Seven Chances (1925), Buster Keaton’s fifth feature as a director, is a rare Keaton film based directly on another property, in this case a David Belasco stage play by Roi Cooper Megrue. But it’s safe to say that Keaton transformed the material into his own brand of humor: from stage farce to snappy cinematic slapstick, with Buster turning every verbal jokes into visual gags.
The script is built on the kind of impossible contrivances that have been driving comedies for centuries. Keaton is James Shannon, a meek, sincere young lawyer too timid to ask his girl (Ruth Dwyer) for her hand, a situation made abundantly clear in a prologue that takes his courtship through the seasons. Then, just as he and his partner are in a serious (but only vaguely explained) financial bind, he’s informed that his rich uncle died (as the cliché goes) and he’s to inherit $7 million. The catch: he has to marry by 7 o’clock on his 27th birthday. I’ll give you seven guesses as to what day on which this all occurs (hint: it’s the afternoon of his 27th birthday). And, wouldn’t you, after all that procrastinating, he trips over his non-proposal and ends up at the country club, where his business partner identifies the seven girls his know as James’ “seven chances.”
For all the sevens in this script, Keaton tosses the number aside as he builds momentum and James’ shyness and social insecurity is overcome with each rejection, steeling him to become more brazen with each proposal. Before the sequence is over, he’s asked every single girl in the place (including an unbilled, not-yet-famous Jean Arthur as the club receptionist; keep an eye out for the one who waves the ring on her finger in front of his face) and heads out to try his luck on the street.
This isn’t the kind of pratfall slapstick or creative tangle with technology that we associate with Keaton but a kind of comic dance where he slides from partner to partner, making his pitch, taking each rebuff in stride and moving to the next. Some of these bits are deliciously choreographed steps, others born of Keaton’s trademark earnest haplessness, overcoming his initial shyness and reticence and fear of humiliation as he soldiers on through variations on a theme. The purpose of the exercise is practically forgotten as James takes on the act of proposing itself as the challenge. Keaton the director pushes him into crazier situations and more brazen propositions and Keaton the screen performer meets them all with comic grace.