‘Our Hospitality’: Buster Keaton’s Story About Ingrained Hostility

Our Hospitality was a major cinematic event of 1923. After years of apprenticeship in comedy shorts, during which he demonstrated a mastery of the visual gag, Buster Keaton made his feature debut with The Three Ages, actually more of an anthology of three segments (and brilliant). Then he moved on to this genuine feature-length story, a popular hit that seemed like a new thing.

As explained in a superb half-hour documentary in this new Kino edition, Keaton was following the feature debuts of Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and like Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy, he was partially inspired by the huge hit Tol’able David, about a backwoods and backwards boy who makes good and gets the girl by finding his bravery. Into this formula Keaton interjects a potentially grim subject, so that his film becomes a whimsical comedy of attempted murder that slowly builds to hair-raising stuntwork.

Keaton’s scenario is a riff on the notorious real-life feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, which has largely come down in history as fodder for rural comedies and cartoons. The prologue is a straightforward melodrama of two men killing each other in the senseless prolongation of the feud. A boy is left orphaned, and his mother retreats from Kentucky to relatives in New York, where Willie McKay (Keaton) is raised by an aunt. She tells him about the feud when he decides head south and reclaim the family estate, which he imagines as a mansion instead of the falling-down shack it is. (This imaginary image becomes a great sight gag.)

Willie rides a train from New York to Kentucky, and the only thing of narrative import that happens on the journey is that he meets a pretty woman (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s wife) who will later turn out to be the daughter of his enemy family. Another movie would skip the train ride or only show the meeting, but Keaton makes it a delicious and lovely sequence that occupies between a third and a half of the movie, and we wouldn’t mind if it went on forever. As the making-of explains, Keaton combined the funniest elements of two different newfangled locomotives as they existed in 1830, resulting in a distinctive oddity with as much quaint ramshackle personality as the Toonerville Trolley in the Sunday comics.

This could be a literal shaggy-dog sequence, as one of the gags involves a pooch that follows the train for the entire journey. To top it off, many shots are works of gratuitous beauty. Amid the endless absurdities dotting this sequence are several ideas that Keaton revisited in The General, his later classic that unfortunately wasn’t profitable. There are many similarities between the films. I happen to prefer this earlier film as both tighter and looser of plot (a paradox, but there it is) as well as more absurd, yet with a romance that’s sweeter and more credible.

Once Willie finally arrives at the destination where we know his enemies await, the family-feud plotline takes a sublimely subversive form. The whole thing is predicated on a burlesque of the famous “Southern hospitality”, whose code holds, according to the large julep-sipping patriarch played by Joe Roberts, that it’s not proper to shoot a man while he’s a guest in your house. As soon as he leaves, however….

When Willie cottons on to the situation, he spends the rest of the movie exploiting this idea until the story moves to its breathless climax, which involves astonishing and exciting stuntwork. (One of the best parts of the making-of is a shot-by-shot explanation of the most famous sequence.) From violent prologue through bucolic voyage to ironic hospitality to breathless ending, the result is a variable yet seamless whole, and frankly a masterpiece.

It was also a family affair in a business where nepotism is often a good idea. Not only does it co-star Keaton’s wife, but their son plays Willie as an infant and father Joe Keaton plays the engineer. Producer Joseph M. Schenk was Keaton’s brother-in-law and happened to be head of Metro, which released the picture.

The same train is recycled in the short The Iron Mule (1925), included as a bonus. Apparently this was directed anonymously by the unemployable Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Keaton’s mentor in films. Even if one weren’t aware of the Keaton connection (and Keaton can be seen under heavy make-up in at least one cameo), this is a surprisingly pretty, clever and well-made film, even though it’s not in such good shape as the carefully restored and tinted main feature.

There are two different scores for the film and two galleries of photos. A very curious extra is Hospitality, a 49-minute alternate cut of the film in badly decomposed shape from Keaton’s private collection. Apparently it was a preliminary workprint, and among its differences is that the prologue is relocated as a flashback within the first reel. The introductory narration observes that Keaton always referred to the film as Hospitality and indeed it was first released under that name in a couple of markets before becoming known under its current title, but it always played theatrically in its current 75-minute form.

Kino has previously released this film on DVD along with Keaton’s other silent features. This new version adds some of the extras and is available on DVD or Blu-Ray.

RATING 10 / 10