Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances – 1925

Director – Buster Keaton

Starring – Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, and T. Roy Barnes

Each and every time I watch a brand new Buster Keaton movie, I go into it remembering the last one I saw.  So far each of them that I have seen, except the first one of course, the extreme level of quality has me continuing to hold the next one to that high standard.  The problem with that, comes in with my memory.  Each and every time I forget that these films start out slowly.  There is the inevitable set-up of the premise, the introduction of all the main characters, and the reveal of the potential love interest for Keaton’s character(it happens in each of them).  As a result I get worried in the first 15 or so minutes, that it’s going to be all slow pace, and cutesy plotting.

The fact that Seven Chances was a movie about a man who desperately needs to get married by 7 o’clock on the same day, only elongates the necessary set-up of the film, and tricked me into believing that this would be the one that would simply be corny and sweet, without the usual jaw-dropping action.  As in each of the others, however, I was not disappointed or let down in the least, it simply took me a little longer to get to the meat of Keaton’s athleticism, derring-do, and stunt-work.

As I mentioned earlier, Seven Chances is about a man who needs to get married on the double in order to gain a huge inheritance, and after doing an inventory of the women in his life, and in the immediate vicinity, he determines that he has seven opportunities to make that happen.  Of course the girl he truly loves misunderstands how he actually feels about her, and thinks he only wants the money.  The real trouble starts when his lawyer, in an effort to expedite the process, explains in the newspaper just what the situation is.  Soon enough a flood of women come out of the woodwork all bent on marrying the rather flustered bachelor cum-millionaire.

As with all of the Keaton films that I’ve seen (Sherlock, Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), the plot of Seven Chances is a backdrop at best and really ends up being a device through which to deliver the action.  The romance and characterization serves the purpose of setting up the scene and attracting people to the film in the first place, and while there are some fairly funny gags with Three’s Company-like misunderstandings, everyone is really there to see Keaton potentially kill himself.

Once again, the mans sheer physicality is astounding.  Each of the stunts is actually done by him, usually in one-unbroken take, and certainly without our modern-day concern for safety.  The rock-slide sequence in particular is the defining moment of this film.  The capper on a 20 plus minute chase sequence, it’s pretty insane to watch this guy run head first into a stream of rolling and bouncing rocks (I assume they weren’t really rocks, but still, his skill at avoiding all the obstacles in his path is exemplary).

That being said, I don’t think this film was quite as good as any of the others I’ve seen, and I’m not quite sure what aspect or characteristic placed this film on this list in the first place.  Perhaps the compilers of this list felt that Seven Chances had some unique defining quality, or maybe that it was of some great historical import, or perhaps it was simply a personal favorite, I’m not really sure.  I will say that it didn’t seem that there was a real stand-out reason to choose it over something else.  Perhaps there was a quota for a certain number of movies from each year, and without this film, 1925 was looking a little light.  Who knows?

Hopefully, I haven’t given the impression that Seven Chances is a bad film or anything.  The fact that I was excited to watch it, I enjoyed it, and that I will be excited to watch the next Keaton film is a testament to his staying power as an entertainer, one who I would have been completely ignorant of, if it hadn’t been for this list.

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Super Fly (1972)

Super Fly – 1972

Director – Gordon Parks Jr.

Starring – Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier and Julius Harris

Films the world over are often products of their environments.  The daily input of the culture from which they are borne infuse them with settings, history, and ideals that in equal measure define, inform, and limit them.  The Blaxsploitation movement of the 1970’s is a prime example of this juxtaposition.  These films often held a mirror up to the audience, mixing entertainment, and catharsis with a frank look at the ills and issues of the African-American communities of the day.  Super Fly in particular was a smashing success at the box office, proving that audiences were interested in seeing a confident, self-assured, and strong black presence win in the end, even at the cost of having that presence draped in the somewhat shady trappings of a drug dealer, pimp and murderer.

Priest (Ron O’Neal) is smooth, he’s well dressed, he’s good with the ladies, and he is also a dealer of cocaine, and a bit of a gangster.  Constantly confronted with the notion that today might be the day he ends up dead or in jail, Priest finally gives voice to a long brewing need to escape the drug dealing life that he’s built for himself, and move on to something else.  Something more positive, and something without the scrutiny and control of “The Man”.  To achieve this, he makes the inevitable decision to make one final score (in this case it is a big, one-time buy that will be quickly sold off through many, quick, smaller scores).

Much is made about Priest’s desire to leave the life of dealing drugs, but when it comes down to it, the cocaine affords him a certain comfort and power that is too difficult to escape fully.  Even if he decides to give up the dealing aspect, Priest can never really free himself of his relationship with cocaine entirely, because he snorts it far too regularly.  It’s dependence at a different, but no less fundamental level for the character.

The system is set up so that it draws him back in.  To escape the dealing, he needs more money.  To make more money, he needs to sell more drugs.  To sell more drugs, he needs to enter into deeper relationships with the corrupt, and greedy cops who want him to deal more drugs, increasing their-own profit and status.  He is operating from within a system that wants him to fail.  Even his partners and so-called friends question his desire to get out of the life.  They tell him that this is the best he can hope for, and that he is a fool to throw all that money and potential away.  The quest for freedom, and desire to grow are matched equally by the quest for wealth, and the desire for respect and acceptance.  Each side is working at cross purposes to the other, while at the same time fueling the progress of the other as well.

That same conflict echoes itself back and forth throughout the entirety of the film.  The cocaine that Priest sells, which gains him the power, money and purpose that he enjoys, wouldn’t be nearly as much of a success if it wasn’t illegal   The “man” or “men” that he rages against are the very same people who keep the drug demand high, and essentially keep him employed.  Just by virtue of being the hero who’s gonna stick it to the man, he disrupts the system, and is hurting his ability to continue selling drugs, simultaneously freeing himself from the bonds that trap him, and ostensibly putting himself in a situation where they have the ability to exert more power over him.  It is a never-ending cycle, and it’s more than Priest can take.

The one bright light in his life, is Georgia (Frazier), the woman who stands by him and actually believes in him.  Aside from being someone he goes to for comfort and the occasional night of passion, with Georgia, Priest can finally let his guard down and be something other than the tough, un-caring gangster he is to everyone else.   Unfortunately, instead of realizing this and treasuring his relationship with her, he instead continues sleeping around with other women and disregarding her at almost every turn.  He turns to her to assume a good deal of risk when he makes his move to escape the clutches of his oppressors, but offers her little in return.  It does seem more than a little ironic to me that the simple considerations of freedom from oppression and need for respect that Priest is fighting for in his own life are dismissed by him when it comes to Georgia.

For a movie that seems so concerned with empowering it’s primarily young, primarily black audience, it works very hard to simultaneously hold them back in relation to how they view themselves.  For every assertive step forward, Super Fly, takes just as an assertive step backwards as well.  While it seems a little disappointing, I guess, I sort of understand it at the same time.  I mean I root for Breaking Bad’s Walter White to escape his police pursuers and keep cooking meth, and really is that so different as Priest?  Not by much.

In terms of the cinematography, Super Fly is such a 70’s movie!  Long tracking shots, zooming in and out of the action.  Washed out film stock that bleeds with life despite it’s rather dated look.  While not technically great composition, lighting, or editing, I loved watching it nonetheless.  Costuming, hairstyles, the music (fun fact: Super Fly is one of the few movies with sales out performed by its soundtrack, thanks in no small part to Curtis Mayfield’s instantly recognizable songs), and the sparse acting, all add up to a period piece that had no idea that it was one.  The look and feel of this film, speak to a time that was and never will be quite like this again.  This film had quite an impact in terms of style and substance of not only films, but of pop culture as well.  This if the film that started the popularity of the “Pimpmobile” after all.

Though it has flaws, some of which were glaring, Super Fly remains an important piece of film history, and as such is deserving of its place on the list.  While it certainly isn’t my favorite film on this list, it was pretty fun to watch, and afterwards to think about.  I look forward to seeing Shaft, another blaxsploitation film on this list, and a sort of companion piece to this film.  The only question is, which soundtrack is more iconic, Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly or Isaac Hayes’ Shaft?  More on that once I’ve seen both.

The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. – 1928

Director – Charles Reisner

Starring – Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, and Marion Byron

A big debate amongst cinephiles is the merit of a film whose sole intent is entertainment, dispensing of deadweight such as message, stakes, and emotional heft.  Today these types of films are called “Popcorn Films” or “Blockbusters”, and they are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, kids, elderly, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds.  No one demographic is really ever left out of the mix when talking about the audience for a film like this, with the exception of one…film snobs.  Does it have to be this way?  Are the visual hijinks, daring physical feats, and very basic storyline of something like Steamboat Bill, Jr. enough to make watching it worth while?  You bet!

This time around (just like most of the other times around) Buster Keaton finds himself the subject of scorn by an adult or an authority figure.  Despite this treatment, he remains almost blissfully unaware, and instead focuses his attention on the pretty young girl who has caught his eye.  Some sort of catastrophe occurs necessitating Keaton to spring into action, simultaneously proving the nay-sayers wrong and confirming the young girl’s belief in him.  Keaton invariably does this by demonstrating his physical prowess in an impressive and hilarious way.

Okay, so the story line is pretty much the same in each of his movies, only the setting and some of the plot points change.  One time it’s a train, the next it’s a steamboat.  He want’s to be a detective in one and the next he wants to play the violin.  This really isn’t all that different from other of Keaton’s peers, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers for example, were basically the same characters in multiple different movies, but does that remove any of their value, or the value of the film?

I submit to you that this is the best of Keaton’s films that I’ve seen so far.  I say this solely on the strength of the last 30 minutes of the film knowing full well that by then the story has almost completely finished.  We watch Keaton twist and contort his body against the force of a hurricane.  He has to dodge and weave, avoiding entire houses as they collapse around him, and in this flurry of activity I lost track of time and stared in wonder watching him go.  Whereas, during the first 45 minutes I found myself feeling restless and a little board, by the end I was on the edge of my seat.  The only disappointing part, was that the film wasn’t a full hour and fifteen minutes of that.

While I know what to expect from the storyline of a Keaton film, I will keep coming back and watching them because I also know what to expect from the sense of action and adventure from a Keaton film too.  This is my favorite of his films so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

“Buster Keaton, the inventor of break dancing.” – Ashley

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

SherlockJr

Sherlock, Jr. – 1924

Directors – Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Starring – Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Joe Keaton

The strength of any Buster Keaton performance is his supreme physicality. The man’s ability to use props, his co-stars, as well as his own body to carry out extremely fun and inventive sight gags and stunts is second to none.

Especially considering the fact that his subject of his derring-do often revolves around moving vehicles (trains and cars are what I’m thinking of specifically), it is made only that much more dangerous, and consequently impressive. The weak area of the Keaton films that I’ve seen thus far (The General, and this), are the parts where he has to carry the parts in between the major stunt set-pieces. While far surpassing a lot of the action sequences in most movie of his day, Keaton is trumped when it comes to the dramatic acting. In that arena he is bested by other comedians like Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers.

Sherlock, Jr. is a short film, lasting only about 35 minutes, which I think works in the film’s favor. If it were too much longer, it would drag, and if it were feature length it would eventually become agonizing! As it is, I was more than entertained by film the entire time, and caught myself checking my watch only because I was watching some food in the oven.

The music for this production, just like in The General, serves the purpose of helping pace the film. During the action sequences, the piano music is peppy and lively. Likewise when the story wants us to dwell on the Keaton’s love interest, the music slows down and we know what’s going to happen. This tendency of using the music this way helps to keep the slower parts interesting, but allows for no surprises in the plot. We know immediately what the tone of the scene is going to be. That being said, I don’t think anyone really watches a Buster Keaton movie wondering if he’ll actually get the girl, they watch to see him do what he does best…perform.

Now I realize that Buster Keaton is a pioneer in the movie industry, but he has so many films in this book of 1001, yet some who have carried on in his name like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are not recognized at all in this list.  While I am looking forward to seeing whatever else Mr. Keaton has in store for me in his other films, it seems only right that other performers get recognition too.  So if you liked Sherlock, Jr. check out Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors, or Armor of God (also known as Operation Condor 2: Armor of God).