Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton's second feature film, marks a great leap forward in his art. It's his first truly plot-driven film (his first feature, Three Ages, was deliberately made as three connected two-reelers, with only the loosest plot to hold the gags together.) It was also the first in which he banished any hint of cartoon-style slapstick and made gags take a back-seat to narrative. The slower pace and subtler comedy show Keaton's confidence that he didn't need to clown non-stop to retain the audience's interest. The grand scale and period authenticity look forward to his masterpiece, The General. Buster had always had a serious side, but this was the first time it dominated a film. Consequently, Our Hospitality is not his funniest work, but it has a unique sweetness and charm, rich with atmosphere and drama. The elegant historical setting and fresh outdoor scenery add to the handsome effect, and Buster's performance is particularly graceful and sensitive. Like the engineer he would portray in his best-known film, The General, his character here is a very polite, deceptively mild-mannered young man who can turn into a heroic athlete without even changing his clothes. Our Hospitality was inspired by the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and the plot involves Buster, as a sheltered young man raised in New York, stumbling into a Southern blood feud when he returns to his ancestral home to claim an inheritance. The joke of the title is that once he enters the home of the rival family, they can't kill him without violating their code of hospitalityuntil he steps outside! The melodramatic prologue that opens the film comes as a surprise, but it effectively sets up the tension that runs through the story. It's not overplayed, and it includes a cute turn by Buster's infant son, playing the younger incarnation of his own character, Willie McKay. Grown to manhood in New York, Willie is a gentle, foppish type, introduced riding a ludicrous proto-bicycle (accurately based on historical prints of the Gentleman's Hobbyhorse, the first bicycle.) Informed that he has inherited his family's estate, he boards a train for the South. Buster's main reason for setting the film in 1830 was so that he could indulge his passion for trains by creating a working model of Stephenson's "Rocket," the first locomotive. The train journey proceeds at a fluid, unhurried pace, blending a string of gags arising from obstacles encountered along the way (donkeys, crafty hillbillies, derailments) with a delicate development of romance between Willie and Virginia Canfield, the young woman sharing his coach. Virginia is played by Natalie Talmadge, Buster's wife at the time. She's pretty and appropriately demure, but it's easy to see why she didn't become a star like her sisters Norma and Constance. She looks nervous and insecure in front of the camera. In addition to featuring Buster's wife, son and father (the lanky, irascible train engineer), Our Hospitality was the swan-song of Big Joe Roberts, who played the "heavy" in almost all of Keaton's early films. Already ill during the making of this film (he died shortly after it was completed), he plays the aged, forgiving patriarch of the Canfield clan. The sequence set in the Canfield mansion, where Virginia invites Willie to dinner (not knowing he is the last remnant of the rival McKay clan), is very funny, playing the murderous feud against a stately, antebellum gentility. I love the way all the men keep one eye open during the saying of grace; Willie's frantic efforts to avoid leaving the house; and his attempts to court Virginia while dealing with her gun-wielding brothers. Once he flees the house, the film shifts into high gear. The long chase, making full use of the rugged landscape, is exciting and contains much dashing stunt-work on Buster's part: his fall off a cliff while tied to another man, his ride through the river rapids (he almost drowned due to a mishap making this sceneand it's in the movie!), culminating in the famous waterfall climax. I don't want to give away exactly what happens: I'll never forget the thrill of seeing it for first time, unprepared. But even without the element of surprise, the beauty of this stunt, the pendulum arc he describes with his body, always takes my breath away. One final note: contrary to what someone wrote elsewhere on this page, it was not "standard practice" for silent stars to do all their own stunts. Buster Keaton was unique in never using a double, and probably no star ever took greater risks or endured more physical suffering than he did in the interest of his art. But the supreme achievement is how effortless and understated his performances are; he's not showing off, just attending to the task at hand.
Comedy / Romance / Thriller
Comedy / Romance / Thriller
A man returns to his Appalachian homestead. On the trip, he falls for a young woman. The only problem is her family has vowed to kill every member of his family.
December 12, 2020