Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

Buster Keaton makes me think of my Dad.  When I was growing up, my Dad and I watched a lot of classic movies together.  Most were “talkies” but there were some silent films as well and they all starred one man, Buster Keaton.  I remember watching THE GENERAL  and listening to my Dad read the dialogue screens aloud.  As the years went on and I started watching more movies on my own, I started to move away from silent films.  I enjoyed the rapid fire dialogue and the witty scripts, my love of words taking hold.  But whenever there was a Buster Keaton movie on, I paused and watched if only for a few minutes.  Buster pulled me in and kept me stuck.  So, when TCM spent Monday night celebrating silent films it was inevitable that I would be watching at least one movie that evening.  That one film was SEVEN CHANCES from 1925, directed by and starring Buster Keaton.

James Shannon aka Jimmy is a simple man.  He only desires one thing, and that is to tell Mary (played by Ruth Dwyer) that he loves her.  But try as he might, seasons come and go and Jimmy still cannot profess his love.  Jimmy spends his days working as a banker with his friend and partner, played by T. Roy Barnes.  One morning a man (played by Snitz Edwards) comes to their office asking to speak with Jimmy.  Fearing that the man is coming to serve him with a court summons, Jimmy refuses to speak with him and goes off with his partner to the country club.  The man follows them there and finally manages to get Jimmy’s attention.  Instead of trying to serve a summons, the man is a lawyer trying to bestow an inheritance!  It seems that Jimmy’s uncle has died and left him…seven million dollars!  There is one condition however, Jimmy must be married by seven o’clock the evening of his twenty-seventh birthday.  And today is his birthday!

At last Jimmy has something to offer to Mary and off he rushes to propose.  Once he arrives at Mary’s house however, Jimmy becomes nervous and needs to take a few moments to practice what he will say.  While he prepares, Mary comes up behind him and overhears everything.  “Mary, will you marry me?”, Jimmy asks the air.  “Yes.”, replies Mary much to Jimmy’s shock.  The two love birds sit together in almost wedded bliss and Jimmy declares that they will be married today.  When Mary wonders why the rush, he tells her about his inheritance.  And all he has to do, he says, is marry some girl.  Oh, Jimmy.  Mary, greatly offended, calls off the engagement and goes into the house.  Jimmy sadly returns to his office to inform the lawyer and his partner that Mary has refused him.  Unbeknownst to Jimmy, at this moment Mary’s mother is convincing her to give Jimmy a chance to explain himself.  Mary agrees and telephones Jimmy’s office, asking to be put through to him.  The phone in Jimmy’s office has been lifted off the hook accidentally, so Mary is able to hear as the lawyer and Jimmy’s partner attempt to convince him to marry someone else.  But there is no other girl for Jimmy and he says as much.  Upon hearing this Mary hangs up the phone and calling to her hired man, sends Jimmy a message warning him again marrying anyone else.  She ends by saying that she “believes she will be home all day”.

Jimmy meanwhile has given in to the idea of marrying someone else and resignedly goes off to the country club, accompanied by his partner and the lawyer.  The three of them make a list of eligible women and go around the country club, proposing as they go.  Jimmy is rejected at every turn and time is starting to run out.  Be at the church by 5 o’clock, his partner tells him, and the bride will be there no matter what!  So saying, the lawyer and Jimmy’s partner leave and head off to the newspaper.  There they place a story, explaining all about Jimmy and his inheritance.  All he needs is a bride, the paper declares, show up at the church at 5 o’clock and the money is yours.  Surely this will do the trick!  This leads to one of the most famous scenes from Buster Keaton’s films and a climax that Buster Keaton himself, recreated in his final starring role alongside Jimmy Durante in WHAT – NO BEER?.

Buster Keaton was such an interesting performer and talent.  He taught himself about cameras and camerawork by first opening up the camera and seeing what made everything tick, and secondly watching his friend and mentor Fatty Arbuckle work behind the camera.  He directed, wrote, and starred in his own films, and ran his own film production company.  According to interviews he never came up with the middle part of a movie when writing the script.  He and his crew would start with the beginning and the end, and work out the middle during production.  Gags and stunts were worked out on paper, and often improvised.  Not only creative, he was incredibly athletic.  Just look at him run!  My husband, while watching with me last night, remarked that he couldn’t be running that fast and that the film speed must be increased.  But no, that was all Buster Keaton.

Silent movies aren’t always popular.  Buster Keaton remarked that with the dawn of talkies came a desire for “verbal gags”, jokes from the dialogue rather than the action.  It was here Buster struggled to make a transition from silent film star to movie star.  Through personal issues, poor casting, bad film choices by MGM, and too much studio interference, Buster Keaton’s film career dwindled.  He eventually worked in films by writing gags for the likes of The Three Stooges, and Red Skelton.  Often entire bits were lifted from Buster’s silent films and placed into the newer “talkies”.  For a time Buster Keaton and his silent films were forgotten, but thankfully they were rediscovered and are in circulation again today.  In fact, it seems that as movies progress we are starting to move back towards an emphasis on physical comedy rather than verbal gags.

Buster Keaton will always hold a special place in my heart and I will always pause in my day to watch him do what he does best.  SEVEN CHANCES is still an incredibly fun and funny movie, and the stunts are all the more impressive for knowing that it is all Buster!  So, thanks Dad and thanks Buster.

Classics from Criterion: TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

“To be or not to be…that is the question”

That is also where all the trouble starts.  Every six months or so BARNES AND NOBLE BOOKSELLERS conspires with THE CRITERION COLLECTION to make me spend my money and buy far more DVDs and Blu Rays than I intend to.  The Criterion sale puts these titles, that previously were on the higher end of my price range, into the extremely tempting how-can-you-not-buy-twenty area of 50% off.  So, of course…I buy twenty.  This time one of my purchases was one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch movies, TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The movie stars Jack Benny as that great, great, Polish actor Joseph Tura, and Carole Lombard stars as his wife, Maria Tura.  Joseph and Maria Tura are actors in Warsaw, Poland right at the beginning of what would become World War II.  Joseph is a bit of a prima donna, and his wife is becoming frustrated with his lack of attention and respect for her.  The theatre troupe is currently performing HAMLET while rehearsing for a new play meant to give a realistic representation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.  One night, during the evening performance of HAMLET, Maria invites an admirer back to her dressing room.  Her admirer is a very handsome young airman, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, whom she instructs to leave the audience to visit her when Hamlet starts his famous speech.  Naturally, complications ensue but just when you might be inclined to think that this is going to be just another romantic comedy the Nazis invade Poland.  Literally.

From there TO BE OR NOT TO BE turns into a darkly funny movie dealing with World War II, spies, gun fights, intricate ploys and costumes, fake beards, and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.  If you have not seen this movie I won’t go any further into details about the plot, except to strongly recommend that you see it.  If you have seen this movie, I will say that it looks gorgeous on Blu Ray from Criterion and it certainly a film that deserves a place in any classic movie collection.

This film was made at a time when America was not yet involved with the growing global conflict that was World War II.  Hitler and his Nazi regime where out in the world wreaking havoc but Americans had not yet experienced the war first hand.  This would change of course, because by the time the movie was released Hitler would be moving across Europe, Pearl Harbor would be bombed, and one of the movie’s stars would be killed in a plane crash.  This was the final film of Carole Lombard, who died on January 16, 1942 when her plane crashed returning from a trip to sell war bonds.  She was 33 years old.  She had taken the part of Maria despite strenuous objections from her husband, Clark Gable, and she would go on to say that the making of this film was the happiest time of her career.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE was not terribly successful at its release, but over the years it has grown in appreciation and was named one of the fifty best comedies by Premiere magazine in 2006.  It was remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks, with himself and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles.

For me, while the 1983 version is good and has some great moments, the 1942 version is the one that I prefer.  Carole Lombard and Jack Benny are perfectly cast, and the entire ensemble is amazing!  There is also something daring and pointed about this film that the 1983 version can’t replicate.  This movie was made as World War II was happening.  It was made at a time when most Americans didn’t seem too concerned over Adolf Hitler and his regime, and yet here was Ernst Lubitsch making a film that really seemed to be saying “Hello?  I think we need to start paying attention over here!”  The film is undeniably funny, smart, and extremely well made.  But it is also a look into a moment in time that would not come again…the moment where America still believed that there would only ever be one World War.