5,000 Brides for a Single Brother

30 Sep 2013: Seven Chances (DVD, 1925, Buster Keaton)

The most rawly invigorating movie I’ve seen in a while, at least as far as constant breathless energy is concerned. I both guffawed and melted into tears while seeing Chaplin’s The Kid recently, and here’s another silent-era masterpiece that grabs me more deeply than most modern comedies I’ve seen in the past twenty years. The laughter comes from all sides in this one, moreso than in Battling Butler, elicited by intertitles (“he wanted to ask her” repeated for four different seasons in quick succession), awkward situations (“lasciviously” looking at a girl’s leg for the time on a watch around her ankle, quickly striking a series of potential brides from a list upon public humiliation – a sort of precursor to Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife), editing techniques (expertly subtle graphically matched dissolves from a car in one location to the same car outside a new place), and especially the frenzied death-defying (undercranked) escape through the wilderness from a mob of angry spurned brides-to-be toward his true love’s house that caps off the film. What’s maybe most impressive and distinct from more contemporary comedies is how so much of the humor registers deeply without coming at anyone’s expense, save the bumbling and shy but clearly heroic main character. Exhilaration without condescension – only good-natured self-effacement – produces a purer, richer uplift than insulting others or their intelligence. The only halfway caveat here is a dated view of race that makes a blackfaced servant a nearly incompetent fool and a woman obviously unmarriageable as soon as her black skin color is revealed – but the latter goes no further than acknowledging the social taboo around miscegenation, and the former image is undercut by employing actual African-American actors who carry themselves with dignity and ability. The race toward matrimony and wealth is a hallmark of romantic comedies, but it’s very rare to see those things treated as the trivialities that they are by comparison with the flow of movement and emotion around them, as seen here.

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