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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone | Our Hospitality


getting in to stay
by Douglas Messerli

Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell (writers), Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone (directors) Our Hospitality / 1923

The Hatfields and the McCoys become the McKays and the Canfields—families who have been feuding with and killing each other for so long that they can longer remember the reason—to shoot it out in Buster Keaton’s memorable 1923 adventure comedy, one of his very best.

     With the death of her husband, Mrs. McKay (Jean Dumas) takes her one year-old child (Buster Keaton Jr.) north to New York, living on an idyllic farm owned by her sister. The mother dies, and his aunt raises him in peace until one day, Willie (Buster Keaton Sr.) receives a letter asking him to claim the old estate; little does he know that what he imagines as a Southern mansion, in fact, is a decaying one room frame house. He determines to make the voyage by train, despite his aunt warning him of the dangers of the ongoing feud between families.

      If the plot is somewhat thin—with the kind of twists that involve his meeting the Canfield daughter, Virginia (played by Keaton’s wife, Natalie Talmadge) and falling in love, her brothers’ and father’s determination to kill Willie only after he leaves their home (Virginia has invited him to dinner), and a series of river misadventures right out of The Perils of Pauline (doing all his own stunts, Keaton nearly drowned in California’s Truckee River)—what makes the film so special is Keaton’s impeccable comic skills and his attention to period details.

      Just for the film, Keaton recreated a replica of one of the earliest trains,  Stephenson's Rocket, which consisted of a small engine car and carriages that look like those generally pulled by horses, and a caboose rider with a horn that appears more like something out of a fox hunt than a machine rocketing through the countryside. Indeed, this train moves on wooden tracks so slowly that even Willie’s pet dog tags along the long trip from New York to Kentucky, running under the wheels the train and, eventually, speeding ahead of it to its destination. Indeed this “train” seems to get along better when it slips off the tracks onto a local road. Keaton’s father, Joe, plays the frustrated engineer.

     That long scene of the voyage is one of the best of all film history, and, of course, hints at the central events of Keaton’s masterpiece, The General.

     There are plenty of later wonderful scenes, including the directors’ views of the 1830s wilderness, Willie’s refusal to leave the Canfield mansion (by doing so would be put into jeopardy by being out of their family “hospitality”) in which his dog also plays a role, and the wonderful river adventures where Willie saves his Canfield girlfriend. Of course, they get married and the Canfields and Willie lay down their several guns.

      I won’t get into the argument about whether Keaton was better than Chaplin, but there is no question that Keaton was a truly American director, and was a far better commentator on the US experience. Because of his combination of historicity and comic histrionics, Keaton creates such memorable scenes of US culture and mayhem that today his films seem to be brilliant American treatises on various issues: love, marriage, violence, home, honor, and the land itself.  

     In Our Hospitality he focuses, once again, not only on some of the differences between the American North and South, but also on the particularly American penchant for guns and violence. You might almost read this film as an ironic reference to the kind of violent hospitality to which one might be treated in the good ole USA, a hostility to outsiders that is expressed through our obsession with guns.

     Certainly, Keaton’s film argues, there is a true “inside/outside” sensibility in much of USA life. Willie is safe only inside, despite his being a true outsider, and it is only when he marries into the family that he can find true protection.

    Clearly the ancient war between the McKays and Canfields must have had something to do with sexual transgression, with the poor McKays long ago surreptitiously attempting to enter the world of the rich Canfields. If the film itself doesn’t reveal its history, we see it playing out again in the constantly bewitched, bothered and bewildered face of Willie, who knows that his only way out is to become, in this world of sexist chivalry, a woman. His own strong-headed woman, moreover, is determined to save her man, even if, in the act, she needs saving herself. And, in the end, the couple no longer feels the need to ask permission to marry, an act which they accomplish in the very house which the menfolk have abandoned to stock their prey. By the time the Canfield men return, Willie and Virginia have done the deed, the southerner joining the northerner in a manner that forces both sides to realize that what was outside is most definitely now part of their own community, a story that is realized again in The General.

Los Angeles, August 5, 2018

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