Sunday, September 18, 2011

Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself

Our Hospitality(1923)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts

Buster Keaton has always been one of my favorite actors and certainly the finest comic in American cinema. Keaton's films were always more cinematic than his contemporaries and had a flair for both visual and plot nuances that seem ahead of their time. One of his finest works is the excellent, Our Hospitality, which works as sort of a companion piece to his masterwork, The General(1927), as it also contains a period setting and an eye for detail.

The film begins in 1820 on a dark and stormy night. A longstanding heud between two families, the Canfields and the Mckays, is raging on still. The brother of Joseph Canfield(Joe Roberts) returns home to settle the score and goes to shoot the final Mckay. They end up killing each other, the Canfields unaware that Mckay had a child to carry on the name. The child is taken away to live in New York, and Joseph vows vengeance for his brother's death, knowing the feud cannot end.
Twenty years later, the child grows up to be Willy Mckay(Buster Keaton) and he goes off to collect his inheritance, taking a ride on a Stephenson's Rocket, which was an early train, resembling a crossbreed of that and the stagecoach. He meets a girl(Natalie Talmadge, real-life wife of Buster) and falls for her. He arrives back home and mistakenly asks directions from one of the Canfield sons, who races to find a gun to shoot poor Willy. He is unware for awhile, until he visits the girlf or dinner and discovers that he is in the home of the Canfields! Trying his best to dodge them, he eventually is chased across a mountain and through the forest, ending up over a waterfall, where he saves the Canfield girl from going over the edge. To the rest of the family's surprise, they are married and the feud is put to an end.

The attention to detail in this film is astonishing. Never for a moment, does one believe that they are in any other period than the 1830s. Buster utilized real period pieces to enhance his story, including the already mentioned, Stephenson's rocket, as well as the first bicycle design, a replica that was so realistic that the Smithsonian actually wanted it to put on display! Few films have such a beautiful sense for scenery and natural settings as this one does and it's lovely to just watch Buster's take on life. In the hands of other filmmakers, less attention would be paid, but Buster allows the viewer to take in the environment and become immersed within it, making the narrative that much more stronger. Of course, the film is hilarious and still manages to get quite a few laughs. Buster's stunts and unparalleled reactions constitute for most of the comedy. I'm always impressed by his spark of invention, like how he manages to create so many means of escape from his pursuers, in one instance utlizing a log holder as a boat and using a shovel as an oar, after he's wrecked the train. There's another great moment when he tries to buy time in the Canfield house, as it's against the family's policy to shoot a guest(!), so he decides to make up tricks with his pet dog, that has followed him all the way there! One thing about Buster was that unlike other comedians, he was never in his heyday, depicted as being buffoonish or a fool. He approached problems with intelligence, even if sometimes with naivety. He was a man battling conformity, a trait he shared with other comic greats, Chaplin and Lloyd. The difference was that Keaton's enemies were often the results of technology, or as in this film, mother nature.
The most thrilling moment in the film would have to be the famed waterfall sequence, one of the most daring stunts ever attempted. Keaton is hanging over a rapidly flowing waterfall and has to catch Dorothy before she falls. Buster proves his love and his heroism by (literally) going out on a limb to save her and a truly incredible screen moment, though it's one of many such moments within the Keaton catalouge.

The film is something of a parody of the Hatfield/McCoy family feud, which lasted for generations. The message of this film, which bookends the picture is, "Love thy neighbor, as thyself" and there's a warm feeling at the end there, as all is resolved and forgiven, though the final shot of Buster disarming himself of a belt load of pistols is still pretty funny! Keaton is often cited as being unsentimental, the Great Stone Face, shying away from feeling, which is what many considered set him apart from Chaplin. In truth, his films always had softer and gentler qualities, they were just more subtle, much like Keaton's acting. The proof is in the eyes, and Keaton had the most expressive eyes in the business. Our Hospitality is one of the great comedy films, rapidly paced and brimming with comedic invention that could serve dozens of comedies. It's an odd choice for review on a site primarily dedicated to the monstrous and macabre, but this reviewer has always had a taste for all things classic, and besides, like our beloved monsters, Buster is one of the screen's great
outsiders. He is a continual inspiration to many a film fan and lifelovers, the world over. Sit back and enjoy.

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