Thursday, August 7, 2008

Target #228: Our Hospitality (1923, John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton)

TSPDT placing: #359
Written by: Clyde Bruckman (story), Jean C. Havez (writer), Joseph A. Mitchell (writer)

After Three Ages (1923) proved that he could direct a feature-length comedy {he had merely starred in The Saphead (1920)}, Buster Keaton followed up its success with Our Hospitality (1923), a film that set the mould for the type of films that he would continue to produce for the remainder of his time at United Artists. Keaton plays the polite and well-meaning dolt, incredibly naive to a point, but, when roused into action, he has all the determination, daring and agility of a circus performer. Natalie Talmadge, as the pretty and delicate Virginia Canfield, provides the necessary romantic subplot, just enough to please, without saturating the story's more exciting elements. The overwhelmingly-quirky comedy is rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, but there's a certain quaintness and modesty to the material that really works, communicated most noticeably through Keaton's characteristically-underplayed slapstick performance. Silent comedians often compensated for the absence of sound by grossly exaggerating every expression and gesture; Keaton, on the other hand, reacts to each new obstacle with the solemnity of a monk, his inconceivable deadpan passiveness somehow amplifying the humour.

It probably wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that Our Hospitality was originally conceived to accommodate Keaton's passion for locomotives, and he was able to indulge in the construction of a working Stephenson's Rocket – an early steam train with a 0-2-2 wheel arrangement. This petite locomotive provides some of the film's most memorable comedic moments, most of the enjoyment derived from low-key, episodic sight gags, whether it be Buster trying to wear his top hat in the cramped carriage, the dog that is continually in pursuit, the back wheels that roll loose, the donkey blocking the tracks, or the tracks themselves, which determinedly follow the contours of the earth with precarious rigidity. Though this train scarcely travels at a walking pace, some of the techniques that Keaton developed here would come in handy four years later, when he filmed his Civil War train epic, The General (1927). The remainder of the film is a sharp comedy-of-manners, as the wealthy Canfield family plots to murder Keaton's Willie McKay, the culmination of a generations-long feud between the two warring lineages.
Production took place from a screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell, and the writers aim a few good-natured digs at the American South. The family feud, which is continued throughout the decades despite the fact that nobody remembers how it began, sounds too ludicrous to be true, but I was surprised to learn of a firm grounding in fact – the story was, indeed, based on the bloody real-life feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families. Paradoxically, the film also celebrates the indomitable "Southern hospitality" of the local folk, and the Canfield family (led by Keaton-regular Joe Roberts, in his final role) grudgingly agrees to only shoot their hapless enemy once he has left the cover of their home and so has ceased to be their guest. As one might expect, Buster Keaton risked his neck on more than a few occasions, the most unforgettable stunt involving his dangling precariously from a log perched at the crest of a waterfall, and his daring acrobatic rescue of the beautiful damsel-in-distress. Talmadge may have been replaced by a dummy, but Keaton was there, as always, in the flesh.

Currently my #3 film of 1923:
1) A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (Charles Chaplin)
2) Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)
3) Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone)
4) The Pilgrim (Charles Chaplin)
5) Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)

What others have said:

"Keaton was a stickler for historical accuracy, even well before his classic Civil War period piece, The General. Here the train is modeled after the earliest DeWitt Clinton steam engine that had movable track and was extremely slow, shown visually here with the dog that follows the train all the way. Passengers are jostled, and faces are blackened along the way--humorous exaggerated touches, but representative of early passenger train travel in the 1830s. Additionally, take note of the costumes; Keaton insisted on making them representative of the times. The rural setting of New York City isn't merely inserted for its humorous qualities--Keaton points out that the city scene is based on an actual photograph."

"Buster Keaton’s first feature-length comedy is one of his best, a comic gem set against a backdrop of a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud. Raised far from the scene of generations of “McKay-Canfield” violence, young Willie McKay (Keaton) knows nothing about the bad blood between the two families — until the time comes for him to go home and claim his inheritance... Fans of Keaton’s great train classic The General will be struck by Keaton’s early, adroit use of a much earlier period steam engine. This model runs on flexible tracks that look as if they were simply unspooled across the landscape, and the engine itself moves no faster than a horse-drawn buggy, allowing Willie’s dog to trot along under the cars for the duration of the trip."
Steven D. GreydanusAlso recommended from Buster Keaton:

"Buster Keaton's The Navigator, as a film, doesn't feel quite as complete as many of his other works, but it remains an enjoyable hour-long string of amusing gags with an abundance of Keaton's trademark deadpan humour. The idea for the film emerged when Keaton heard of the imminent scrapping of the SS Buford, a former army troop transport ship turned passenger liner. Seizing the opportunity, the comedy star purchased the ship cheaply and built an original story around this mammoth film prop."

"The second half of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) is a completely different story. When a destructive cyclone bears down upon the small riverside town, all hell breaks loose, and Keaton finds himself wondering precariously through a crumbling labyrinth of abandoned streets and buildings. As he endeavours to rescue his father, who is locked up in the local jail, Keaton endures the savagery of the hurricane winds and flying debris, frequently dodging tumbling building walls. The storm is probably the most ambitious extended silent comedy sequence since Harold Lloyd scaled the skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923), and it is remarkable how, in the absence of any elaborate special effects, it all seems so believable."

"Buster Keaton catapults himself down a steep hillside, an avalanche of pebbles, rocks and boulders tumbling in his wake. If any one of these objects were to strike him down, he would certainly be killed by the impact. He is almost escaping the rocks now; just a few more seconds of frantic sprinting is required. Suddenly, Keaton looks up, only to find a massive horde of woman striding purposefully towards him. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place: an avalanche behind him, and a flock of would-be brides ahead. Quickly and delicately weighing his chances of survival either way, Keaton turns determinedly towards the barrage of boulders. It is hilarious little moments like this that make Buster Keaton's silent comedies such a joy to watch, and Seven Chances (1925) is certainly one of the funniest I've seen, brimming with the talented actor's trademark deadpan humour."

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