1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: Keaton the faith
Buster Keaton’s legacy in cinema history is not just one of the two greatest and most beloved silent era comedians (along with Charlie Chaplin), but one of the medium’s great directors, period. He got his start in family vaudeville shows before Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (pre-scandal) plucked him from stage to screen. From there he started making two-reel shorts that were well-received before finally moving into the world of features. Our Hospitality is his second feature-length release as director, and the first one with a proper narrative. (Three Ages, his first feature, is an anthology of shorts parodying Intolerance.)
Keaton is a natural fit for the movies. In fact, his talents for framing complex and cinematic gags as well as playing a stone-faced straight man with subtle reactions work even better on celluloid than I imagine they would on a vaudeville stage, where simplicity and broad acting tend to rule. Then again, his single, defining skill of performing otherworldly and dangerous physical stunts with grace and comic precision would work in pretty much any performative comic platform.
Our Hospitality is often remembered today not for its own merits, but as a warm-up for a different masterwork: The General from 1926. Like The General, Our Hospitality takes place in the south during the 19th century and has a signature, extended set piece that takes place on a train’s journey.
And while Our Hospitality is not quite as impressive or sophisticated as The General, it is still polished and immensely entertaining. And there are even a few things that I think it does better than The General; namely, offering some Mark Twain-esque satire on hypocritical southern values and customs.
Our Hospitality is loosely inspired by a real story: a Romeo and Juliet-style fling between members of the legendary feuding American families, the Hatfields and McCoys — renamed in the film to the McKays and Canfields. The Hatfield-McCoy rivalry is always a worthy Wikipedia dive: It’s a fascinating thread of American history, an ur-tabloid story that verges into folklore but involved real murders and sabotage and forbidden romance.
The first ten minutes of Our Hospitality are a surprisingly sincere introduction to the family rivalry. It’s remarkable how mature Keaton’s storytelling instincts are right off the bat: A comedian who has worked almost entirely in shorts and sketches devotes an extended opening to joke-free narrative table-setting. Characters and themes are introduced for payoff throughout the film, all while keeping it engaging and avoiding exposition fatigue.
The rest of the first half of the film follows a train journey gone awry. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is almost exactly the same premise and structure of The General, though in this case it is not a chase. Even without the comparison to Keaton’s more famous film, this is one of the slower parts of the film, the point where it most feels like he is serving up a conveyor belt of gags rather than a flowing story. And once you’ve seen The General and know this segment is a Diet Coke version of that film, it feels especially rote.
The second half is much richer and more narrative-focused. Willie McKay (Keaton) falls in love with Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s real-life wife) before either realize the other is a member of their rival family. The first to figure it out are Virginia’s brothers and father. She invites McKay to dinner, and her brothers and father are bound to a rule of honor that I think was invented for the movie: you cannot murder a man so long as he is a guest in your house. Were I to compose rules on how to act honorably, I would simplify the edict to: you cannot murder a man. But alas, it’s for our benefit: the contradictory bloodlust and kindliness are a source of much satiric fun in Our Hospitality.
And thus emerges the central gag of the film. McKay wants desperately to stay inside his rival’s house while the Canfield men desperately want to get him out the house so they can shoot him. But they can’t forget their manners, so they don’t do anything as rash take him out of the house physically. (I suppose that would be just as bad as shooting him in the house in the first place.) Instead, they try to coerce him out of the house, only for him to inevitably find a way to stick around.
Eventually, though, McKay escapes, and a chase begins, with Virginia on their tail trying to broker peace, too. It culminates in an absolutely terrific action finale. Keaton swings, Tarzan-style, to rescue his lover falling from a waterfall. This stunt has endured as the most famous image from Our Hospitality. The stunt was accomplished on a studio-constructed waterfall whereas most of the chase is shot on location. Keaton really did swing, but some clever camera cuts and perspective manipulation make it look even more dangerous than it actually is. That’s okay, though; I don’t think too many people would accuse Keaton of taking the easy way out on his stunts. In fact, Our Hospitality might be the closest he ever came to dying while making a film; he nearly drowned when a safety harness broke during a water scene, and the crew had to resuscitate him.
Our Hospitality is a terrifically engaging film and a great introduction to Keaton’s style, even if it isn’t the peak of his filmmaking powers. It’s the earliest film of his to appear on the 1001 Films to See Before You Die list but not the only selection: we’ll be seeing him four more times as a director, even more for his later talkie-era acting performances.