d. John G. Blystone & Buster Keaton / USA / 73 mins.
If you enter Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality through the back door of time, you might not immediately appreciate it for what it is. Having now re-watched Keaton's works in chronological order, it is easier and more rewarding to see this film as a giant leap forward for Keaton, his first true feature film as a director even if it is technically his second (Three Ages, released earlier in the same year, was three shorts spliced together). The film has an entirely different rhythm and pulse than anything Keaton had done before; it is mature storytelling, with a straightforward and occasionally dramatic and satirical narrative positioned first and the comedy serving as a successful buttress.
Contextually, Keaton's films are often set on the cusp of something — the moment civilization is about to roll forward to something else, with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. That metaphoric straddling shouldn't be surprising considering how acrobatic Keaton was; his stunts occupy that same plane, always partially under control and always partially out of control. Our Hospitality is a riff on progress, refracted through the seeming absence of progress. It finds itself at a technological nexus, a time when bicycles didn't have pedals yet and trains (a Keaton favorite, this time a working model of Stephenson's 1831 "Rocket") bounced up and down on tracks.
The human story is also an on-the-cusp variety. Based on the famous feud between the Hatfield family and the McCoy family, Keaton plays Willie McKay, a surviving member of a family that has been feuding with the Canfields for generations. On the train-ride South, he strikes up a friendship with a lovely young woman named Virginia (Natalie Talmadge, at the time Keaton's wife), but neither knows the other is the member of an opposing family. Upon their arrival, Willie finds himself embroiled with Virginia's brothers and menacing father (Joe Roberts, a Keaton regular who suffered a stroke during production and died shortly thereafter). Willie manages to find a moment of eerie and foreboding serenity by becoming a guest in the Canfield home after the elder Canfield has decreed that as long as he is a guest, he will not be harmed. Once he steps outside, however, that's another matter.
Keaton intentionally set the film the antebellum South (to give himself the opportunity to play with the era's technology), but the decision also infuses the narrative with palpable geographic tension. Keaton's Willie may have been born in the South, but he was raised in the North and returns to his birthplace as a Northerner seeking to settle his family's estate. The story does not make clear what his subsequent intentions are: will he move to the South if he has inherited the mansion he dreams of, or will he merely handle all that is necessary and come back North where his family now lives? Either could be seen as an affront to the traditional respect of a culture. More pressing for the film is his connection to the Canfields as a McKay.
The title could be read as a mockery of Southern hospitality, yet the film does not venture to taunt a particular culture. Indeed, it is an undeniably grim title: what is hospitable about a family that wants to kill you but is being polite enough not to do it while you're in their home? But the human condition is undeniably grim as well, and as the final moments of the film demonstrate, it is not a cultural obstacle the characters must traverse but rather the human condition. An embroidered axiom that hangs on the walls of the Canfield estate converts the father — a standard message of loving thy neighbor — but that message is not directed at any one person or people, but rather people on the whole. It is not a victory of politics because the film was never interested in its characters as walking metaphors in the first place; instead, it's a personal victory, a victory for Willie who has not only saved the girl but managed to marry her as well. (The parting shot is rather hilarious, too: once the truce is called, Willie, who has until that point been the subject of a chase, begins unloading numerous firearms from his pockets. Although he might not have been willing to fight in the name of his tribe, he was ultimately willing to defend himself so he could be with the girl he loves.)
More importantly, there's not a flat note in the film. Our Hospitality possesses a forward momentum in its narrative that is generally lacking from Keaton's shorts, which possess more of a circular narrative that takes a situation and mines it for all its comic gold rather than pushing it to another place. But it doesn't venture too far away from what we could expect of Keaton — namely a good chase, some fantastic stunts, and a few simple gags, scaled back so as not to interfere with the plot. (In one of the best, Willie, trying to stall his departure from the Canfield home, repeatedly hides his hat under a seat but a feisty dog keeps retrieving it for him.) It is not one of Keaton's funnier films, but I don't see that as a strike against it. What it lacks in laugh-out-loud humor it more than makes up for with its charm and handsome character.
Writing about Keaton's stunts is in many ways as effective as writing about the choreography and performance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — at some point words begin to breakdown and oxidize into useless tools; the event simply must be seen to be believed. The breathless climax of Our Hospitality, set on a rushing river which ends in a waterfall, is one of the great scenes in Keaton's oeuvre. (And in one of his many brushes with death while making films, he actually almost drowned shooting his struggle of being sent down the river.) He finds himself dangling over the waterfall, a rope tied around his waist and attached to a log that has become jammed in some rocks. He is desperately trying to free himself and reach safety on nearby rocks when he is called into action to save the girl, who is caught in the current and headed toward the fall. Those who have seen it can't forget it, and those who haven't should as soon as possible.
09 August 2009
d. John G. Blystone & Buster Keaton / USA / 73 mins.