by Jay Seaver
SCREENED LIVE MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT BY JEFF RAPSIS: Consider this: There is roughly as much distance between the present day (the 2010s) and the time when Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality" was made (the 1920s) as there is between when it was made and when it was set (the 1830s). Strange, right? It gives a little extra kick to some of the jokes, too. And while a little perspective doesn't hurt, you do not need this in the front of your mind to enjoy the movie: This early Buster Keaton feature is highly entertaining even without that sort of context.In the early 1800s, blood feuds weren't uncommon, and the one between the Canfields and McKays got particularly ugly one night in 1810, leaving the widow McKay to flee north with her baby to live with her sister. Twenty years later, son Willie (Buster Keaton) gets a letter telling him he has inherited the McKay estate, and he hops a train to claim it - with his loyal dog following - the feud something his urban mind doesn't take seriously. But old Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts) hasn't forgotten, and has passed it down to his sons (Ralph Bushman & Craig Ward). Naturally, the nice girl Willie meets on the train (Natalie Talmadge), who invites him to dinner, turns out to be Canfield's daughter. It's a good thing that the Canfields' code of honor won't let them kill Willie while he's enjoying their hospitality. After dinner, though, all bets are off.
"A movie where the line "Say, do you have a spare pistol?" kills."
Our Hospitality is among Keaton's first feature-length comedies, and it shows some growing pains. The train trip between Jersey City and Rockfield at times seems to be shown in real time, with beats and gags that we see more than once but which don't necessarily benefit from the repetition. In some ways, time has hurt it - some of the gags are visual things that would work well in later cartoons, the weird, elastic worlds of 1930s animation that themselves look odd and dated now - but even then, it was a longish sequence that doesn't really involve or tell us anything about Willie. Like many silent comedies, it seems quite modular - the various segments likely break quite cleanly on reel marks, so that if the projectionist had any trouble with the switchovers, the flow of the movie wouldn't be broken.
That's a good thing, because comedy is, in large part, timing, and Our Hospitality has really phenomenal comic timing. A scene of an oblivious Willie walking down a street with one of the Canfield boys, who keeps trying to find a pistol with which to shoot his companion, is one part absurdity and one part rhythm, making what could be a single, weak piece of black comedy funny for a good stretch. And in some ways, Buster Keaton gives a clinic on doing a lot with a little - the middle of the movie relies on Willie's reactions to finding out that the Canfields are gunning for him, and considering that Keaton was often called "The Great Stone Face" for face for his permanent deadpan expression, that he pulls it off kind of makes one wonder how he does it.
The other things he's known for, of course, are slapstick and daring stuntwork, and the movie frequently has him in his element there, with plenty of perfectly pulled off physical comedy (watch for Keaton's father as the conductor of the train, performing some trademark high kicks), along with a final act chase that involves horses, trains, ropes, and a raging river. It's one thing on top of another, with Keaton and co-director Jack Blystone expertly balancing laughs and thrills. Forget that it's 1923 and therefore all the stunts and effects are done in-camera (including one, used in the final cut, where Keaton nearly got swept away by the current); it would be an exciting, well-made sequence even with digital wire removal and the like.
This comedy earns a thrilling finale; the story by Jean Havez, Clyde Bruckman, and Joseph Mitchell balances wit and danger, with a prologue that sets suitably high stakes. For this screening, the atmosphere of that first act was greatly enhanced by pianist Jeff Rapsis, but the basic materials are there for it to work with a different score or even perhaps when truly silent. Most of the jokes translate pretty well to the twenty-first century; there are surprisingly few moments likely to feel more anachronistic than they did in 1923.Indeed, it's kind of amazing how well Keaton's movie holds up; slapstick and death-defying action apparently never go out of style, especially when you're this good at it.
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originally posted: 06/08/11 09:05:38