If I were to list the formative screenings in my moviegoing education, I would have to include a double bill of two Buster Keaton features, “Seven Chances” (1925) and “The Cameraman” (1928), that I caught at Film Forum in Manhattan in college.
Although Film Forum normally shows silent movies with piano accompaniment, for whatever reason the theater had no music that afternoon. I had watched silent movies without scores before — this was a curse for anyone who discovered them on cheaply made VHS tapes — but doing so always felt academic, an exercise in concentrated viewing. That day, though, I realized that Keaton’s visual sense was so precise, and so funny, that sound never for a moment seemed necessary.
If you have never seen a silent film, “Seven Chances” is an excellent place to start. The movie, which Keaton directed, can be found in various forms online, including in an excellent restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Cohen Film Collection. And to make it a double feature, pair it with an even earlier film, Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Doll” (1919): two tales involving a highly eligible bachelor pursued by a throng of prospective brides. There is music in some of the streaming versions. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend watching them with the volume turned down — silent movies were rarely shown without some form of accompaniment — but in the hands of these directors, you won’t need supplemental melody.
In “Seven Chances,” Keaton plays James Shannon, a partner in a straitened brokerage firm. Jimmie learns that he stands to inherit $7 million, but only if he is married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday — and that is, naturally, that evening. And Jimmie has already wasted a lot of time: The movie, otherwise in black and white, opens with a two-color Technicolor sequence depicting season after season of his failing to profess his love to Mary (Ruth Dwyer), the woman he really does want to wed. When, that fateful day, Jimmie finally proposes (sort of: Mary overhears his heart-clutching rehearsal while he is looking the other way), he offends her by mentioning that it’s because of the inheritance. The clock is ticking, so it’s off to the country club, where Jimmie’s business partner counts seven potential wives, meaning seven chances to close a deal.
The movie is backloaded, but even the comparatively tame first half illustrates Keaton’s gift for comedy that pushes jokes one step or many steps past their intuitive stopping point. Jimmie joins a woman at a dining room table and instantly proposes to her. Keaton cuts to her at-first baffled, then amused reaction — and then cuts to the entire dining room listening in. Jimmie proposes to another woman in front of what looks like a postcard-perfect landscape — only for golfers and their caddies to come into view in the background just before he goes down on one knee. He offers his hand to a woman on a sidewalk bench; uncomprehending, she holds up a newspaper that is entirely in Hebrew. (It ought to be noted that the racial and ethnic humor elsewhere in the film has aged horribly: Mary’s servant is played by a white actor in blackface.)
But the true genius of “Seven Chances” — the point at which the movie basically turns into one attenuated, snowballing sight gag — lies in its second half, after Jimmie, who has “proposed to everything in skirts, including a Scotchman,” per the intertitles, is the subject of a newspaper announcement that says he will take any bride who turns up in a wedding dress. He winds up being chased by an army of spinsters and gold diggers, who arrive in succession by their own forms of transit (car, horse, bicycle, roller skates) and, en masse, pursue him over land and stream, leveling anything (a football game, street cops) in their way.
Part of what made Keaton famous was the sheer risks he would take for a laugh. Jimmie’s sprint compels him through barbed-wire fence, an apiary and a gauntlet of falling boulders that in a few cases are bigger than he is. But what gives Jimmie’s run its comic charge is not just the danger, which found a modern successor in “Jackass,” or the suspense of the ticking clock, but also its sense of relentless forward motion. Note the continuous rightward movements of the camera and how Jimmie always seems to run in the same direction, no matter the terrain. Staging these vignettes to look fluid, and bringing them together, is cinema distilled to its essence.
For a more refined, irreverent example of silent comedy, look to Lubitsch, whose brilliance before the sound era was such that he once filmed Oscar Wilde (“Lady Windermere’s Fan”) without the benefit of spoken dialogue. “The Doll” is in some ways the mirror image of “Seven Chances.” Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), the nephew of a baron eager for him to sire an heir, hides out from a gaggle of would-be fiancées in a monastery, where the monks hatch an idea. They know of a doll maker (Victor Janson and a wild head of hair) who advertises life-size dolls, for “bachelors, widowers and misogynists!” Lancelot, who grouses that he absolutely “will not marry a woman,” will wed the doll and collect the money he has been promised.
But unbeknown to him, the doll maker’s apprentice (the mordantly funny Gerhard Ritterband) breaks the latest model, and Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), the doll maker’s daughter, steps in to be sold in its place. If Keaton earned the nickname “the great stone face,” the impish Oswalda is the great face-maker, a virtuoso of mischievous reaction shots and physical comedy. For much of “The Doll,” she poses as a mannequin with a windup mechanism. She dances robotically yet joyfully; jerks her head to signal that she can, yes, undress without Lancelot’s help; and delivers her groom a return slap after he gets fresh.
For a premise that sounds juvenile but never plays that way, “The Doll” culminates in a scene of airy sophistication. Lancelot, sleeping, dreams that Ossi has come to life, a vision that Lubitsch depicts in a superimposition while the real Ossi sidles up to him on the bed. When he awakes, Ossi is sitting beside him, a real live woman. It’s the kind of magic that needs no words.