Friday, June 27, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)
Directed by:  Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone.
Written by: Jean C. Havez & Clyde Bruckman and Joseph A. Mitchell.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Willie McKay - 21 Years Old), Natalie Talmadge (The Girl), Joe Roberts (Joseph Canfield), Ralph Bushman (His Son), Craig Ward  (His Son), Monte Collins (The Parson), Joe Keaton (The Engineer), Kitty Bradbury (The Aunt), Buster Keaton Jr. (Willie McKay - 1 Year Old), Edward Coxen (John McKay), Jean Dumas (Mrs. McKay), Tom London (James Canfield).

With his first feature film, Three Ages, Buster Keaton hedged his bets a little bit – making a feature that could easily be split into three shorts if it didn’t work out. He must have been pleased with the results, because later that same year, he made Our Hospitality – one of his masterpieces – and this time, he didn’t hedge. In fact, Our Hospitality is one of Keaton’s most narrative driven films. There are still plenty of gags, but this time they are part of a larger story.

Perhaps the most daring thing Keaton did in Our Hospitality is open with an extended sequence that is pure drama – and doesn’t even feature Keaton as an actor. The film opens by telling us of a long standing feud between the McKays and the Canfields (gee, I wonder who it’s based on?). John McKay is the last male member of his clan – other than his infant son – and there are two Canfield brothers left – Joseph (Keaton regular, Joe Roberts, making his final screen appearance) who wants to let the feud go, and James (Tom London) who has travelled a long way, and tells his brother that he plans on killing John McKay that very night. When James arrives at the McKay’s isolated cabin, during a thunder storm, John comes out to meet him – they both fire at the same time, and both wind up dead. Joseph then vows that despite his earlier desire to let the feud go, he now has to raise his two sons with the feud. John’s wife takes their son Willie far away from the feud in the hopes that he can live a normal life –which he does for 20 years. We next meet him when he’s played by Keaton, and receives a letter saying he must return to his old hometown to claim his father’s land. On the extended train ride there, he meets a girl (Natalie Talmadge) – and the two fall in love. What do you think her last name is?

From there, Our Hospitality becomes one of Keaton’s best comedies, with the genius at his best. He is invited to the Canfield’s for dinner by The Girl, not realizing who her family is. When he figures it out, it’s too late. Joseph and his two sons are determined to kill him. But they have their Southern manners and protocols to follow. It would rude to kill Willie when he is a guest in their home – so they decide to wait for him to leave and then kill him. Willie, overhearing this, decides that he’s just not going to leave – and comes up with one reason after another why he needs to stay. It’s almost like a Bunuel premise – like The Exterminating Angel, where a group of dinner guests find they cannot leave the room for some reason. Keaton can leave – and at times he does step out (to get his hat, or some papers that fly out the window) – but he always finds his way back inside – much to the chagrin of the Canfields who are itching to kill him.

There is much to love about Our Hospitality – which showcases Keaton’s attention to detail in numerous ways. The film was set in the 1830s, and Keaton built an exact replica of an early steam engine, as well as a replica of the first bike – a strange contraption that looks nearly impossible to ride (according to Keaton, these replicas were so good the Smithsonian wanted them). The train sequence – which takes up an extended part of the narrative – is brilliant in itself – with Keaton’s father as the hapless engineer, and Keaton trying his best to maintain some dignity and impress Talmadge on the ride (a brilliant bit involving his too large hat is priceless). The film also features a thrilling water rescue – as Keaton and Talmadge head down a river towards a waterfall (a dangerous stunt – especially when Keaton’s safety line broke, and he was rushed down river – a take he left in the final cut of the film).
Our Hospitality is one of my favorite Keaton features. It is not a particularly deep film, but it does show Keaton stretching himself. That opening sequence is played as straight drama, and foregoes much of the phony, over melodramatic theatrics that mark many silent films – Keaton is playing it more natural than that. That gives ways to the train sequence, which is funny in a low-key way, and then the sequence involving Keaton not wanting to leave the house, which is hilarious, and then the water rescue which is thrilling. It’s amazing that Keaton packed so much into the film. Yet it all feels part of a whole – one of Keaton’s best sustained narratives – and one of his funniest films. It’s also, though, one of his most beautiful – the scenery in the train sequence is oddly majestic for a silent comedy, as is the river. Keaton hedged when he made Three Ages earlier in 1923 – wanting to protect himself against failure of a feature film – which at that time was mostly the domain of serious drama. In Out Hospitality, he doesn’t hold anything back. That’s why it’s one of his masterpieces.

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