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Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton's second feature film, marks a great
leap forward in his art. It's his first truly plot-driven film (his
first feature, Three Ages, was deliberately made as three connected
two-reelers, with only the loosest plot to hold the gags together.) It
was also the first in which he banished any hint of cartoon-style
slapstick and made gags take a back-seat to narrative. The slower pace
and subtler comedy show Keaton's confidence that he didn't need to
clown non-stop to retain the audience's interest. The grand scale and
period authenticity look forward to his masterpiece, The General.
Buster had always had a serious side, but this was the first time it
dominated a film. Consequently, Our Hospitality is not his funniest
work, but it has a unique sweetness and charm, rich with atmosphere and
drama. The elegant historical setting and fresh outdoor scenery add to
the handsome effect, and Buster's performance is particularly graceful
and sensitive. Like the engineer he would portray in his best-known
film, The General, his character here is a very polite, deceptively
mild-mannered young man who can turn into a heroic athlete without even
changing his clothes.
Our Hospitality was inspired by the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and the plot involves Buster, as a sheltered young man raised in New York, stumbling into a Southern blood feud when he returns to his ancestral home to claim an inheritance. The joke of the title is that once he enters the home of the rival family, they can't kill him without violating their code of hospitalityuntil he steps outside! The melodramatic prologue that opens the film comes as a surprise, but it effectively sets up the tension that runs through the story. It's not overplayed, and it includes a cute turn by Buster's infant son, playing the younger incarnation of his own character, Willie McKay. Grown to manhood in New York, Willie is a gentle, foppish type, introduced riding a ludicrous proto-bicycle (accurately based on historical prints of the Gentleman's Hobbyhorse, the first bicycle.) Informed that he has inherited his family's estate, he boards a train for the South.
Buster's main reason for setting the film in 1830 was so that he could indulge his passion for trains by creating a working model of Stephenson's "Rocket," the first locomotive. The train journey proceeds at a fluid, unhurried pace, blending a string of gags arising from obstacles encountered along the way (donkeys, crafty hillbillies, derailments) with a delicate development of romance between Willie and Virginia Canfield, the young woman sharing his coach. Virginia is played by Natalie Talmadge, Buster's wife at the time. She's pretty and appropriately demure, but it's easy to see why she didn't become a star like her sisters Norma and Constance. She looks nervous and insecure in front of the camera. In addition to featuring Buster's wife, son and father (the lanky, irascible train engineer), Our Hospitality was the swan-song of Big Joe Roberts, who played the "heavy" in almost all of Keaton's early films. Already ill during the making of this film (he died shortly after it was completed), he plays the aged, forgiving patriarch of the Canfield clan.
The sequence set in the Canfield mansion, where Virginia invites Willie to dinner (not knowing he is the last remnant of the rival McKay clan), is very funny, playing the murderous feud against a stately, antebellum gentility. I love the way all the men keep one eye open during the saying of grace; Willie's frantic efforts to avoid leaving the house; and his attempts to court Virginia while dealing with her gun-wielding brothers. Once he flees the house, the film shifts into high gear. The long chase, making full use of the rugged landscape, is exciting and contains much dashing stunt-work on Buster's part: his fall off a cliff while tied to another man, his ride through the river rapids (he almost drowned due to a mishap making this sceneand it's in the movie!), culminating in the famous waterfall climax. I don't want to give away exactly what happens: I'll never forget the thrill of seeing it for first time, unprepared. But even without the element of surprise, the beauty of this stunt, the pendulum arc he describes with his body, always takes my breath away.
One final note: contrary to what someone wrote elsewhere on this page, it was not "standard practice" for silent stars to do all their own stunts. Buster Keaton was unique in never using a double, and probably no star ever took greater risks or endured more physical suffering than he did in the interest of his art. But the supreme achievement is how effortless and understated his performances are; he's not showing off, just attending to the task at hand.
This fine film represents one of the earlier attempts at "dramedy",
long before the term was invented. The story has a highly realistic
feel to it, yet the funny stuff is never far away.
The film does start a bit slowly as they set up the story, but things pick up quickly once the funny (but true, from an old photo) shot of 1810 Times Square hits the screen.
The little train which takes Buster to Kentucky is a hoot, and THAT is based on the real 1830's deal, too. Movable, bumpy, flimsy tracks and a couple nutty characters and situations are highlights.
My favorite bit in the whole film, though, is when poor Buster realizes the fabulous mansion he thought he was inheriting turned out to be a broken-down shack, ending his dreams in spectacularly explosive fashion.
The story was strong and believable, and the climactic (and very dangerous) scenes at the river and waterfall were amazing. As a matter of fact, these scenes are so impressive, it's easy to forget that they are funny; this is the only reason for me to not give the movie a 10.
Side note to those who have said the poor soundtrack detracted from the film: If you EVER have the opportunity to see this or other silent movies in their proper environment (A glorious movie palace with live musical accompaniment by theatre organ or an orchestra), DO it! The "half-live, half-canned" aspect is very important to the enjoyment of silents. It also keeps any film you've seen many times (as is often the case with "The General" or "Phantom") fresh. Even the same organist doesn't play the same film the same way every time, and a different organist can accompany the film in such a different way that it can almost fool you into thinking you're seeing a new movie.
I'm one of those lucky enough to have done so and there's nothing quite like it.
Our Hospitality is truly a work of art from the silent era. Buster Keaton amazed me with his stunts, which I dare say do not pale in comparison with those of Jackie Chan. The story is filled with wit and suspense. At times you laugh, at times you gasp, at times the world trembles as Keaton delivers death-defying stunts. This is one of the first silent movies I watched in its entirety, and I was thoroughly impressed with the film-making quality. While I wouldn't go as far as to prefer silent movies over their contemporary sound counterpart, I like how soundless movies invite you to pay particular attention to the facial expression--it's all there in the actor's face. I personally prefer Our Hospitality to Keaton's acclaimed "The General."
There has never been a more comic use of a `train' (if the label is
appropriate) than in this film. This is ingenuity at its finest, the most
sustained comic sequence I've ever seen. Travelling from New York ca.
to the Appalachians to claim an `estate', Keaton on this journey provides
the highlight of the film-and what a highlight it is! From the bouncing
actions of passengers to the lifting and moving of track, this series of
images is non-stop pleasure. A dog, a hobo, a man throwing rocks at the
engineer, a mule-all are inspired catalysts to laughter.
Once Keaton (a McKay) reaches his destination, the movie changes pace. And despite many good moments, especially those when Keaton has taken up `permanent residence' at the Canfields, the humor never reaches the level of the first portion of the film. Nonetheless, Keaton's genius is evident throughout the film, and it is this ability to innovate that constantly amazes.
In the Nineteenth Century, there is a feud between the McKay and
Canfield families in the country of the United States of America. When
John McKay is killed, his wife sends their one years old baby Willie to
New York to be raised by her sister. Twenty years later, Willie McKay
(Buster Keaton) returns to claim for his family state. Along the train
travels, he meets a young lady and they fall in love for each other.
However, she is the youngest Canfield and her family has not forgotten
the quarrel against the McKays.
"Our Hospitality" is amazing even in the present days. Without use of computer, as the present generation has accustomed to see on the screen, Buster Keaton participates of fantastic timing scenes using his physical capability, such as in the waterfall, or in the train water-tank. Further, there is a very interesting scenario, showing the crossroad between Broadway and Forty-Second Streets in New York based on a 1830 painting. Willie's dog, his bicycle and the funny train are other attractions of this great movie. My vote is ten.
Title (Brazil): "Nossa Hospitalidade" ("Our Hospitality")
This was the first silent movie I had seen and I am eager to see more. This film had everything ... comedy, action, romance, great music, etc. It's still amazing that a film made over almost eighty-years ago is still better than 90% of the crap out there today.
Although not Keaton's greatest film, this one has sure got some really
great moments. The build-up is rather slow while the main plot is being
established: 1830s Kentucky. Keaton gets invited by a pretty girl to
attend her family dinner. What he doesn't realize until too late is
that the family in question is his inherited mortal enemies in a blood
feud that has been going on for centuries. The girl's father and
brothers all want to kill him but is prevented from doing so until he
has left their house (hence the title).
Our Hospitality has got some amazing action sequences but the tempo is very uneven. The early part of the film treats us to some beautiful replicas of old vehicles including trains and bicycles and also some of Keaton's usual train-rail comedy. The middle part, where Keaton guests his blood feud enemies is full of running in and out through doors. Up until now everything has been pretty slow. The last third of the movie though, is truly mind boggling! Keaton and a chasing gunman falls down cliffs, flows down rivers and waterfalls, jumps in and out of moving trains and so on while tied to each other with a rope around their waists. It must have been through watching this James Bond learned his action trade. Our Hospitality however, has also got a lot of comedy in its moments of unbelievable action.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is one of Buster's best features. It's far more serious than any
other film he ever made with its deadly feud and its plea for
tolerance. It neatly divides in half, the first half on one of the
first trains ever constructed, not a replica but a borrowed museum
piece. The second half takes place at and around the home of his new
girlfriend, trying to evade her murdering father and brothers.
The train journey is inspired and far funnier than the gags used in the later THE GENERAL, and some are repeated in that later film, primarily the engine and train disconnecting and the latter going off on a side rail, only to come back onto the main track, ahead of the engine.
What is most marvelous is that Keaton's father, Joe (the engineer), his son, Buster, Jr. (his character as an infant), and his wife, Natalie Talmadge (the girl, Mary), are all in the film with him.
***ALERT - SPOILERS AHEAD**** Great gags in the train sequence: the dog keeping up with the slow moving train throughout the journey; the ruse of rock throwing to get free firewood; moving the track to go around a stubborn mule; getting off the track entirely and meandering down a country road.
Once in town, we have the classic attempted rescue of a woman from her abusive spouse only to be clobbered himself, his dream estate actually blowing up when confronted by the miserable truth, the sudden new waterfall that miraculously hides him from his foes, the indoor/outdoor chase to avoid being shot, the dog fetching the unwanted hat, the horse made up to look like the escaping Keaton disguised as a woman with an umbrella; the fall from the train into the stream and the nonchalant paddle as the car is turned into a boat; and of course the extraordinary precision of the final waterfall rescue.
Oddly enough the KINO print (crisp, clear)makes use of two Jerome Kern tunes in its score for horns, violin, and drum - WHIPPOORWILL and LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING.
This is a wonderfully inventive comedy and safely walks the line of making its serious points without bringing high spirits down. A must-see, especially as a double bill with his later, THE GENERAL.
With a good dose of everything that one expects from Keaton - slapstick,
stunts, chases, rich visual detail, and much more - "Our Hospitality" is
enjoyable to watch, and it has some especially good sequences. The plot
idea, with Keaton as an innocent outsider becoming entangled in an
old-fashioned family feud, works pretty well, although it relies on comic
details to overcome some rather routine characters.
A short prologue explains the feud in which Buster will soon be involved, and then we see New Yorker Willie McKay (Keaton) called south to claim a family inheritance, which will plunge him into the middle of the feud. One of the movie's highlights is the train ride south, a wonderful sequence that almost upstages the rest of the film. It's a long, leisurely series of comic snippets that works beautifully both as a period piece and as terrifically inventive comedy. There aren't any spectacular gags, but an impressive collection of amusing incidents and carefully done detail, and it's well worth watching over again to catch it all.
The main part of the film features Buster romancing the pretty young woman he met on the train, while trying to avoid her brothers and father, who are trying to kill him. It's pretty good, but except for a few clever shots most of it is not up to the standard of the first part of the movie. It picks up near the end with a very good chase sequence that has some memorable moments and that brings everything to a climax.
Overall, this is a fine film, enjoyable and well worth watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not quite up there with THE GENERAL, THE NAVIGATOR, SHERLOCK JR. and
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR., OUR HOSPITALITY gives us encouraging signs of
Keaton as film creator and thinker. He had done historical films before
it - the film just before this was the amusing THE THREE AGES, which
was somewhat influenced by the structure of INTOLERANCE (not quite: the
stories are parallel here like in INTOLERANCE, but Griffith blended the
conclusions to show the results of intolerance are always evil, whereas
Keaton has each story end separately). Griffith is an influence here
to, in the matter of trying to impose historical correctness of detail.
The result is Keaton spoofing it: showing Broadway and 42nd Street in
1830 based on an actual lithograph of the time, which shows that modern
thoroughfare as barely out of the cow pasture age - even the cop stops
a "traffic jam" by halting foppish Willie McKay on his early
bone-shaker bicycle while a wagon has the right of way!*
(*Keaton continues this later on in a throw away line, to spoof the cautions of an earlier age. Before he boards the train to take him south, he is warned by his mother, "Be careful of those Indians in Delaware!")
All great comedy skirts the edge of tragedy. STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. is resolved when a tornado hits the southern town it is set in, wrecks most of it, and sinks Mr. King's modern steamboat. The reason the ship in THE NAVIGATOR is set adrift is due to foreign agents of one of two countries currently at war. Keaton is fully aware of how close tragedy and comedy touch each other. In Our HOSPITALITY he has a ten minute prologue which could have been in a drama: Willie McKay's dad (when Willie was an infant in the south) has been insulted by the younger brother of Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts) a neighbor. Apparently the insult was a mutual one. Despite the entreaties of his wife Mr. McKay goes out of his home armed. Canfield, likewise, tries to prevent his brother, but fails. We watch as both men basically spot each other in the dark, approach with care and fire - mortally wounding each other. Canfield dies on the spot, but Mr. McKay stumbles back to his home and dies. Joseph Canfield looks at the dead body of his brother and realizes that this begins the real matter of a blood feud. He regrets it, but hardens himself to prepare for a massacre. Mrs. McKay quickly leaves the house with baby Willie, fleeing town and heading North.
It sets the stage (though a logic question is dropped - given the threat to McKays in the southern town, why is Willie allowed to go back to claim his inheritance?) Willie heads south on the newly built railroad, which has wooden tracks that keep needing repairs (at one point the train accidentally goes off the rails and continues puffing along like a set of coaches pulled by a steam powered automobile). The train contains more than Willie - he has met a charming southern girl (Nathalie Talmadge - in actual life Buster's wife), who happens to be the only daughter of Joe Canfield. He arrives with an invitation from her to her home for dinner. He plans to do that, and goes to see his great estate (which turns out to be a little log cabin), and then heads for the dinner invitation. In the meantime word has spread to the Canfields that the last McKay is in town. They are planning on killing Willie when (to their general consternation and surprise) he shows up for dinner.
What follows is how Keaton twists southern hospitality into a pretzel as Joe Canfield and his two sons keep an eye on Willie in the hope that he leaves the house long enough to be shot. At first Willie is unaware of all this, but gradually he realizes what is going on, and he is as determined to stay inside their home as long as possible. This delights Virginia Canfield (Talmadge) until she realizes the danger she has put Willie into. Soon she's trying to figure out how to prolong this visit beyond the conclusion of dinner.
Eventually it is impossible to maintain the strained bond of hospitality. Willie flees into the forest, pursued by vengeful Canfields. The tricks here include a memorable demonstration on the dangers of the law gravity involving Willie and one of his pursuers and a ledge overlooking a waterfall. The waterfall also turned out to be nearly fatal - Keaton took a serious fall in the shooting, and did not realize for several years that he had broken his neck (and survived). Another unconscious serious element is Joe Roberts - he had suffered a stroke during the filming, and insisted on continuing his scenes when he "recovered". There are scenes where he is seen wandering in the forest, but acting really lost - like he can't tell what is going on around him. Roberts (an old family friend of Buster's) died later in 1923, OUR HOSPITALITY being the last film he made with Keaton.
Despite the downer of Roberts' illness and Keaton's close call, the film works well, and remains consistently funny. As a second level Keaton film it is a good introduction to his work. As an intriguing look at Keaton's fascination with trains, it is a fine introduction to his masterpiece THE GENERAL.
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