Our Hospitality (1923)

13 Feb

Our Hospitality was Buster Keaton’s third feature film and the second feature film he directed, following his Three AgesOur Hospitality is a remarkably assured film, however, and remarkably inventive. He shows his love of machines, his flair for period authenticity and his capacity to fully integrate his comedy into his story, comedy that unfolds with inexorable logic.

The film opens in 1810 in the South with a mock-serious prologue, recounting the death of the latest victims in a multi-generational family feud between the McKays and Canfields. When her husband is killed, Mrs. McKay takes her son, Willie Mckay, to live in New York.

That in itself is rather funny. It’s not every comedy that begins with murder and Keaton seems to be parodying melodramas or even D.W. Griffith.

By 1830, Willie is now played by Buster Keaton and learns that he has inherited some land from his father and must return to the South to claim it. On the train trip down south, he encounters a charming young lady (Natalie Talmadge), who just happens to be a Canfield. Not knowing each other’s names, she invites him to her father’s house for dinner, only for her father and two brothers to learn that he is a McKay and must be killed. The problem is that their rules of hospitality dictate that they cannot kill him while in their house. When Willie learns of this, he must contrive to stay in the house, while falling in love with the daughter.

The Pea Shooter Pistol

Our Hospitality definitely shows Keaton’s love of machines. The film prominently features an early train that looks more like a string of coaches on rail tracks and pulled by what looks like a toy train engine. As idiosyncratic as the train looks, however, it was based on an actual model of train from the era. The same with the dandy horse Keaton rides, which looks like a bicycle without pedals. Keaton also gets a lot of comedy out of the fact that guns could only fire once and then had to be reloaded with powder and bullets. One brother in particular has an elegant little pea shooter of a pistol that seems to underwhelm in it’s murderous function.

Out of so many excellent Keaton silent films, Our Hospitality struck me as a special delight and I could only marvel at his inventiveness on full display. Not just for machines, but for the logic of his comic gags. He rarely introduces a prop and just discards it after he’s finished with the gag. Even the train has a role to play in the final, thrilling chase with the Canfields trying to shoot Willie.

One great example of the prop that continues to have completely logical significance is the rope that becomes tied around both Willie’s waist and the waist of a Canfield brother. Willie is hanging from a cliff, but the brother can’t get a good shot at him, so lowers a rope so he can swing Willie to safety so he can then shoot him. Of course they both fall into a lake and even when the rope is finally severed between them, the little bit of rope that Willie cannot untie continues to have vital significance, both for good and ill (thought mostly ill). Best of all, the rope plays a role when Willie stages his daring rescue of his beloved, who is about to tumble down a waterfall. It’s a pretty amazing stunt.

But this logic is, I believe, what gives Keaton films a particular delight. They aren’t just funny. They make sense. What WOULD happen if two men, one who was trying to kill the other, were tied together with a rope? I rarely foresee what happens, but it always makes perfect sense once it does occur. The unexpectedness is where the comedy comes in.

He also has a lot of fun with the absurdities of the Southern code of honor (or any such code of honor). What happens when two parts of one’s code come into conflict? A McKay MUST be killed. A guest MUST be respected. What does the existence of such a conflict say about their code? Not to mention the humorous existence of a frame in the Canfield home, enjoining them to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” What are the Canfield’s to do? You have to watch Our Hospitality to find out. It’s a true delight.

Thanks so much to Silent-ology for hosting “The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon” and giving me an excuse to watch a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long time! For more posts about Buster Keaton, follow this link.


Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Movies


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13 responses to “Our Hospitality (1923)

  1. Marsha Collock (A Person in the Dark)

    February 13, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Oh, how I love this film. Great post about a perfect film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lea S.

    February 13, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    The “element of surprise” you mentioned is a huge reason why I was drawn to Buster’s work. For films so old, they always seemed so fresh.

    Thank you for covering this Buster classic for the blogathon! It’s much appreciated. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 13, 2018 at 11:01 pm

      You’re so right; he does feel eternally fresh. It’s hard to imagine him ever going out of fashion as long as cinema exists.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe Thompson

    February 14, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    Our Hospitality is one of my favorite Keaton movies. I’m a train fan, too, so I enjoy it even more for that. I liked your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 14, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks! It is real joy to see the early train. I can’t think of any other films that feature such a train.


      • Joe Thompson

        February 15, 2018 at 1:24 pm

        You are right that movies with trains like that are rare, but there is at least one example, “The Iron Mule.” Buster loaned his train to Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St John. Roscoe directed and Al starred. It is available on youtube.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          February 15, 2018 at 7:07 pm

          Wow, Keaton certainly did us a service with his interest in trains from different eras! Thanks for the link; I’m going to watch that soon.

          What are the best films that feature trains, do you think?


          • Joe Thompson

            February 16, 2018 at 1:00 pm

            There are many. Don’t forget Buster’s “The General.” Don’t miss Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery.” “The Little Train Robbery” is a spoof made with children and a park train. Any episodes you can find of “The Hazards of Helen” will probably have trains. “The Great K&A Train Robbery” starring Tom Mix is fun. John Ford’s “The Iron Horse” is good. DeMille’s talkie “Union Pacific” is similar but not as good. There is an early talkie called “Danger Lights” that is fun. “Twentieth Century” with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore is great. “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong is great. “The Titfield Thunderbot” is great. “Emperor of the North Pole” has lots of good train stuff. “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor is fun. Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” is set on a train, but the exteriors are mostly models. “The Narrow Margin” is a noir that played recently on TCM.

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              February 16, 2018 at 1:18 pm

              Thanks for the recommendations! I don’t know much about the history of trains, but have always liked films that feature trains. I’ve been wanting to see The Titfield Thunderboat ever since I became aware of Ealing Studios, but have not been able to get a hold of it yet. Looking forward to it, though. Will definitely have to check out the others, too.

              Thanks again!


  4. amycondit

    February 15, 2018 at 9:56 pm

    Wonderful post on one of my favorite Buster films!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 16, 2018 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks! I’m with you; I think this could be one of my favorites, as well. It seems like a special one.



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