Our Hospitality (1923) was s first true feature film. Keaton’s previous “feature,” Three Ages (1923) was actually three short films assembled together. There was both an artistic and a commercial reason for this: Three Ages was a parody of the similarly structured D.W. Griffith feature Intolerance (1916). Additionally, Keaton had proved his audience appeal in shorts. Metro Pictures realized the inherent risk of a Keaton feature, and the structure of Three Ages created the option of breaking it down into three shorts. Fortunately for all concerned, Three Ages was a commercial and critical success.

Our Hospitality may be seen, in retrospect, as a model for Keaton’s features and a precursor to The General (1926). What separates Keaton from his peers (Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon) is the way his character integrates into a larger narrative. That is not to say that Keaton’s films are not character driven, but the character serves the narrative, not vice versa.

Our Hospitality opens with a prologue of the ongoing feud between the Canfields and the McKays. A young Canfield and the McKay patriarch are killed in a rainy shoot out at night. To avoid the curse of the feud and further bloodshed, the McKay widow takes her infant son, Willie, and sends him north to New York. Meanwhile, the Canfields swear revenge.

Twenty years later, Willie (Keaton) is the personification of a 19th century New York Yankee, adorned in a dandified suit. His mother has since passed away when Willie learns he has inherited his father’s estate. Imagining a southern mansion waiting in the wings, Willie hops onto the next train like a salmon returning to its birthplace. Before departing, he is warned by his guardian to stay clear of the Canfields.

The trip south foreshadows the archaic world Willie is about to enter. The train itself is primitive and, naturally, encounters numerous mishaps along the way. Luckily for Willie, the ordeal is made bearable because his fellow passenger is a pretty girl (Natalie Talmadge, the first Mrs. Keaton). Unfortunately, Willie’s spawning choice here, unknown to him, is a Canfield daughter.

Still from Our Hospitality (1923)There are numerous aquatic metaphors. Willie stands apart from his fellows, like a fish out of water, with city clicker suit and queer umbrella. While fishing, he catches a minnow, throws it back, and then gets pulled into the water by a bigger fish. Willie’s mansion turns out to be a dilapidated shack and he unwittingly finds himself in the home of his sworn enemies. True to Southern hospitality, the Canfields vow not kill Willie while he is a guest in their home. When Willie learns of this, he naturally tries to remain a permanent houseguest. Almost forced out, Willie is saved from leaving by the sudden appearance of a heavy downpour. A dam blows up, nearly drowning Willie, but it also safely conceals Willie from his predators, the Canfield boys. In a reversal of the fishing line, Willie is tied, by rope, to a Canfield son. Both get hauled into the water. A descent into the rapids brings further peril, as does a waterfall. Willie dangles over the waterfall like that salmon on a line. Yet, it is the waterfall which unites Willie with his girl, allowing him to spawn.

Our Hospitality is replete with inventive sight gags (a tunnel is cut to fit the train, a horse’s rear-end is disguised as Willie in drag), but it’s really a sophisticated, yet simple retelling of the Romeo and Juliet narrative.

Next week: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

4 thoughts on “OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)”

  1. LIke most people, I personally rate the peculiarly impassive but very visually inventive and almost superhumanly athletic Buster Keaton way, way above the deservedly forgotten Harry Langdon – how many creepy child-men do we really need in this Universe, ever? OK, so he was the partial inspiration for Pee Wee Herman – but why is that a good thing? I’d also quite like to hear a bit more praise for Harold Lloyd, who was unique in being a pleasantly normal-looking person who got into the same kind of scrapes as his blatantly cartoonish brethren – parallels might be drawn between him and Jackie Chan, who I’m fairly sure pinched his clock routine, though I forget exactly where.

    Keaton, though, was the ultimate acrobat. And while the legend that he “broke every bone in his body” is probably exaggerated – I mean, seriously, even if we’re just talking about the major ones, how crippled would he have been before he was halfway through, assuming of course that he didn’t neatly break all the obvious bones once each – no-one can deny that he took massive risks for his art.

    Bigger risks, and to better effect, than Chaplin, and without the mawkish attempts to make us like him. If the Little Tramp had dared to be indifferent to our opinions, would we still have the slightest idea who Charlie Chaplin was? For those reasons, I’d put Keaton first, Lloyd an honorable second, Chaplin a distant third, and consign Langdon to the freakshow.

    Oh, don’t get me wrong – in early cinema, I’m all for giving credit where credit is due. For example, how about a retrospective of Lon Chaney? Senior, NOT junior! Or Louise Brooks, the sexiest woman ever captured on celluloid? And yes, that does include Marilyn Monroe. I wouldn’t mind doing an appreciation of the lesser-known films of Ruldolf Klein-Rogge myself, just as soon as I have copies to hand.

    But meanwhile, yes, let’s hear it for Buster! Who, in case people don’t know, is the direct ancestor of everybody in Hollywood named Keaton except Michael, whose real surname is Douglas, and who, since it was already taken by Kirk’s son, chose Keaton as a mark of respect for a great man. And quite right too.

  2. Otto,

    while I agree to disagree with you re: Langdon, I will say that retrospectives on Louise Brooks (Am wholeheartedly with your assessment re:Brooks) and Harold Lloyd have already been planned.

    Lon Sr. has had extensive coverage here in films he did with Browning and others. We may revisit Chaney’s cannon in a retrospective as well.

    Several of Keaton’s films will be covered, including his collaborations with Roscoe Arbuckle (who also is due a retrospective, along with Mabel Normand).The Keaton series will conclude with Samuel Beckett’s 1962 “Film.”

    Keaton probably outranks Fairbanks in the athletic department and was, easily, the most innovative American filmmaker during that era.

    Klein-Rogge is a very good idea (if you don’t beat me to it). Thanks.

  3. Thanks Alfred – alas, I’m never going to view Harry Langon as anything other than creepily odd, so we will, as you say, have to agree to disagree on that. With regard to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, I intend to have a go at [I]Dr. Mabuse The Gambler[/I] and the lesser-known [I]Spione[/I] just as soon as I have copies to hand (of course I’ve seen both films, but I don’t want to make mistakes based on faulty memories). Is there anything other than [I]Metropolis[/] that I should add?

    I’d also like to cover the silent serials [I]Fantômas[/I] (you may have noticed that that’s where I got my avatar from) and [I]Les Vampires[/I], unless you – or anyone else, but you seem to be the main expert on really old movies – already have your eye on them. Again, I’ll need to wait until I have copies to hand. Oh, and since you recently revisited [I]Un Chien Andalou[/I], are you planning a Luis Buñuel retrospective? If not, although he made some films that I can’t be bothered to review because I find them sub-standard and just not very interesting, overall he’s one of my favorite directors, and I wouldn’t mind chipping in with a few articles about his movies at some point in the near future, notably [I] The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie, The Phantom of Liberty[/i], and maybe some of the really obscure stuff like [I]Death in the Garden[/I]. Would that be OK?

    1. Just email me Otto, and I’ll conference you guys–let’s reserve the comments here for discussions of Our Hospitality/Buster Keaton.

      The more people writing about early cinema the better, in my mind, since I only rarely have time to look at that stuff myself (trying to keep up with new releases).

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