Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Our Hospitality (1923)

* * *

Director: Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone
Starring: Buster Keaton

The joy of watching Buster Keaton is something that can be matched by few other film experiences because, while he may have been known as the "Great Stone Face," he knew how to make even the smallest of gestures hilarious. Inspired by the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud, Our Hospitality is a film that mixes slapstick and Southern manners to great effect, taking a simple premise and getting a lot of mileage out of it without ever running it into the ground. After nearly 100 years, Keaton remains an artist that few can top.

The Hatfields and McCoys are replaced here by the Canfields and McKays and as the film opens the feud has been going on long enough that no one really remembers its cause. On a dark and stormy night, John McKay is killed and, in the process, kills his Canfield attacker. Afraid for her infant son, McKay's widow packs him up and moves to New York where, after her death, he's raised by her sister in ignorance of the feud. When he reaches the age of majority, Willie McKay (Buster Keaton), returns to the family home to reclaim the assets of his father's estate (if the run down house left by John McKay can be called an "asset"), and immediately enters the Canfield family crosshairs. He also, during the train journey from New York, falls in love with Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), who invites him over to her family's house for dinner. On his arrival at the home, Willie learns of the feud, but he also learns that the Canfield code of honor prevents any of the family from killing him so long as he's their guest. The solution, obviously, is for Willie to just never leave the house.

Willie develops various strategies for staying in the house, though sometimes he's forced out and simply slips back in through another door. When staying in the house ceases to be a viable option, Willie sneaks out dressed as a woman, starting a long chase sequence which ends with Willie and Virginia on the verge of going over a waterfall, saved only by Willie's remarkable ingenuity and courage. Virginia rewards him by agreeing to marry him - a turn of events that will either force the Canfield men to bury the feud, or make them more determined to kill him.

When you watch a Keaton film you can always expect great comedy and great action. The comedy is split fairly evenly between broad physical humor and the subtler comedy of manners which arises from the way that Willie tries to finesse his situation so that he doesn't end up killed. The action comes fairly fast and furious, showcasing some truly amazing stunts by Keaton. In the climatic waterfall scene Keaton has to rescue Talmadge by swinging across the waterfall on a rope and catching her in midair as she goes over the fall. Being 1923, achieving the stunt involved actually doing it, making the scene endlessly impressive. The sense of danger is very real and the skill on the part of the crew, on-screen and off-screen, is apparent.

Silent movies can be an acquired taste, but Keaton's films are so accessible that I can imagine them being enjoyed by even the most fervent anti-silent viewer. Our Hospitality never reaches the brilliance of Keaton's masterpiece The General (though, like that film, Keaton indulges here in his passion for trains, albeit not to the same degree), but it's an incredibly entertaining film nevertheless.

1 comment:

Grand Old Movies said...

I like your point about slapstick and Southern manners mixed for comedy. It's a one-joke premise, but Keaton gets a lot of hilarious and varied mileage out of it, particularly how the elaborate manners overlay murderous mayhem. Keaton may be the most accessible today of the great silent comics; his visual and physical wit always amaze. And the train here is adorable (supposedly a recreation of an actual train of the era).