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October 08, 2019

Our Hospitality

our hospitality.jpg

Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone - 1923
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the feature films made by great silent film comedians, Our Hospitality may be one of the gentlest films ever made. One solid belly laugh is when Keaton finds out that the mansion he imagines he's to inherit is in reality a ramshackle cabin so rotten that the front door falls off. There is a cut to the shot of the imagined mansion blown to bits, reality dynamiting the dream. The story is inspired by the long-running feud of Hatfields and McCoys, here renamed the Canfields and McKays. The film primarily takes place in 1831, with Keaton and his writing team poking fun at family honor, and also the technology of the time.

What is also unusual is the prologue, taking place in 1810. The scene provides the back story for Keaton's role as Willie McKay, first introduced as a baby played by Keaton's own one year old son. Taking place during a dark, rainy night, an attempted truce between the two families fails as we see two flashes of gun shots, Willie's father and his rival, Canfield, simultaneously shooting each other to death. The entire sequence is filmed as a straight drama, not dissimilar to something from D. W. Griffith. Death is never too far away in Our Hospitality, both in the narrative with Willie pursued by the Canfield heirs, and some of Keaton's own stunts.

One of the benefits of having a home video version of Our Hospitality is to study how Keaton is able to build upon his visual gags. An example is when Willie decides to go fishing by a stream, unaware that behind him, a dam has been demolished. Willie puts up an umbrella, assuming the water coming down is rain. A full blown waterfall drenches Willie, his umbrella offering no cover. At the same time the waterfall acts as a curtain, hiding Willie from the two Canfield brothers who are in pursuit.

The booklet, by Keaton historian Joseph Vance, and the commentary track by film historians Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith, all provide information on the making of the film as well as discussion of several of the cast and crew members. Keaton has never clarified how the directorial duties were performed, only being on record as praising Jack Blystone. My own familiarity with Blystone is limited to his last two films, Laurel and Hardy vehicles, Swiss Miss and Block-Heads, and a James Cagney programmer, Great Guy. It could well be that Blystone was on hand as "insurance" for his experience, with a career directing comic shorts beginning in 1914, segueing into feature films in 1923 with A Friendly Husband starring Lupino Lane.

The blu-ray also includes a short comedy Keaton made in France, Duel to the Death that recycles a couple of the gags from Our Hospitality. That film was directed by Pierre Blondy, one of three shorts he directed. There is a discrepancy regarding the release date, but the film is more of historical interest with a visibly aged Keaton. Blondy's career is better remembered for his serving as an assistant to Marcel Carne and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Another short, The Iron Mule (1925) is mentioned in the commentary track. The short, as included here, is missing credits other than that of star Al St. John. Keaton allowed the train he had built for Our Hospitality to be used again, a favor to director Fatty Arbuckle, working at this time under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. There is one interesting sight gag of the train using logs to float across a river. Other than St. John, I have no idea who the other actors are, but in a one reel short that is heavy on pratfalls, there are a couple of gifted players who play an older married couple, continually stumbling over each other as they chase after the runaway train. According to the questionably reliable IMDb, Keaton was on hand as one of the marauding indians Native Americans, though it is hard to determine as most of the film was filmed using long shots.

A short documentary is devoted to how Robert Israel developed his score for Our Hospitality, paying attention to music and folk songs that were known in 1831 America. The film itself is a 2K restoration originally made for Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films. There is a history also of the restoration process which shows great care in the presentation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 8, 2019 07:14 AM