Our Hospitality was Buster Keaton’s third feature film and the second feature film he directed, following his Three Ages. Our 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.
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.