Cast & Crew
Buster Keaton Jr.
Sole surviving son William McKay settles a family feud by marrying the rival feudist's daughter, Virginia Canfield. Before the wedding, city boy McKay attempts to escape the little Kentucky hamlet unobserved. When the Canfield men give chase, he hitches a ride on a pioneer railroad train, then is swept over a high falls. A floating log saves McKay, and he rescues Virginia when she follows the chase and falls in the water.
Buster Keaton Jr.
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
Our Hospitality - OUR HOSPITALITY - Buster Keaton's 1923 Silent Comedy on DVD
A tragic back story establishes the bloody feud between the McKay and Canfield families. Baby Willie McKay's father is murdered, and his mother must flee to relatives in New York City. Twenty years later, in 1831, the grown Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) returns to the mountain country to claim his family land and homestead. He takes passage on an amusing first-generation railroad train, riding in a rickety passenger car adapted from an ordinary stagecoach. En route he meets a delightful beauty returning to the same town (Natalie Talmadge). But she is a Canfield, the sworn enemy of all McKays. Willie is disappointed when the expected McKay mansion turns out to be a tarpaper shack. But he's welcome at the girl's house. Once they learn the identity of their visitor, the Canfield brothers and father hastily prepare to shoot Willie full of holes. But the unwritten law of mountain hospitality prevents them from killing Willie while he's a guest in the house. Thus begins a complicated game of genteel stalking: the moment Willie steps off the front porch, he's fair game.
Buster Keaton sets aside most of the one-joke cartoon comedy of his previous Three Ages in favor of gags that take pains to observe the laws of physical reality. Buster's elaborate train journey is a string of comic moments built on the idea that the antique train hardly seems practical, yet really functions. The gags are unlikely but not patently impossible. Encountering a stubborn donkey that won't budge, the engineers drag the rails a bit to one side to run around it. The train ride becomes absurd when the flimsy coaches roll over a series of exaggerated bumps: the lazy tracklayers have put the rails down over a series of fallen tree trunks. The passengers and crew take all of this craziness in stride. Buster finds room for wonderful jokes about rural attitudes. A crowd gathers to watch the train go by, as if it's the highlight of their week. A farmer throws rocks at the train's engineer, who responds by throwing back firewood from the train's tender. The clever farmer then happily gathers up his free firewood.
The curious Keaton never met a mechanical gadget he didn't like. Representative of this focus on odd inventions is Willie McKay's use of a primitive pre-bicycle called a hobby horse. The all-wooden contraption is little more than two wheels connected by a narrow bar that doubles as a saddle. There are no pedals or gears; McKay rolls about town in his fancy clothes by paddling along. Although the hobby horse looks ridiculous it is completely authentic. Keaton engages with artifacts of the past not just for laughs but to make us feel the contrast between those days and our own.
Willie McKay's hide 'n' seek games with the trigger-happy Canfield men are also hilarious. Forced to leave the house, Willie keeps finding ways to avoid being shot before he slips back into the sanctuary of the parlor. The would-be assassins then find him at the piano with the Canfields' flirtatious daughter, acting as if nothing had happened. When the Canfields realize that Willie has slipped through their fingers by wearing a woman's dress, they prepare to shoot him in the back ... only to find that their prey has rigged a clever decoy to throw them off the track.
Our Hospitality is often compared with Keaton's later masterpiece The General. Both films are painstakingly researched period pieces, and both involve antique trains and spectacular stunts in a river. Keaton's does more than simply sketch an historical background for his comic character. The land is already being changed by modern inventions. The early Americans are clever and optimistic yet barbarians at heart, nursing tribal grudges like the cave men of Three Ages. The reality of the Hatfield & McCoy feud doesn't defuse the comedy. Critic David Robinson pointed out that a much more recent and notorious real-life massacre provides the same kind of tension for Billy Wilder's classic Some Like it Hot.
This earlier film also demonstrates Buster Keaton's flair for impressive physical effects. He films scenes atop mountains by cleverly placing huge miniatures of distant forested hills behind his cleverly engineered sets. The illusion of Buster suspended by a rope over a roaring waterfall is perfect, even though it was filmed back in his open-air studio in the heart of Hollywood. In the film's most impressive stunt, Willie McKay swings out into the center of the cataract, perfectly timing himself to snatch his lady love to safety just as she's about to slip over the falls. Although audiences in 1923 accepted the river and falls sequence as completely real, everything we see was meticulously designed and engineered.
Beautifully constructed and staged, Our Hospitality is considered by some experts to be Buster Keaton's most elegant feature comedy. The editing reveals a masterful progression of camera angles, not simply cuts between static coverage, as was still the norm. Buster's remarkably consistent comic character is much more than a deadpan clown -- he's an honest, forthright and chivalrous gentleman, and wholly worthy of the gentle leading lady.
Kino International's DVD of Our Hospitality is a substantial improvement over old 16mm copies of the film. Although in slightly rougher shape than some of Keaton's later pictures, the image looks quite good and the HD-sourced transfer is rock steady. The projection rate has wisely been adjusted a bit slower than 24 fps, making the action look more natural as well. The color tints applied to the B&W film match original screening prints. A Blu-ray version is also available.
A pleasant making-of docu has been produced for the disc, written by Patricia Eliot Tobias and David B. Pearson. It analyzes the accuracy of some of Keaton's elaborate period props. We also learn that the film was shot in the Lake Tahoe/Truckee area 300 miles north of Hollywood. The unnamed Canfield Girl, Natalie Talmadge, was Buster's wife at the time.
Also included is the two-reeler short subject The Iron Mule from 1925. It re-uses Keaton's fancy working train; Buster plays an uncredited role as an Indian Chief (as he would forty years later in the A.I.P. comedy Pajama Party). One very interesting extra for students of Keaton is Hospitality, a strange 49-minute alternate cut of the film that survives with extensive damage to some passages. Why the shorter version was produced is a mystery. It contains a few bits of film not seen in the full feature, so is probably not a simple cut-down version.
The main musical score is composed and conducted by Carl Davis, with the Thames Silents Orchestra. As an alternative, Kino includes another score compiled by Donald Hunsberger. Two galleries of photographs are also present.
For more information about Our Hospitality, visit Kino Lorber. To order Our Hospitality, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Our Hospitality - OUR HOSPITALITY - Buster Keaton's 1923 Silent Comedy on DVD
During the shooting of the climatic waterfall scene, Buster Keaton inhaled so much water that he had to have first aid.
During the filming of the scene in which Keaton is being swept downstream towards the waterfall, he was attached to a 'holdback' cable, concealed in the river. During the filming of the scene, the cable broke, and he was hurled down the rapids, battered by rocks and limbs, and was only barely able to grab an overhanging branch, which held him just long enough for the crew to reach and rescue him. This scene remains in the final print, and is fairly easy to spot. Just look for the point at which Keaton is being pulled downriver and 1) he suddenly looks back towards the camera, and 2) his speed in the water doubles, almost causing him to fly out of frame.
The diminutive steam engine used in the film was a faithful, mechanically-accurate re-creation of Stephenson's Rocket. So accurate, in fact, that it was given to the Smithsonian for display.
The climactic waterfall rescue scenes were filmed on a set built over the swimming pool on the Keaton lot. Production stills kept secret until decades after the film was released show the entire set, including the miniature valley constructed below the pool for the long overlooking shots.