Saturday, March 23, 2013

Our Hospitality




Our Hospitality
1923
Director: Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone
Starring: Buster Keaton

I’m starting to feel like saying you prefer Keaton over Chaplin is the snooty, snobby, trendy, hipster thing to say.  Dammit, though, it’s true.  Although Our Hospitality is not my favorite Keaton, it’s still charming and clever and, well, funny!

The plot is comedic take on the Hatfields and McCoys, only in Our Hospitality, it’s Canfields and McKays.  After his father is killed by a Canfield, baby Willie McKay is sent to grow up in New York, unaware of the feud.  When he turns 21 (now Keaton), he returns to his hometown to inherit his family “estate,” and inadvertently gets mixed up in the old feud by falling in love with the Canfield daughter (Natalie Talmadge and Keaton's wife at the time).



The title of the film mainly refers to the middle third of the film where Southern manners and idiosyncrasies are played for the best comedy of the film.  Canfield’s daughter has invited Willie McKay to dinner at their estate.  Southern hospitality prohibits the Canfields from shooting Willie when he is a guest inside their home, but the second he steps outside, the rules are off.  Willie quickly realizes this.  Comedy gold ensues.  The segment is essentially a very early sitcom.  Think of the word “sitcom” – a mash-up of “situational comedy.”  Although I would never say that Our Hospitality invented the concept, situational comedy certainly gets great early cinematic treatment here.  Think about it: a feud that no one can remember why it started has to be put on hold for a bizarrely upheld sense of “manners.”  Buster Keaton capitalizes very well, playing up both Willie’s fear and the physical restraints he has while trying to stay inside the house.

  
While the middle third of the film plays out as a silent film sitcom, the majority of the comedy in the film comes from sight gags; more so, it seems, than in other Keaton films I’ve seen.  The first third of the film primarily concerns itself with Willie’s train journey from New York to the South, and the train he rides on is flat out ridiculous.  Apparently, Keaton was a stickler for historical accuracy, and the primitive train seen in Our Hospitality would have been what people rode in 1830, the year the film is set.  The damn thing looks like a Tonka playset, but that’s the gag.  Additionally, the shots of 42nd Street and Broadway are, well, historically accurate, but a sight gag nonetheless.  The Mad Hatter-sized felt top hat that Willie wears is hysterical, and there’s a nice bit with dressing up a horse.  It’s all very clever and, again, funny!

  
The final third of the film is less comedic and more action oriented.  Willie is running through the forest in order to avoid his would-be assassins, and winds up in the river.  The Canfield’s daughter jumps in to try to save him, so we naturally have a thrilling waterfall’s-edge rescue sequence.  This was easily the most exciting part of the film, mostly for the fact that Keaton did all his own stunts.  When he’s hanging over the side of a cliff, the dude is legit hanging over the side of a cliff.  Those early film comedians were fearless as all get out, man.  Unbelievable.

I like the little touch with their hands.

Ultimately, though, Our Hospitality feels like three distinct silent comedy shorts vaguely strung together with weak connecting threads.  Don’t get me wrong, those three shorts are awesome and funny and exciting and thrilling.  However, they lack coherence; they just feel like “bits” weakly tied to each other.  I like Our Hospitality, but I don’t love it.  It’s not nearly as strong as some of Keaton’s other work in terms of being a fully realized narrative feature-length film.  I did a Keaton double feature, watching this and The General on the same day.  To speak bluntly, The General blows this movie out of the water.  It’s has narrative tension and focus, both of which are lacking in Our Hospitality.  Our Hospitality, while being amusing, feels primitive – just like the early train it showcases.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


6 comments:

  1. Keaton is far and away my favorite of the great silent comedians. Of his films that I've seen, Our Hospitality is right around the middle. That's not saying much, considering it's behind The General and Sherlock Jr., which is my all-time favorite silent film of any type.

    There are some really good gags in this one, which is what makes it worth watching. You're right, though--it's not within spitting distance of The General.

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    1. Sherlock Jr.... that movie... no words... so good...

      I like how you included the picture of Keaton in the ridiculous Mad Hatter top hat along with your review of this one.

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  2. I've seen pretty much all of the Keaton films listed by people as his best. Our Hospitality might be my favorite. Why? Because it's so damn funny. I've seen The General (own it, in fact). I liked it a lot. I don't see it as so much greater than half a dozen other Keaton films I could name, though. They're all pretty much great.

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    1. It's definitely funny. The gag with the horse wearing the dress is very, very good. And I could have had my pick of any number of gifs of Keaton peeking at his "hosts" over grace at the dinner table.

      It's very hard to go wrong with Buster Keaton. A testament, really, to his work and how well it holds up almost 100 years later.

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  3. The sight gags are really what is making this one special. Your pictures (and animation) says it all. Only deadpan Keaton could make an antique bike look so ridiculous.
    I will just go straight against the trend and declare myself more of a Chaplin fan than Keaton. I love Keaton and he is knee-slapping-rolling-around-with-belly-cramps funny. Chaplin just got more range in his emotional repertoire. The bitter sweetness gets me everytime.

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    1. Sometimes a gif just speaks worlds more than a jpeg. Tumblr is very, VERY helpful in finding just the right animation.

      I do agree that Chaplin had more emotional heft than Keaton. I mean, City Lights. That's the end of any argument right there. But I just think Keaton's *funnier* than Chaplin. If I want straight up comedy, no way am I turning on Modern Times or The Gold Rush over anything from Keaton.

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