AMONG THE THINGS you will learn from watching Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality:
* A novel method for collecting firewood and enraging train conductors.
* How to make a lovely lady from a horse’s ass.
* How to wear a top hat in a low-ceilinged carriage, and why porkpie hats are so obviously always preferable.
* How to move a stubborn donkey away from railroad tracks.
* How to improvise a boat out of a train.
* The Newtownian physics of waterfalls.
In other words, the act of seeing this movie will immeasurably improve your life.
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, Our Hospitality is Keaton’s first feature as auteur and his first masterpiece. It was released in 1923, not long after the triptych comedy The Three Ages, which was constructed so that it could be broken down into two-reelers if the whole “feature-length” comedy thing didn’t work out. Our Hospitality isn’t his fastest, funniest or most dazzlingly inventive picture (debate amongst yourselves: The Navigator? The General? Sherlock Jr.? Steamboat Bill, Jr.?), but it is my sentimental favorite because of its serene and nostalgic beauty, its vision of a halcyon world (America, circa 1830) that was already, of course, charmingly old-fashioned by 1923 standards.
The title itself captures the central narrative dilemma. In the stormy dramatic prologue set in 1810, the age-old Canfield-McKay feud (a comic a clef of the Hatfield-McCoy fued) claims its latest victims, including the father of one-year-old Willie McKay (James Keaton, billed as “Buster Keaton, Jr.”). Willie’s mother, determined to spare him from this endless cycle of violence, sends him to New York to live with her sister, where he grows up in ignorance of the family curse—until, at the age of 21, he returns home to claim his father’s estate. On the train, he meets and becomes enamored with Virginia (Keaton’s real-life wife, Natalie Talmadge), who naturally extends an invitation for dinner at the Canfield manse. Upon learning Willie’s identity, her father Joseph (Keaton shorts veteran Joe Roberts, who died of complications from a stroke shortly after filming) and her brothers want to shoot him on sight… but their code of honor prevents them from killing a guest in their own home. Manners, you know. The center section of the film, then, becomes a kind of claustrophobic anti-chase sequence in which Willie and his dog invent ways to avoid leaving the residence.
That’s the story, such as it is, and I haven’t even mentioned the two most glorious sections: the oddball yet elegiac train ride from New York to Appalachia and the spectacular waterfall rescue climax. The journey of the Out-Bound Limited from New York to Appalachia is one of my favorite passages in all of cinema. It’s like a memory revisited inside a dream: a locomotive that looks like an antique children’s toy (but is, in fact, a replica of the 1829 Stephenson’s Rocket, an early steam engine), pulling a string of what look like eccentric stagecoaches outfitted for rail conveyance. Keaton loved trains, and while Our Hospitality can be seen as a forerunner of The General (it was even photographed in some of the same parts of Oregon), this vehicle is not one of the powerful, speeding behemoths of Keaton’s Civil War-era epic. Instead, the OBL rolls along at a leisurely pace (slow enough that Willie’s dog can walk between its wheels), which is a good thing because whoever put down the tracks lazily draped them right over any logs and boulders that got in the way. It’s a bumpy ride, but there’s something mesmerizingly tranquil about the train’s inexorable (though not uninterrupted) movement through the pastoral American landscape.
AS I WROTE in some Keaton film series notes back in the early 1980s (“The Beauty of Buster”):
Even when surrounded by chaos (a hurricane in Steamboat Bill, Jr.; an avalanche in Seven Chances; a raging river in Our Hospitality; a Civil War battle in The General), Keaton understands that if you know where to look, and when to leap, you can hurl yourself right into the eye of the storm and pass through, safely, to come out on the other side.
Keaton makes that leap of faith again and again in his films. He trusts the universe, no matter how many reasons it gives him not to. It may be an unfathomable and inhospitable place (no wonder Keaton was a favorite of the existentialists), but Buster intuitively grasps the underlying logic beneath all the confusion. Keaton’s comedy is founded firmly on the principles of Newtonian physics, the invisible substructure that alone keeps the universe from simply flying apart in all directions.
From the raw material around him, Buster spontaneously creates simple makeshift contraptions that harness elemental principles of physics to keep him moving along through the maelstrom of modern life: a wheel, a lever, a crank, a ladder, a bucket, a siphon, a see-saw, a bridge, a boat, a balloon…
The universe of Buster Keaton is a miraculously adaptible one, where a cookie-cutter tunnel shape accommodates both a locomotive’s smokestack and a cabooseman’s stovepipe hat; where Keaton can transform a train car crashing off the tracks into a canoe smoothly piloted down the river by a coal-shovel oar; where a rope tied to a jammed log at the crest of a waterfall becomes, for an instant, a miraculous instrument of redemption.
Keaton’s agile, acrobatic comedy, I wrote back then, “is ideally suited to the aesthetics and technology of the movies. [Film is] a medium brought to life by sprockets and shutters, lamps and lenses, and to Keaton the world itself is one huge, whirring, implacable machine.” Alone among his features, Our Hospitality serves up comedy in a gentler, more wistful tone (note the past-tense soft focus around the edges of the frame in some shots). Indeed, as is so often the case in Keaton, it’s a fairly propitious realm that Willie inhabits, rife with opportunities for our hero to prevail. Oh, sure, his dog may retrieve his hat at an inopportune moment, or a cliff may crumble beneath his feet — but, on the other hand, local shop owners may not keep pistols handy to lend his unrecognized foe, and someone else’s loaded gun may not fire when it could do the most damage.
A word about spacial integrity: Two of the movie’s most breathtaking (and dangerous) gags involve backlot sets and stuffed stunt dummies — but the most thrilling parts involve real bodies hurling through space, with no optical effects, in unbroken takes. Yes, those are mannequins that plummet from a precipice and into the water, but the men clinging to the rocks (even if they’re studio rocks) are flesh-and-blood, as they are when they find themselves submerged. No, that is not Natalie Talmadge (who was pregnant at the time with the second Keaton boy, Robert) at the lip of the falls, but Buster’s flying-trapeze intervention is physical reality. It is said that he swallowed so much cascading water that he almost drowned. Medics were called.
ANOTHER REASON WHY I have such affection for this film is that it’s a family affair: Keaton’s marriage with Natalie soured after Robert was born, but at this time she and Buster were still a feasible couple. Our Hospitality is the only film to feature three generations of Keatons. Buster’s father Joe, who often appeared in his son’s pictures, plays the engineer of the Out-Bound Limited. (Watch for the moment in which he reprises one of his signature vaudeville moves, kicking off a man’s hat from a standing position.) Also, few films display such affection for the pantomimic talents of animals. A particular dog, a horse and a donkey show off comedic charisma to burn.
Most of all, I simply love and connect with the way Keaton sees the world. Our Hospitality (co-directed by Keaton and Jack Blystone) displays some magnificent pictorial compositions, worthy of John Ford: the Out-Bound Limited seen from under a silhouetted outcropping of rock; Keaton scampering across a mountain, with a hazy valley stretching out below him. Again and again Keaton will place the camera in the most natural and unobtrusive place and then, in the course of the shot, allow reality to reveal itself in all its wonder — whether it’s looking down a tangle of railroad tracks at the possible trajectories available; or spying an absconder in drag from the rear; or peeking through a bedroom door… What is first viewed through the frame is not always what it appears to be. But these aren’t just tricks or sight gags (though they’re often really funny); they are the very fabric of Keaton’s constantly transforming cosmos.
What a marvelous place it is.
Jim Emerson is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen. He is the founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com and author of the blog Scanners.
Our Hospitality, part of the “Best of Buster Series” is playing at Film Forum on Monday August 01. It is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.