Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Improv comedy on a grand scale: 'Seven Chances' on Aug. 4 at Leavitt Theatre, Ogunquit, Maine

A Swedish poster for 'Seven Chances' (1925). Wow, what happened to Buster's hat?

It's a film Buster Keaton didn't really want to make. But it turned out to be among his most memorable,  thanks to a climactic sequence added only after the picture was considered finished.

It's 'Seven Chances' (1925), and the way it was put together is a great example of how things got done in 1920s Hollywood, and at the Keaton Studio in particular.

I'll accompany 'Seven Chances' on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre In Ogunquit, Maine. More details about the screening are in the press release below.

When introducing the film, I often relate the story of how Buster felt 'Seven Chances,' originally a stage farce, wasn't really his kind of comedy. But felt obligated to make it because his producer, Joe Schenck, had purchased the rights.

Turned into a motion picture, 'Seven Chances' originally ended with an outdoor chase: a tuxedo-clad Buster pursued across the landscape by an army of angry would-be brides. 

Later in life, Keaton recalled his team feeling they had an ending that was "okay. Not a world-beater, but just okay."

But when the rough cut was previewed to a Los Angeles audience, the crew noticed something: at the very end of the chase, they audience perked up. 

On screen, as Buster tumbled down a hill, he accidentally dislodged three small rocks, which started bouncing down the hill with him, as the chase faded out. "I had to scram to get out of the way," Buster recalled.

That, and the reaction it got, inspired Buster and his crew to go back create the now-legendary "rock slide" sequence, which was then spliced into the picture.  

If three rocks were good, then three hundred rocks would be better!

It was improv comedy on a grand scale. And it's a great example of how Keaton's comedy was to a great extent "found" in the world around him. 

No formal scripts were used, either for his short comedies or his features of the 1920s. He and his team would decide on a story, figure out how to start it, and then come up with a "finish," as shown above with 'Seven Chances.'

And then off they'd go, either in the studio or, more often, into the streets of Los Angeles or the surrounding California countryside. As Buster said late in life, "We figured the middle would take care of itself."

Of course there had to be a certain amount of preparation, especially when the story was set in a historical period. 'The General' (1926), with its minutely detailed costumes, locales, and props from the Civil War era, did not happen by accident. 

But the comedy often did.

This Wednesday's screening of 'Seven Chances' won't happen by accident: it's at 7 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. The venue opened in 1923 as a silent movie house, and remains largely intact. 

It's likely that 'Seven Chances' played there in the summer of 1925. And if it didn't, then we'll remedy that on Wednesday night. Hope to see you there!

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Buster in 'Seven Chances.' I've always been intrigued by the bearded bride in the center of the crowd.

Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton comedy 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at Leavitt Theatre

Silent film presentation with live music features classic race-to-the-finish romantic farce

OGUNQUIT, Maine—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit.

Admission is $12 per person. Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Adapted from a stage play, the story finds Buster learning that he'll inherit $7 million if he's married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday—that very day!

Buster's hurried attempts to tie the knot on his own go awry. But then a newspaper story changes the game, creating an avalanche of would-be brides who relentlessly pursue Buster as he searches for his one true love before the deadline.

'Seven Chances' was the first screen adaptation of the now-familiar story, since used in movies ranging from the Three Stooges in 'Brideless Groom' (1947) to Gary Sinyor's 'The Bachelor' (1999), a romantic comedy starring Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellwinger.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'Seven Chances.'

The historic Leavitt Theatre opened in 1923 as a summer-only silent movie house. Now approaching 100 years of operation, it continues to show movies, but also functions as a restaurant, bar, and lounge.

In reviving Keaton's 'Seven Chances,' the Leavitt Theatre aims to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'Seven Chances' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925) will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit. Admission $12 per person; tickets available at the door.

For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com.

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