a soft spot for his technical prowess in two shots showing Jimmy driving from one location to the other. Instead of a driving sequence, Keaton gets in his car, which does not move. Instead, in a perfect dissolve, the location changes, while the car and Keaton remain perfectly aligned, even though he’s parked on a slight incline. We’re told that Keaton used surveyor’s tools to accomplish this effect, which was achieved by back-winding the film and doing a manual double-fade dissolve in the camera. Knowing the technical context, the ingenuity is dazzling — and the definition of Buster Keaton’s pure cinema.
1925 / B&W / 1:37 Silent Ap / 77 min.
Starring: Butster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Sally O’Neil, Walter James, Bud Fine, Francis McDonald.
Cinematography: Bert Haines, J. Devereaux Jennings
Technical Director: Fred Gabourie
Written by Paul Gerard Smith, Albert Boasberg, Charles Smith, Lex Neal from a play by Stanley Brightman and Austin Melford
Directed by Buster Keaton
Each and every silent Buster Keaton feature is a treasure, but as a series they tell the story of a film artist under constant pressure to abandon the pursuit of his unique, individualistic talent. The relative disappointment of his monumental, innovative epic The General was followed by the much more conventional, ‘safer’ hit College. After Keaton’s Seven Chances did not do well, his group of comedy collaborators broke up, and his next two pictures steered in a more character-oriented direction. Battling Butler is an ‘in between’ Keaton attraction, an atypically conventional adaptation of an established stage comedy about yet another spoiled rich boy. Unlike Rollo Treadway of The Navigator, Keaton’s Alfred Butler doesn’t assume a heroic role until the final scene. He’s instead a fairly clueless, if lovable, character in a rigid farce.
Born-to-the-silk Alfred Butler (Keaton) has a dutiful servant (Snitz Edwards) who does everything for him, including comb his hair and collect the ashes from his cigarettes. Alfred has little awareness of the problems of others: whenever he wants something done, he simply says, ‘Arrange it.’ His camping trip comes complete with all the comforts and luxuries of home, including ice delivery. Alfred comes out of his shell only when he meets ‘the mountain girl’ (Sally O’Neil) and finds that his butler can’t ‘arrange’ for their marriage. In the confusion of the moment, the girl and her two manly brothers are told that Alfred is actually Battling Butler, a boxing champion. The brothers are impressed that such a small man can be so tough in the ring. Alfred is forced to maintain this lie right through a rushed marriage. In the city where the next big fight will take place, Alfred runs into the man he’s been impersonating, the real Battling Butler. Suspecting that his flirtatious wife is carrying on with Alfred, Battling agrees to allow the deception to continue. The champion is setting up his ‘rival’ for a massive beating.
Battling Butler has plenty of amusing comedy material. Alfred spends a fruitless hunting day, oblivious to the multitude of rabbits, deer and other animals all around him. Hunting ducks in a canoe, he’s stymied by a mallard that persists in submerging before he can point his shotgun in the right direction. Keaton is of course charming as a clueless son of the rich, innocent in his every contact with the world. Only when Alfred falls in love does he become involved with deceptions and silly schemes, and to his credit his first plan of action is to do the right thing and confess all. But the coincidences keep tripping him up until he nobly resigns himself to being beaten to death in the ring, just so he won’t disappoint his new wife. Alfred Butler may be a fool but he also has principles, so we’re happy to see him finally prevail.
In interviews Keaton said that he hired top New York gag writers, only to conclude that none of them could generate good ideas for physical comedy. The best material includes a scene in which the two ‘Mrs. Butlers’ fight over a box of candy from their husband. Keaton directs it well, but his character isn’t really involved. The complicated story has some fine pratfalls and an impressive fight scene for a finale, but it’s a stage adaptation, not a distinctive Keaton silent comedy. From his one-reel short subjects forward, Keaton orchestrated his physical gags into cumulative laugh patterns. Conceived for the screen, Keaton’s comedies couldn’t be adapted for a stage. A smaller gag would lead to an appropriately larger one, or return with an added twist. His Seven Chances has a paper-thin concept, but Keaton finds unlimited variations on the joke. Battling Butler sees Buster Keaton altering his screen character slightly to serve the pre-existing story. It’s a fine farce, but compared to classic Keaton it is also a relatively tame and conventional exercise. One notable fan is Martin Scorsese, who was impressed by the realism of the final boxing match.
The Cohen Film Collection’s Blu-ray of Seven Chances & Battling Butler: The Buster Keaton Collection Volume 3 is a fine package. The films were newly restored in Italy, and are indeed different from the Kino versions, fully intact and slightly cleaner. Holders of varied sources seem to have cooperated, for we’re told that on Seven Chances the bulk of the film came from one archive, while Cohen’s own materials were used only to replace missing frames.
Opening titles also tell us that the best available source was used for Seven Chances’ two-color Technicolor prologue, a series of tableaux that look like greeting cards, to lampoon romantic sentiments. Jimmy visits his girlfriend as the seasons pass. The scene changes appropriately with the time of year, and the girl’s puppy grows up, but Jimmy cannot find the words to actually propose. Back in 1970 I think we saw this scene in B&W; I just don’t remember for sure. An early VHS copy I saw had it in color, but with a great deal of deterioration, Decasia-style. Cohen’s version looks clean, but the Italian restorers apparently decided not to boost the color in any way — the scenes mostly look brown, with red roses on the girlfriend’s picket fence. Cohen also presents the remainder of Seven Chances in Sepia Tone.
Battling Butler is also in Sepia Tone, color-wise. The restoration notes say that a couple of reels are from dupes, but I can’t tell the difference. A Belgian copy in excellent condition was unusable, when it was found to be made from ‘B Negative.’ I interpret that as meaning alternate takes, either repeat takes or takes filmed with a second camera — it’s an entire different movie. The Butler restoration was finished in 2017.
Greatly adding to the presentation are new scores by Robert Israel, beautifully orchestrated and wonderfully light in tone. One theme for Battling Butler is melodic enough to want lyrics, to become a pop tune.
I wouldn’t know what to tell viewers that already own the Kino discs of the Keaton pictures. One can point to technical improvements on the new transfers, but the Kinos look fine as well, and those discs are appointed with impressive extras, including commentaries and fascinating location featurettes by John Bengtson (Thanks Andrew Melomet). Cohen provides only new promo teasers and an excerpt from a new Keaton documentary, featuring input from folk like Leonard Maltin, Ben Mankiewicz and Bill Hader. For lovers of Keaton seeking the inside story, I recommend tracking down Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s elusive Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, a three- part Thames TV series. It’s from 1987, when some Keaton associates were still alive and available for interviews.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Seven Chances & Battling Butler: The Buster Keaton Collection Volume 3
Supplements: short featurette “The Daredevil”, new promos.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Intertitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 18, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson