100 Years of… Our Hospitality

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1923 is the year when Buster Keaton’s run of classic feature-length comedies gets out of the blocks with Our Hospitality, which signals its intention to be different even in its opening credits, which linger on the screen far longer than those of most films of the era. Here, they say, is something to be savoured.

The story is William Shakespeare via rural 19th-century America via the mind of Buster Keaton, a re-working of Romeo and Juliet crossed with the Hatfield and McCoys feud, with Buster playing Willie McKay, a guy who falls in love with a young woman he meets on the train journey back to his Appalachian homeland where he’s inherited a property left behind by his father.

Willie knows of the blood feud that’s been raging between his family and the Canfields, but he’s no idea that the pretty woman sitting next to him in the train carriage is a Canfield herself. That comes much later, when he’s on enemy territory, inside the Canfield mansion, where the Canfields have been happily entertaining this charming young man, also unaware of who he is. Once they realise he’s a McKay, they continue to tolerate him because “our hospitality” – their code of honour – dictates that they may not hurt their daughter’s guest, even though they want to kill him, while he’s under their roof. Once he sets foot outside the property, however, all bets are off. 

The film features four Keatons – Buster (less stonefaced and more classically the romantic lead than usual), his father Joe (who plays the train driver), his son Buster Jr (Willie as an infant being evacuated from murderous Appalachia to New York) and his wife, Natalie Talmadge, who plays Virginia Canfield, object of Willy’s affection.

Keaton astride a tiny pony
A publicity still for the film

Montague/McKay/McCoy, Capulet/Canfield/Hatfield – Keaton has the names taped down – and the stately pacing of the film sets it apart from other Keaton movies and the other comedies of the era, which tended towards rapid-fire slapstick. It is nevertheless gag-stuffed and an archive of so much classic Keaton comedy – like the woman walking into the distance who turns out to be a horse with a dress on its rump. It also gave us that remarkable stunt when Keaton swings into a waterfall on a rope to rescue Virginia as she’s just about to plunge down the cataract.

There’s another brilliant moment you’ll recognise when you see it. As Willy, on a perilous cliff face and tied to a rope, sees his Canfield adversary hurtling downwards past him tied to the selfsame rope Willy looks at the camera – it’s exactly the same look that Wile E. Coyote gives to camera when he realises doom is imminent. Willy/Wile E?

Made a hundred years ago but set about a hundred years before that, Our Hospitality’s fascination with the early 1800s is obvious, from the dandy horse that Willy rides early on, to the steam train that he and Virginia board in New York. The locomotive is a working replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, (Keaton had it built), and the carriages authentically resemble stage coaches yoked together in the most rudimentary way. Keaton squeezes this train journey for a whole run of sight gags, affectionate ones tipping the hat to steam’s revolutionary technology and sniggering ones pointing out how rickety it all was. As The General would later reinforce, Keaton loved his trains.

Throughout, Keaton’s stunt work is so great it’s almost surreal. The choreography is superb and non-stop. The cinematography is also worth a mention, with early scenes – the background to the feud – lit almost like Old Masters, and later scenes standing out on account of the extensive location shooting.

The film was thought gone for ever until James Mason found a copy of it in a hidden room in his house, which had once been Keaton’s. And the 2K 2019 Kino restoration really does justice to the film, upping the quality dramatically on what were very passable but fairly scratchy older versions. It’s the one to go for and linked to below.

Our Hospitality – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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