Sunday 19 November 2023

Our Hospitality (1923)

Directors: Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone
Writers: Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge

Buster Keaton’s second feature for 1923 was a very different film to the first. Three Ages was close to being a themed compilation of three comedy shorts, which merely happened to be new. Our Hospitality, however, is a fully fledged feature film, with a single coherent story and an elegant weaving of comedy into drama.

Keaton’s character even gets a name, that of Willie McKay, and, echoing his family’s former vaudeville act, the Three Keatons, this picture features Four Keatons, not only Buster as the lead character but his father, Joseph Keaton; his wife of two years, Natalie Talmadge; and their fourteen month old son, Buster Keaton, Jr., in his only film appearance. Technically, a fifth was present but not yet born.

Junior actually appears first as a baby Willie McKay, in a prologue that ably sets the stage for what’s to come, which is a time honoured feud. Remember the Hatfields and McCoys? Well, here are the Canfields and McKays.

It’s around 1810 when John McKay arrives home looking like Indiana Jones. Jim Canfield comes visiting as soon as he finds out McKay is back and they kill each other in a storm. Mrs. McKay is now a widow, little Willie is now the last living male in the McKay clan and Joseph Canfield, Jim’s brother, who tried to talk him out of it, now swears to continue the feud and teach his own sons accordingly.

Then we fast forward a generation, because Mrs. McKay was bright enough to get the heck out of whatever Appalachian town this is and take her son to her sister’s house in New York. She dies soon after, so he grows up blissfully ignorant of the feud, until he receives a letter asking him to come and claim his inheritance, at which point his aunt explains everything.

Keaton looks like Keaton but in a big hat—he switches it out for his traditional pork pie partway—and a decent suit, because he’s not wanting, even if he’s not rich. He’s perpetually worried, of course, because it’s Keaton.

He rides a bicycle without pedals, known as a dandy horse, even though it was slightly out of time. This prompts the first stuntwork of the film in scenes around his neighbourhood of Broadway & 5th St. This was the sticks in 1830, but times were changing. “This is gettin’ to be a dangerous crossing,” says a policeman as he directs no fewer than three cars away from each other. Can you imagine?

And so Willie heads back to his roots, sitting in a literal carriage pulled by Stephenson’s Rocket, his only companion “a fair visitor on her way back home”. Now, for this script to work, they don’t learn each other’s names, but we know exactly who she is—Virginia Canfield—so here’s where I would normally suggest that you could all write the rest of the script yourself. On that front, I would be right, but there’s so much more here that none of us would do it justice.

For instance, we spend quite a while on the actual journey, which offers much comedy as there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome with imagination. When a donkey won’t move off the track, they move the track. When they encounter an old timer throwing rocks at the engineer, the engineer throws wood back and we discover it’s a scam. That old timer doesn’t have to cut his own firewood!

This is much more gentle comedy than the slapstick of the day. It would be easy to watch it without any background and believe it to be a drama, at least until we realise how often we burst into laughter. For every comedy scene, like someone switching the points so the train ends up on a different track to the carriages, arriving in town the wrong way round, there’s drama underneath it, Willie reunited with his dog, who ran all the way under the carriages without him even noticing his presence.

And, of course, the feud kicks back off when Willie arrives because the stranger he asks to guide him to the McKay estate is a Canfield, a son of Joseph Canfield who stops everywhere on the way to borrow a gun to shoot his foe. He continually fails but young Virginia also has the courtesy to ask her fellow passenger to dinner, thus prompting the title. “Splendid,” says pa, at the news. “He’ll never forget our hospitality!”

The other crucial detail you should know is that, as bloodthirsty as the Canfields are to be finally avenged for whatever it was that began the feud, they adhere to a code of honour that prevents them from killing their enemy while he’s a guest in their house. Willie figures it out while he’s there and so attempts to stay, in the politest fashion possible, of course.

There are so many good scenes here that it’s hard to pick a favourite. I could go for the one where a Canfield son waits around a corner to shoot Willie but his gun won’t fire, so the ever unsuspecting Willie fixes it for him and walks on. Another, in which Willie “loses” his hat so he can’t leave, only for his dog to continually bring it back like a game of indoor fetch, is joyous. However, I might have to plump for the grace scene, in which half the table opens an eye to keep on the others.

The showstoppers arrive late in the picture, because Willie has to escape the house at some point and the chase is on. As a Buster Keaton film, there’s stuntwork and it’s thrilling stuff as the chase escalates from foot to horseback, from train to boat, from cliffside to rapids.

The pinnacle has to be the pair of stunts at the top of a waterfall. Willie hanging over the huge cascade is impressive enough but then he saves Virginia by swinging to catch her as she falls over it. To be fair, it wasn’t quite as dangerous as it looked, as it was shot on a set with miniatures, but there was lots of danger during the shoot. Keaton nearly drowned in one rapids scene when a wire broke and he fell into the Truckee river. The crew found him ten minutes later face down on a riverbank.

Our Hospitality has been described by TCM as a “silent film for which no apologies need be made to modern viewers” and that’s accurate. There are conceits that date it a little, such as how Joseph Canfield is a quintessential silent movie character, tall and fat with a prominent moustache, but Joe Roberts doesn’t chew the scenery like he’s in an old Keystone short. This was his last picture, as he had a stroke during the shoot, came back to work to finish up the film but died of a second stroke soon after.

While this isn’t Keaton’s greatest film with a train, it’s still an utter gem. At this point, the future was still very bright indeed for him.

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