In which we meet two families, both alike in their lack of dignity.
The second of Buster Keaton’s self-directed feature films, Our Hospitality is both a precursor to some of his later triumphs and a simply executed movie that succeeds on its own terms.
Like many Keaton films, I caught this one for free in a well-restored version on YouTube. Late one Spring Saturday night, I found myself in the mood for a breezy hour and a half in the company of a gentle entertainer to while away the evening. Since beginning to watch these movies for the first time, I never fear disappointment when either Chaplin or Keaton are on offer. I was again more than satisfied.
Set in the 1830s, Our Hospitality is a satire of the famous Hatfield/McCoy feud of the late 1800s. It follows the adventure of young Willie McKay as he returns from New York to the small town where his father once fought with the Canfield family.
On his train journey, he meets and befriends a young woman who is unbeknown to him the daughter of the Canfields. On arrival, he’s soon attacked by her father and brothers but finds himself inside the Canfield house, where their code of honour prevents them from killing him.
The film blends romance, slapstick, action and a comedy of manners within a beautifully costumed and realised period drama. Unlike later Keaton films, the stunts weave their way through the film like scenes in a tapestry, threaded seamlessly within the story. Each set piece flows from the action of the characters as they try to outsmart each other.
Two scenes, in particular, stand out. The first, in what feels like a dry run for his more famous work in The General, takes place on the train from New York. Keaton, and others, seem to spill off, under and through the train in fluid movements as it winds its way around obstacles and over rocks. Later, on a specially built stage, Keaton swings out into a waterfall to catch his girl – again moving with the grace of a ballet dancer despite the gallons of water rushing down towards him.
A few visual gags are all-time greats too – the engineers picking up the train track and moving it around a stubborn donkey, the hind legs of Keaton’s horse dressed up in his disguise and the many pistols he has strapped to his body when returning to the Canfield house.
One more well worth mentioning is achieved through editing, as young Willie imagines the estate he is travelling to claim as a grand home, at odds with the ramshackle house he finds. As Michael Barret notes, “this imaginary image becomes a great sight gag” used twice in the movie – initially as a wink to the audience, then to show McKay’s realisation as it explodes.
Though there’s perhaps too much screen time spent on the initial train ride – Keaton was a big fan of trains and had a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket built for the movie – from the moment it arrives in the small town the film is beat perfect. Superbly measured, it manages to pull off the feat of blending a range of genres whilst entertaining at full steam from beginning to end.
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