Posted: 7/7/00

Our Hospitality (1923)
by Del Harvey

One of Keaton's earlier works is still fun to watch for his sheer genius at physical comedy.

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Buster Keaton is considered by many to be a comic genius. His stoic features, diminutive stature, and sourpuss smile are personal trademarks. But what he is best known for is physical comedy. Not slapstick, like that rough stuff of Laurel and Hardy's or The Three Stooges. Not the elegant, overwrought stylings of Charlie Chaplin. Keaton's true ability was in turning the subtle, often disasterously dangerous situation into a sidesplitting laugh or thoughtful chuckle. And he got the same response from everyone, no matter their age or social background.

Let me give you an example. Late in his life 'The Great Stoneface' agreed to appear in a documentary for the Canadian Broadcast Company called The Railrodder which was bascially about the vanishing railroad. The crew is setting up a shot and an interviewer is shooting the documentary-within-the-documentary about Keaton. Keaton speaks and listens politely to the interviewer, seeming right there with them. A three-car train is being moved into position for the next shot, not far from where the interview is taking place on the platform. Each of these cars must weigh several tons, at the very least. Mid-interview, Keaton walks purposefully to the edge of the platform, just as the train is pulling up. Stone-faced and right in character, he reaches out with one hard and grabs the bar that protrudes from the side of the thing. He moves his body just so and it appears as though he is stopping the train, single-handedly. Everybody laughs. The interviewer, the crew, the people watching the television with me - we all bust a gut. It's just so absurd to see this little Seventysomething man stop a multi-ton train with one hand!

This was Keaton's genius. There are scenes most of us have tucked away in our memory, such as the wall of a house collapsing around a man standing beside the house, but the wall hits the ground flat and the man is just fine. Incredible images such as these exist because of Keaton's imagination and his ability to communicate simply through body language. Unfortunately, Our Hospitality features few memorable moments; but the basis for these later moments are all there.

The story is built around the mythic feud of the Hatfields and McCoys. Generation after generation of male has been killed by one party or another. Keaton, taken to relatives' home in New Jersey after his father was killed many years before, is blissfully unaware of the feud. One day he recieves a telegram instructing him to come claim the family estate. Visions of a great two-story mansion will soon be dashed, but not until he has milked every mile out of a train gag that lasts a good third of the film. The train sequence is good, and it is quite remarkable in that they must have built this odd thing just for the movie, and it really works, and the tracks it rides on are logs and wooden rails thrown down on the ground, bending and curving crazily to conform to the landscape. This minor feat of engineering is interesting, at best, but technology has taken us far from rail travel, and the gags don't hold up.

The remainder of the film is divided between Keaton's attempts to woo the rival family's daughter while avoiding her murderous father and brothers. For this viewer the funniest sequence is right after Keaton has arrived in town and is asking directions to "the estate." One of the first persons he meets, of course, is one of the sons of the rival family. As the son walks him down the street towards the family home, he excuses himself at every business, popping in to try and borrow a gun from each proprietor.

Our Hospitality includes Keaton's wife Norma Talmadge as the daughter of the rival clan. Keaton's son plays his own character as a child, and Keaton's father plays the addle-pated train engineer.

Not one of Keaton's better films, Our Hospitality remains a wonderful piece of celluloid history, preserving the early development of one of the best physical comedians of all time.

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Del Harvey, founder of FM, lives in Chicago. He once worked for The Directors Guild Of America, The Walt Disney Company, and Lucasfilm.

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