For some reason, there is nothing funnier to me than Buster Keaton running at top speed. Part of that probably has something to do with the nature of “top speed” in the silent era: Action scenes were generally undercranked during shooting, so that projecting them “normally” (at what could still be a highly variable rate from theater to theater, or even from show to show) resulted in fast-motion hijinks. Still, there’s something special about Keaton in motion. You could make a case that it’s the incongruity between his storied “stone face” and his furiously pumping legs, but the notion that Keaton is somehow emotionally inexpressive has never made much sense to me, frankly—his refusal to mug doesn’t make him stoic or impassionate (though it does make him look well ahead of his time, in terms of performance style). Truly, I think it’s mostly just that he runs funny, in much the same way that, for example, Chaplin walks funny. I do believe I could identify his 100-yard dash 10 times out of 10 with his face obscured.
In any case, that surely explains why my favorite Keaton movie isn’t The General or Sherlock, Jr. or Our Hospitality, but the generally somewhat lesser-regarded Seven Chances, which culminates in one of the most gloriously silly chase sequences ever filmed (only a portion of which I’ll be sharing with you here). You may recognize the film’s basic plot if you were unfortunate enough to see Hollywood’s misbegotten 1999 remake The Bachelor, starring Chris O’Donnell in the Keaton role and Renée Zellweger as The Girl Who Squints a Lot. On his 27th birthday, Buster learns that an eccentric relative has left him $7 million—about $85 million today, not that many of us would shrug at just seven—provided that he’s married by 7 p.m. on, yes, his 27th birthday. When his business partners place an ad in the paper to find him a wife, hundreds of women decked out in bridal gowns show up, just in time for Buster to get a “yes” from the girl-next-door he loves. Which leaves the multitude of the jilted none too happy.
Because I wanted to include at least some of the boulder sequence, you don’t get from this clip the full effect of Keaton being pursued in the streets by a gigantic swarm of gals in wedding dresses. Only a relative handful is still after him by this point. But The Bachelor has even more women chasing O’Donnell, and it isn’t even remotely funny. Critics at the time suggested that changing mores were to blame—that we just can’t laugh anymore at the spectacle of angry vengeful brides, which is retrograde and demeaning. But I submit that you could put O’Donnell in front of a thousand pissed-off warthogs and it would still have none of Seven Chances’ antic exuberance, because that quality derives entirely from Keaton’s performance. Keaton’s a fine actor in repose, but he’s a genius in motion. Here, he’s alone on the screen, for the most part, and yet he still vividly conveys a sense of the horde on his heels via his desperate athleticism.
What most amazes me is the degree to which Keaton’s movements seem choreographed. It’s one thing for Chaplin to methodically construct the Tramp’s physical shtick: tip the bowler, flash a quick smile, kick the cane up in a tight circle, repeat the grin with a shrug, etc. If you’re Robert Downey, Jr., you have something pretty specific to duplicate. But it’s another thing to choreograph what’s essentially just a dead run across a field. And I’m not talking about the big stunts, as when Keaton more or less somersaults into the middle of the stream at full speed. I’m just talking about his basic running, which should in theory be artless but in fact demonstrates a clockwork precision that’s hilarious in itself. Just the ratio of frantic steps forward to anxious glances back seems ripe for some kind of detailed computer analysis, even if I doubt that Keaton mapped any of that stuff out in advance. His instinct for the mad dash was simply peerless.
Ironically, that very genius makes some of his gags here fall a little flat. The turtle clinging to his tie when he emerges from the stream is funny in theory, but Keaton, to make sure we can see the turtle, opts to shoot himself in close-up, “running” with and toward the camera, and the artificial flailing of his limbs is such a dramatic contrast to what his actual running looks like that it’s suddenly all you can notice. (Toward the end of the shot, he appears to be on the same PeopleMover that Spike Lee would later find a way to employ in movie after movie.) And it’s a bit disappointing when Keaton leaps into the tree and there’s an obvious cut before and after it falls, presumably so that either a stuntman or (more likely) a dummy could take his place. (I do wonder whether that cut was as obvious to audiences in 1925 as it is to us today. Did they not see it, the way most people don’t see reel-change cigarette burns until Tyler Durden points them out? Or did they see it and just accept it more readily, à la rear projection and so forth?)
Famously, the boulder sequence—which actually gets even crazier after this clip ends; I highly recommend the whole movie if you haven’t seen it—was added following previews, after folks roared unexpectedly at the early shot of Keaton dislodging a few smaller rocks onto his tail. In this case, there’s really no conceivable way it could have been carefully choreographed—they clearly just rolled a bunch of big fake rocks down the hill at him while he stumbled down. And yet it looks uncannily like what you’d expect to see if the boulders had been computer-animated by the same folks who created, say, the dinosaur stampede in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Keaton is always precisely where he needs to be for maximum visual dynamism and comic effect, and he’s forever moving at just the right speed (relative to the rocks, I mean—we can’t know for sure at what speed he was actually running or at what speed the film was originally projected). In one shot you see him make a very gradual lateral move from his left to his right, across flying debris, at a dead run downhill, which should really replace hurdles as an Olympic event.
That said, do we think Keaton himself did that insane triple somersault down the dune? I claimed above that I could recognize his run every time, and that does look like him running. At the same time, that stunt seriously looks as if it offered about a 20 percent chance of a broken neck. (Keaton had actually already broken his neck making Sherlock, Jr., though he wouldn’t learn it until years after the fact.) In any case, my best wishes to any young actor who decides to take on the title role in somebody’s production of Buster. Donald O’Connor—a mover if ever there was one—gave it a shot in 1957, and even he couldn’t pull it off. Some actions are inimitable.