As mentioned in the introductory post for this section, Our Hospitality was my introduction to Buster’s films. I was in a video store (remember those? Are they still around?), wandering the aisles, trying to decide on what to watch. Coming across a copy of Our Hospitality reminded me of a film clip I’d seen many years previous. It was the jump Buster’d attempted in Three Ages from the top of one building to another … As we know, the jump failed. But Buster’s resilience and quick thinking and reflexes allowed him to survive the fall in an impressive acrobatic manner. I attest to the fall being impressive because I mentally filed away the name “Buster”, meaning to look up this acrobat.
The discovery of the Our Hospitality video occurred a number of years later. I distinctly remember that seeing Buster’s name on the cover caused me to wonder if it was the same man I saw trying to jump across the building tops. I rented the video, took it home, and discovered my favorite actor.According to Buster Keaton Remembered, by Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance, Our Hospitality was released November 19, 1923, the scenario was conceived and ‘written’ by Jean Havez, Clyde Bruckman, and Joseph Mitchell, and the film was directed by Buster and Jack Blystone. The film starred Buster as Willie McKay (21 years old), Joe Roberts as Joseph Canfield, Ralph Bushman as Joseph Canfield’s son Clayton, Craig Ward as Joseph Canfield’s son Lee, Monte Collins as The Parson, Joe Keaton (Buster’s father) as The Train Engineer, Kitty Bradbury as Willie’s Aunt Mary, Natalie Talmadge (Buster’s wife) as Joseph Canfield’s daughter Virginia, and Buster Keaton, Jr. (James Talmadge, Buster and Natalie’s son) as Willie McKay (1 year old).
I think that what most appealed to me about the film was that the story involved an underdog who overcomes many obstacles to win out in the end. That kind of plot has always been my favorite. In Our Hospitality, Buster character Willie is a young man who returns by train to his family’s home to claim an inheritance and finds himself the target of the men of a rival, feuding family, the Canfields. To complicate matters, Willie has taken interest in a young woman he met on the train ride, not knowing that she’s a Canfield.
Part of the charm of Buster’s character is Willie’s initial innocence regarding the feud. Not long after Willie’s arrival, the Canfield men spot him walking past their home, and as Buster walks on, the Canfield brothers each take a shot at him. As each one misses him, we see Willie, down the road, looking around puzzled while the shots fly by:
I’m no film analyst, but there are scenes that were filmed in such a way that, in my opinion, attest to Buster’s genius as a filmmaker. I’m no filmmaker either, and when I think about how I would have filmed these scenes, I would have done so more simply. But my take wouldn’t have had the same effect that Buster’s has.
For example, there’s a scene where Buster’s character is sitting for a meal with the Canfield family; the Canfield girl Virginia had unknowingly invited Willie to dine with them, and Willie has just learned that her brothers and father each want to shoot him. He is, of course, on guard and quite nervous; during the saying of grace before the meal, Willie keeps one eye open, but discovers that each of the Canfield men is also keeping an eye open to watch Willie. It’s when the Canfields’ servant brings a filled pitcher on a tray that I was impressed with Buster’s film direction. The servant tripped on a loose rug and dropped the tray, and the accident causes Willie to jump up ready to run:
As this screenshot shows, only Buster’s side of the table is visible. The action would elicit a laugh at Willie’s being on edge and ready to flee. But the next shot causes another laugh:
Here we see the other side of the table and notice that the Canfield brothers had also reacted to the sound of the crash. They’re not even shown jumping up but already at the ready, which seems funny to discover in this shot. I’ve thought about how I would have filmed this scene, and I probably would have shown everybody’s reaction simultaneously. But the way Buster filmed it is much more effective, giving us a first laugh at Willie’s reaction and then building on it with the Canfields’ action. Again, I don’t mean to try to seem like an analyst; this is just what occurred to me when I re-watched the film recently.
A favorite scene involves Willie on the face of a cliff and with one end of a long rope tied around him. The other end of the rope is tied around one of the Canfield boys also on the cliff but up above Willie’s position. One little slip causes trouble for both of them. The best part is when Buster breaks the fourth wall:
Another scene that impresses me I find slightly related to the Three Ages stunt referred to earlier. In Our Hospitality, after falling off the cliff, Willie is shown standing on the floor of the river, looking around to get his bearings, and swimming up to the surface:
If I had directed this film, I would have filmed from the river bank, showing Willie and the Canfield brother falling into the water and then, after a beat, each one surfacing and swimming to shore. Buster’s genius was in filming looking down into the river and showing action continuing even after Willie went under.
What I also find impressive about this scene is Buster’s use of three dimension. The scene I referred to in Three Ages did this: Buster’s character attempts to jump from one building top to another (left to right, one dimension), but fails and falls (up to down, a second dimension), swings into an open window (left to right again), slides down the pole (up to down again), and, after sitting on the truck bumper, is driven away (front to back, a third dimension). In the Our Hospitality scene included above, Willie’s standing on the riverbed and looking around and then swimming up to surface is creative use of three dimension. In his surfacing, he’s not only moving from down to up but also back to front as he nears our point-of-view … Again, I’m not trying to be analytical; I’m just impressed with Buster’s genius.
Two other memorable segments of the film are the train ride from New York to Willie’s new home in the South and, of course, the scene involving the waterfall. One unsung character is Willie’s dog, who accompanied Willie to the South, walking the distance along the tracks and mostly under the train.
Buster Keaton Remembered shares some interesting trivia:
- Buster’s wife, Natalie, was initially unhappy with accompanying Buster on location at Truckee, California, near Lake Tahoe, but he won her over when he cast her as Virginia Canfield.
- The film features three generations of Keatons: Buster, his father Joe as the Train Engineer, and Buster’s son James (listed as Buster, Jr.) as Willie McKay as a baby.
- In one of Buster’s first scenes in the film, Willie rides a replica of an early bicycle known as a Gentleman’s Hobby-Horse or a Dandy Horse. The replica was so authentic, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
- Joe Roberts, a constant in Buster’s films, suffered a stoke during filming of Our Hospitality. He was able to continue working in the movie, but he died soon after the film was completed.
- During much of the filming, Natalie was pregnant with Buster’s second son, Robert.
- In a scene where Willie is in the river trying to help Virginia, Buster was accidently swept downstream and had to reach for hanging branches to keep from being dragged away further. While clutching the branches and before being helped from the river, Buster was surrounded by a group of water snakes. But, despite not knowing if they were dangerous, Buster could do nothing but hold on to keep from being dashed against large rocks down the river.
- While hanging by the waterfall, Buster took in so much water, he needed immediate medical attention.
- Buster referred to the film as Hospitality and regarded it as one of his best.