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CLASSICS: Our Hospitality (1923)

February 1, 2016

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written by: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Haven and Joseph A. Mitchell
produced by: Joseph M. Schneck
directed by: Buster Keaton
rated: unrated
runtime: 74 min.
U.S. release date: November 19, 1923

 

Having only a vague understanding of silent film star Buster Keaton before recently watching “Our Hospitality”, I found his feature-length directorial debut something of a revelation. He had tried his hand that same year, when he directed “Three Ages”, which was essentially three inter-stitched shorts, but this was his first attempt at a full-length linear comedy. Keaton’s vaudeville background obviously lent to his entertaining physical comedy, but his skills behind the camera were just as obvious in this movie – especially his specific narrative style, as seen in his physical comedy, which ranged from broad to subtle. It’s easy to take for granted a visual approach moviegoers have become used to nowadays (especially in comedies), but it’s clear that we can trace back much of what we’ve seen for decades to Keaton’s work here. The performer, known for doing all of his own stunts, may not be the sole filmmaker of his era responsible for what we see today in comedy – after all, silent stars Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin left as much of an indelible mark on filmmaking – but considering “Our Hospitality” is ninety-three years old, there’s no doubt it’s become highly influential.  

 

Keaton Buster. Our Hospitality. 1st sign love neighbor  

The narrative style I’m referring to in “Our Hospitality” was a game changer at the time it was released and plays a key factor in the enjoyment of the movie’s continuous viewing. The story itself – a satirical riff on the mythic Southern family feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, called the Canfields and McKays here – was clever, but nothing entirely unique, but how he went about telling the story sure was. Keaton employed a consistent sense of direction throughout, used seamless cuts and often told his story just by following a character’s line of sight. Sometimes, all three of these choices are used simultaneously.

Such is the case in the film’s dramatic prologue, where camera movement provides placement for the viewer. As we go from right to left, we move from the Canfield home to the McKay home. This gives us an idea where each home is at in relation to each other. Inside the Canfield home, when Joseph Canfield (played by Joe Roberts, a long-standing acting partner to Keaton) is standing next to his wife and children, contemplating his brother going off to kill John McKay, there is a medium shot with the family positioned on the right. As the family pivots to glance behind them and to the right, we see Joseph notice a framed cross-stitched plaque hung on the wall that reads, “Love thy neighbor, as thyself”, which goes against the whole notion of a feud between families. The camera pauses on the adornment as if to replace a title card and offer some irony.

After the prologue, the movie builds into its humorous tone of the story as young Willie McKay (John’s son, played by Keaton) makes his way south to Rockville to claim his inherited property, making his way into an unknown community and unknowingly becoming the center of the feud. There is a dinner scene at the Canfield home, which Willie attends as a guest of Virginia (played by Keaton’s wife, Natalie Talmadge), whom he had met on the passenger train that carried him south. While prayer is being offered at the dinner table, we observe four cautious men – Willie, Joseph and his two sons (both of whom have their mind set on eliminating their guest). Because Keaton has already established seating placement with a medium shot as everyone sat down, we’re able to follow along with Willie and the Canfield men and their one eye movement – as they nervously follow the other man’s movement. Each time, the camera is squarely positioned on one actor, who uses one eye to look off-screen, but we know who he’s looking at. This is a confident and deliberate use of placement to add comedic tension.  

 

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The third act of “Our Hospitality” showcases Keaton’s impressive stunt work as he maneuvers his way over and around a waterfall. He had a waterfall built on a studio lot in order to get the aerial shots he wanted and to enable a sequence that required his character rescue Virginia as he swung on a rope from a nearby mountainside. The use of match-on action is impeccable here, since during the shot of the actual rescue Keaton grabs a falling dummy instead of Talmadge. It’s a visual illusion Keaton created by cutting shots to match the action of the actual actors. The whole sequence is easy to follow with a flow that is seemingly effortless, but obviously for its time was a laborious task to accomplish.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Keaton’s death and it’s hard not to think about actors he’s inspired like: Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Jim Carrey and Jackie Chan. They owe a great debt to Keaton as an actor, but also for his artistry as a filmmaker. I could go on and on about “Our Hospitality”, but beyond the humor, what initially stands out is how Keaton accomplished what he set out to do.    

 

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RATING: ****

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