Our Hospitality is the first feature film from silent comedy auteur – Buster Keaton. Created by Buster’s own company – Buster Keaton Productions – and written, directed and produced by Keaton himself, Our Hospitality was the beginning of a highly imaginative career which produced some of Silent cinema’s finest work. In this first inclusion, Keaton plays Willie McKay, returning to his birth home in the Appalachian region and on the way falls for a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, this woman is a Canfield, sworn enemy of the McKay family due to generations of feuds. And so trouble begins…
Keaton is the king of stunts. Pure and simple. It was ingrained in his upbringing. At six months old, Keaton earned the name ‘Buster’ from Harry Houdini after tumbling down a flight of stairs. Buster soon joined his parent’s act to become “The Three Keatons”, performing one of the most dangerous vaudeville acts around – disciplining a prankster child. Buster was quickly instilled with qualities which refined and appeared in every one of his films, a resilience to physical stunts, comedy timing and a poker face. It was not long from the dissolution of the stage act to Buster’s film stardom where his talents would astound audiences for years to come.
Our Hospitality may not feature some of the more breathtaking and extravagant stunts in later Keaton pictures, but it is still a marvellous and hilarious production. In Buster’s masterful hands, each concept is tapped for every comedic potential offered, nothing is a throwaway. In a rather long sequence, the simplicity of travelling from New York to the Appalachian region could merely be functional, but instead becomes a very funny sequence. The chosen transport is the Stephenson’s Rocket, a replica of a true mode of transport from the 1820s, but it resembles a child stringing together several toys to make a train. It is slow and susceptible to the bumpy tracks lazily unfurled across whatever obstacle may be in the way, boulders, logs, dips etc. It is an enjoyable sequence where every possibility for trouble, minus an earthquake, becomes a reality. The pace of Our Hospitality moves as lethargically as the Stephenson Rocket but kicks into gear in the second half. Five minutes into arriving into town, Willie finds himself hunted down by the remaining Canfields. Keaton’s unbreakable marble poker-face wonderfully counteracts gag after gag, never mind how silly or large it may be. In the midst of a dam explosion, swinging from rock face to rock face or paddling downstream in part of a train, Keaton does not budge an inch in expression. It is when Willie becomes aware of the danger to his life that the picture truly transforms into hilarity. Keaton’s magnetic persona of a hapless hero is succinctly summarised in Keaton’s own words – ‘Think slow, act fast’. The most readily apparent escape, no matter how ridiculous and life threatening, is the best option because it is immediate.
Buster demonstrates an eye for directing in this piece, using relatively long shots throughout to capture the mountainous cliffs, the raging streams, the white picket fences of dreamy Americana living, whilst capturing his exploits. But Buster has such magnetism the landscape becomes a vignette for the hero. This is not so much a criticism as it is praise for Keaton’s raw talents.
Our Hospitality is a wonderful introduction to Keaton’s abilities. It is a family picture in subject matter and production, starring his infant son, wife and father. An excellent comedy of family in a nightmare case of meeting the parents.
Willie has finally escaped the house of the nemesis family but a Son is in hot pursuit. Willie climbs down a mountain face to escape but is soon stuck as the cliff crumbles. The Son lowers a rope so Willie can swing himself into his shot. But, in true Buster fashion, a heart stopping stunt arises unaccounted for. The Son falls which drags Buster, the Son luckily catches hold of a branch, and his breath, only for Buster to pass and drag him in turn until they plummet into a raging rapid river. Delightfully dangerous, the perfect balance of hilarity and tension in rough and tumble stunts.