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