March 11, 1925
Directed by Buster Keaton
Seven Fascinating Things about Seven Chances
Credits blast onto the screen in two-strip Technicolor, lime green text on a wood-brown background. Buster as James Shannon stands with a lovely woman, a puppy between them, in the door of a white picket fence. Roses are in full bloom. As the suburbs pass quickly through all the colors of the four seasons, the warm red hues of damaged film flood the frame from the left and right. He can’t get the words out to his girlfriend to tell her he loves her and wants her forever. Before we know it, the scene changes, and Buster is back at the office. The color is gone. Time has passed him by.
Shannon stands to inherit $7,000,000, but on condition he is married by 7:00 pm on his 27th birthday, which is today. Time is running out. It shouldn’t be a problem, but he is still unable to talk about love. The main conflict of this movie is communication gone wrong, and what follows is a series of delays caused by a general inability to communicate. When he tries to propose to his fiancee next words come out wrong and she storms off offended. Once inside, she talks about it to her mother and realizes she was too rash. She reaches for the phone to call him at work, but Shannon has knocked the phone off the hook.
What is significant about all of these communication failures to a modern audience is that they couldn’t happen anymore, and could no longer move a plot forward. It’s simply far too easy now to get a hold of anyone who’s already in your social circle. She writes him a note and gives it to a messenger with a horse, effectively sending him an old-fashioned text.
The operator Miss Smith, played by Jean Arthur, doesn’t take shit from any of the men at the office. When she takes Mary’s call, she’s reading a book. When a rejected Shannon returns to the office, he accidently opens the door to the operator’s workspace, and she glares at him while he finds he way out. The device that moves the plot forward is unreliability of modern communication, but what moves the story forward is the tremendous male anxiety at the new status of women in modernity. Since his fiancee has rejected him, Shannon is forced to find a woman to marry at a moment’s notice, with only his partner and lawyer to help. Now this shouldn’t be hard, considering that he stands to be worth seven million, but women have more options now. It’s far easier to say no, which is what the seven women that Shannon knows proceed to do, and they collectively laugh in his face. He has to start asking women he doesn’t know. Most hilarious is the hat check girl, played by Rosalind Byrne with a stone face of her own. She’s only trying to do her job, but must deal with the clueless and obnoxious Shannon. We know he’s eventually going to have to ask her. The look she gives as she shakes her head, contemptuous and tired, releases the comic tension of the first half.
Having struck out with the women in his upper class social circle, he and his partners split up, each agreeing to meet at the Broad St. church at 5:00 with a bride. Shannon drives off in his roadster, and his next target is a woman not only driving, but driving the same car! The camera tracks from other vehicles driving alongside. He begins his courtship and distracted, he crashes. After a shot of the crash, the camera returns to track the woman looking behind her, and she turns her head back around just in time to swerve out of the way of a parked pickup truck. I’ve watched this four-second shot over and over in marvel. Little seems to be known about the woman who plays this role that combines both comic expression and a dazzling dangerous stunt, all of which is over and forgotten in seconds, as Buster is already after the next one.
His partner had the good sense to take out a newspaper advertisement (top front page) that plainly states his case. It includes a photograph of the man worth $7 million. Buster, admitting defeat, shows up to the church empty-handed and passes out on the first aisle, and by 5:00 the entire church is full of hopeful women wearing makeshift wedding gowns. They take no notice of him in the aisle until they match his picture to the photographic image in the newspaper, and the magical moment of modern reflection is made.
After waking and seeing the church full of women who could either devour him in affections or tear him apart, Buster makes his escape, and runs through the streets of town, trying to find how much time he still has left. His attempts to discern the time are thwarted, climaxing in a scene where he finds a clock maker’s store, and the camera pans across the storefront window, full of clocks all showing different times. Even inside the store, no clock agrees with any other, as if he has left the temporal world. Such is the vertiginous feeling of not knowing the time in a modern world ruled by the precision of the clock. The clock is perhaps even more important than the engine in differentiating the modern industrial world from the feudal one. He still has a chance, if he can get a marriage by 7. But what time is it now, can you please tell me? Is it too late for me?
You can see it in the chase scene, where in addition to fleeing from the mob of women, he must also flee the path of tumbling boulders. Individual people have wills of their own – they can be reasoned with and persuaded. A mob is trickier – the mass will is unlikely to change once it gets going. But the rocks cannot be reasoned with at all – they are solely the product of mechanics. Force equals Mass times Acceleration. And even crueller than the forces of gravity is the cruelty of time. What drives this movie is time’s sheer disregard for us. Time keeps moving forward despite our petty desires. Getting older is the most obvious form of the cruelty of this indifferent process. 27 an especially difficult age. Shannon finds himself back at the house he started the movie from, where time continued to pass him by, and it’s 7:02. But fuck that, they get married anyway. And lo! It’s actually 6:59. It has never been too late.