Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923) remains one of his very funniest films, but it was also a groundbreaking work of silent film comedy at the time of its release. Not the least of its triumphs is its careful integration of gags into a dramatically coherent storyline. In that respect it marked a significant advance over Three Ages (1923), which was essentially three two-reel comedies stuck together to make a single feature. Another noteworthy aspect of Our Hospitality is its meticulous attention to period detail, which in turn becomes an additional source of comedy. As absurd as it appears onscreen, the train in the film is actually modeled after the "Stephenson Rocket," one of the earliest locomotives; the bicycle Keaton rides at one point is an exact replica of the very first bicycle, the "Gentleman's Hobby-Horse." And of course, Keaton also makes clever use of old-style pistols, which must be reloaded with gunpowder and bullets after each shot. The prologue, in its staging and lighting effects, resembles nothing so much as the stage melodramas of the 19th century, such as those produced by Belasco; it is probably intended as a parody, considering that the acting style in the rest of the film is more restrained and the blocking of actors more fluid. The film also benefits from beautiful cinematography and extensive location shooting in the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe region near the border of California and Nevada--though the waterfall at the film's breathtaking climax is clearly substituted for a studio mock-up. Thanks to the care and ingenuity with which it is made, this is one silent film for which no apologies need be made to modern viewers.
Like many great comedies, Our Hospitality derives its inspiration from seemingly unlikely material. While there were numerous clan feuds in the South during the 19th century, by far the best known is that of the Hatfields and McCoys, whose names provide the obvious model for the fictional families in Keaton's film. The real-life families, who lived in the Tug Fork River valley on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, were farmers who also manufactured bootleg whiskey. Their feud began at least as early as 1878, when a dispute over the ownership of a pair of hogs resulted in gunfights and one death. Sporadic eruptions of violence continued over the next several years, culminating in a bloody siege on January 1, 1888 by the Hatfields against the McCoys; lurid accounts of it made the front pages of newspapers across the country. While several members of the Hatfield family were officially charged in Kentucky with murder, the governor of West Virginia refused to extradite them. In response, members of the McCoy family staged a raid across the border, killing and capturing a number of Hatfields and bringing them into Kentucky. The governors of both states called up the National Guard against each other. Eight Hatfields were tried for murder; seven received life sentences, but one was sentenced to death and hanged publicly.
The production of Our Hospitality was plagued with difficulties; Joe Roberts suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in Reno, Nevada. Although visibly weakened, he was able to complete shooting; he passed away shortly after the production was finished. Natalie Talmadge learned that she was pregnant and eventually had to be photographed so as to hide the growing evidence of her condition. Keaton, furthermore, nearly drowned in the Truckee River while filming one of his stunts; the restraining wire broke and he floated down the treacherous rapids, saved only by a bend in the river. While the climactic waterfall rescue was staged under more controlled conditions, Keaton nonetheless took in enough water during that stunt to require medical attention.
The reviewer for Variety called Our Hospitality "one of the best comedies ever produced for the screen," adding: "The picture is splendidly cast, flawlessly directed and intelligently photographed. [...] It marks a step forward in the production of picture comedies and may be the beginning of the end of the comedy picture without a plot or story that degenerates into a series of gags." Released in November 1923, the film went on to earn approximately half a million dollars. While not the highest grosses of its day, it was a respectable profit. However, the film's lasting appeal is due to the comic artistry of Keaton, not box office receipts.
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone
Script and Titles: Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman
Photography: Gordon Jennings and Elgin Lessley
Art Direction: Fred Gabourie
Principal cast: Buster Keaton (William McKay), Natalie Talmadge (Virginia Canfield); Buster Keaton, Jr. (The Baby); Joe Keaton (Lem Doolittle); Kitty Bradbury (Aunt Mary); Joe Roberts (Joseph Canfield); Craig Ward (Lee Canfield); Ralph Bushman (Clayton Canfield); Edward Coxen (John McKay); Jean Dumas (Mrs. McKay); Monte Collins (Reverend Benjamin Dorsey); James Duffy (Sam Gardner).
by James Steffen