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Buster Keaton's first full-length feature with a single storyline, Our Hospitality shows the performer-director reaching in a different direction than his fellow silent movie greats. Building on the popular legend of clan feuds in the Kentucky hills, Buster establishes an entire period world before introducing his personal brand of comedy. America of the early 19th century is accurately reflected in costumes and the latest inventions of the day. Large sections of Keaton's film are devoted to an elaborate train ride and a melodramatic rescue on a river. The comedian is so involved in the details of his frontier setting that he invents a special gag to "create" his characteristic pork-pie hat: his hero's top hat is crushed flat on the ceiling of a railroad carriage.
A tragic back story establishes the bloody feud between the McKay and Canfield families. Baby Willie McKay's father is murdered, and his mother must flee to relatives in New York City. Twenty years later, in 1831, the grown Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) returns to the mountain country to claim his family land and homestead. He takes passage on an amusing first-generation railroad train, riding in a rickety passenger car adapted from an ordinary stagecoach. En route he meets a delightful beauty returning to the same town (Natalie Talmadge). But she is a Canfield, the sworn enemy of all McKays. Willie is disappointed when the expected McKay mansion turns out to be a tarpaper shack. But he's welcome at the girl's house. Once they learn the identity of their visitor, the Canfield brothers and father hastily prepare to shoot Willie full of holes. But the unwritten law of mountain hospitality prevents them from killing Willie while he's a guest in the house. Thus begins a complicated game of genteel stalking: the moment Willie steps off the front porch, he's fair game.
Buster Keaton sets aside most of the one-joke cartoon comedy of his previous Three Ages in favor of gags that take pains to observe the laws of physical reality. Buster's elaborate train journey is a string of comic moments built on the idea that the antique train hardly seems practical, yet really functions. The gags are unlikely but not patently impossible. Encountering a stubborn donkey that won't budge, the engineers drag the rails a bit to one side to run around it. The train ride becomes absurd when the flimsy coaches roll over a series of exaggerated bumps: the lazy tracklayers have put the rails down over a series of fallen tree trunks. The passengers and crew take all of this craziness in stride. Buster finds room for wonderful jokes about rural attitudes. A crowd gathers to watch the train go by, as if it's the highlight of their week. A farmer throws rocks at the train's engineer, who responds by throwing back firewood from the train's tender. The clever farmer then happily gathers up his free firewood.
The curious Keaton never met a mechanical gadget he didn't like. Representative of this focus on odd inventions is Willie McKay's use of a primitive pre-bicycle called a hobby horse. The all-wooden contraption is little more than two wheels connected by a narrow bar that doubles as a saddle. There are no pedals or gears; McKay rolls about town in his fancy clothes by paddling along. Although the hobby horse looks ridiculous it is completely authentic. Keaton engages with artifacts of the past not just for laughs, but to make us feel the contrast between those days and our own.
Willie McKay's hide 'n' seek games with the trigger-happy Canfield men are also hilarious. Forced to leave the house, Willie keeps finding ways to avoid being shot before he slips back into the sanctuary of the parlor. The would-be assassins then find him at the piano with the Canfields' flirtatious daughter, acting as if nothing had happened. When the Canfields realize that Willie has slipped through their fingers by wearing a woman's dress, they prepare to shoot him in the back ... only to find that their prey has rigged a clever decoy to throw them off the track.
Our Hospitality is often compared with Keaton's later masterpiece The General. Both films are painstakingly researched period pieces, and both involve antique trains and spectacular stunts in a river. Keaton's does more than simply sketch an historical background for his comic character. The land is already being changed by modern inventions. The early Americans are clever and optimistic yet barbarians at heart, nursing tribal grudges like the cave men of Three Ages. The reality of the Hatfield & McCoy feud doesn't defuse the comedy. Critic David Robinson pointed out that a much more recent and notorious real-life massacre provides the same kind of tension for Billy Wilder's classic Some Like it Hot.
This earlier film also demonstrates Buster Keaton's flair for impressive physical effects. He films scenes atop mountains by cleverly placing huge miniatures of distant forested hills behind his cleverly engineered sets. The illusion of Buster suspended by a rope over a roaring waterfall is perfect, even though it was filmed back in his open-air studio in the heart of Hollywood. In the film's most impressive stunt, Willie McKay swings out into the center of the cataract, perfectly timing himself to snatch his lady love to safety just as she's about to slip over the falls. Although audiences in 1923 accepted the river and falls sequence as completely real, everything we see was meticulously designed and engineered.
Beautifully constructed and staged, Our Hospitality is considered by some experts to be Buster Keaton's most elegant feature comedy. The editing reveals a masterful progression of camera angles, not simply cuts between static coverage, as was still the norm. Buster's remarkably consistent comic character is much more than a deadpan clown -- he's an honest, forthright and chivalrous gentleman, and wholly worthy of the gentle leading lady.
Kino International's DVD of Our Hospitality is a serious improvement over old 16mm copies of the film. Although in slightly rougher shape than some of Keaton's later pictures, the image looks quite good and the HD-sourced transfer is rock steady. The projection rate has wisely been adjusted a bit slower than 24 fps, making the action look more natural as well. The color tints applied to the B&W film match original screening prints. A Blu-ray version is also available.
A pleasant making-of docu has been produced for the disc, written by Patricia Eliot Tobias and David B. Pearson. It analyzes the accuracy of some of Keaton's elaborate period props. We also learn that the film was shot in the Lake Tahoe/Truckee area 300 miles north of Hollywood. The unnamed Canfield Girl, Natalie Talmadge, was Buster's wife at the time.
Also included is the two-reeler short subject The Iron Mule from 1925. It re-uses Keaton's fancy working train; Buster plays an uncredited role as an Indian Chief (as he would forty years later in the A.I.P. comedy Pajama Party). One very interesting extra for students of Keaton is Hospitality, a strange 49-minute alternate cut of the film that survives with extensive damage to some passages. Why the shorter version was produced is a mystery. It contains a few bits of film not seen in the full feature, so is probably not a simple cut-down version.
The main musical score is composed and conducted by Carl Davis, with the Thames Silents Orchestra. As an alternative, Kino includes another score compiled by Donald Hunsberger. Two galleries of photographs are also present.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Our Hospitality rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.