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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Another Seven Chances (originally published 11/99)

Hollywood is, and always has been, well known for recycling material in the form of remakes. That's the case with the currently playing comedy "The Bachelor." It's based on a film released over seventy years ago, but for those of us who revere the original, that may still be too close for comfort.

In part that's because the advent of home video has brought about a shift in the landscape with regard to the pros and cons of remakes. There was a time when remaking a perennial favorite made some kind of sense, because the original would be difficult, if not impossible, to see. Now, however, with a video store on every other corner, a remake must be able to stand up to direct comparison with its own source of inspiration. It so happens that the film that inspired "The Bachelor," against all odds and despite its age, still survives for us to enjoy on home video.

It was the work of Buster Keaton, one of the silent screen's most accomplished talents, both as a gifted comic performer and as an inspired director. In 1925, with Keaton's popularity riding high on the success of his last feature picture, "The Navigator" (1924), Keaton's boss, studio head Joseph Schenck, acquired a property to use as the basis of a new Keaton project. It was a Broadway show called "Seven Chances," about a young man who stands to inherit $7 million on his 27th birthday, but only on condition that he is married by 7:00pm on that day. Keaton didn't care for the project, but reluctantly agreed to go ahead with it.

Keaton plays a rising young executive who learns of his potential inheritance only hours before the deadline. The woman he's been courting for months still won't give him the time of day, so he begins proposing to women randomly on the street, garnering reactions ranging from outright laughter when proposing to women he barely knows to a black eye when unwittingly proposing to a female impersonator.

As a last resort, his friend puts an ad in the paper, explaining the situation and inviting any interested woman to show up at a specified church by 5:00. Just as Keaton learns that his beloved has decided to accept his proposal after all, he finds his way barred by the hundreds of women who have answered the ad. The result is one of the movies' most memorable chase scenes. Originally, however, it wasn't so memorable. At a preview screening, the scene fell flat until the very end, when a totally unplanned laugh took Keaton by surprise. Looking at the scene again, he saw that in running down a hill with the prospective brides in hot pursuit he had accidentally dislodged three small rocks, which then rolled down the hill after him. This was what had amused the audience so much. Keaton made the most of the serendipity, going back and reshooting the chase to capitalize on the accidental gag by recreating and elaborating on it. He had the original rocks set larger rocks in motion, causing a chain reaction. By the end of the scene, he is attempting to outrun a full scale landslide. It is one of silent comedy's most memorable images, one which was recently borrowed by George Lucas for "The Phantom Menace."

Many years later, a Hollywood theater manager named Raymond Rohauer was able to persuade Keaton to let him preserve the prints of classic films that had been slowly deteriorating in Keaton's garage. He found, however, that Keaton resisted the idea of preserving "Seven Chances." His distaste for the project had not mellowed over the years and he was not anxious to see good money "wasted" on its preservation. Rohauer was persistent, however, and ultimately succeeded in persuading Keaton that all his surviving works were worthy of being saved.

A couple of years ago, the fruits of this restoration effort, including "Seven Chances," were released on home video by Kino. Thanks to Kino's efforts under the direction of David Shepard, and to Rohauer's dogged persuasiveness, and to those three wayward rocks that inspired the rewritten climax, we have the original film against which to compare its remake. I haven't seen "The Bachelor" yet, and I may not go at all. The truth is that I'd rather just sit at home and watch "Seven Chances" again.

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