Our Hospitality

Directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone, USA, 1923
Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Natalie Talmadge, Ralph Bushman, Craig Ward, Monte F. Collins, Kitty Bradbury, and Joe Keaton Production Joseph M. Schenck Productions Print Source Lobster Films

Presented at SFSFF 2019
Musical Accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Essay by Jeffrey Vance

Although The General (1926) is Buster Keaton’s best-known and admired film, his 1923 feature Our Hospitality is one of his most perfectly constructed works. A period piece, Our Hospitality is set against the unmarred landscapes of the American South during the pre-Civil War era. Both films employ visual beauty and dramatic integrity as a backdrop to Keaton’s brilliant, original comedy.

Directed by Keaton and John G. (Jack) Blystone, Our Hospitality was a Keaton family affair. Keaton’s wife, Natalie Talmadge, at first objected to Keaton taking her and their infant son on location to the picturesque country of Truckee and Lake Tahoe. (Chaplin also used Truckee to great effect in the opening sequence of The Gold Rush, 1925). However, when Keaton offered his wife the part of leading lady, she quickly retracted her objections. Their son Jimmy (billed as Buster Keaton, Jr. but later renamed James Talmadge) is the one-year-old seen in the film’s prologue, and Buster’s father, Joe, plays the railroad engineer.

From an idea by writer Jean Havez, the comedy is loosely derived from the decidedly humorless real-life feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, two large Appalachian clans whose hatred of each other is legendary. The film begins with a prologue straight out of melodrama in which the grudge between the two families (renamed the Canfields and the McKays) is established. The main story, set twenty years later in 1831, has Keaton playing twenty-one-year-old Willie McKay, a New York City dandy who is summoned to the Old South to claim his family’s estate. To film Willie McKay’s journey to the South, Keaton used one of the first steam locomotives ever manufactured. He chose to reproduce an English steam engine, George Stephenson’s Rocket, because he thought it looked much funnier than its American counterpart, the DeWitt Clinton. Keaton was a lifelong railroad enthusiast (he grew up traveling by train from city to city on the vaudeville circuit with his parents) and he frequently incorporated trains in his films, none more memorably than The General, which is itself a major character in the film.

Keaton was scrupulous with every detail of Our Hospitality. Fred Gabourie’s art direction is of exceptional quality, as are Walter J. Israel’s costumes. The entire production was so carefully researched and staged that Keaton’s precise duplication of the gentlemen’s hobby-horse, the first bicycle ever made, became a permanent part of the collection of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, at the institution’s request.

Our Hospitality was Keaton’s second feature-length film. His first feature-length comedy, Three Ages (1923), was an anthology of three segments—in essence, three short films—parodying historical epics. Our Hospitality was Keaton’s first feature film with a single narrative arc and his first feature-length masterwork. The dramatic logic of the story, to which Keaton gave a comic twist, was a departure from anything Keaton had previously done. In this respect, he took inspiration from the dramatic sequences in Chaplin’s groundbreaking work The Kid (1921) as well as Harold Lloyd’s influential feature-length comedy Grandma’s Boy (1922). Keaton explained in a 1965 interview:

We were very conscious of our stories. We learned in a hurry that we couldn’t make a feature-length picture the way we had done the two-reelers; we couldn’t use impossible gags, what we call ‘cartoon’ gags, like the kind of things that happen to cartoon characters. We lost all of that when we started making feature pictures. They had to be believable, or your story wouldn’t hold up.

Despite the meticulous planning and precise execution of Our Hospitality, the production was fraught with difficulties and beset by unanticipated problems. Joe Roberts, who plays the Canfield paterfamilias Joseph, suffered a stroke while on location and was hospitalized in nearby Reno, Nevada. He recovered sufficiently to continue the film, although his weakened condition is apparent in his final scenes. Just a month after the final retake, Roberts died. Three weeks after location filming began, Natalie Talmadge discovered she was pregnant with the Keaton’s second son, Bobby. To complete the film, cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Gordon Jennings had to find creative ways to photograph Keaton’s wife in order to camouflage her growing belly.

One of the most outstanding sequences in Our Hospitality depicts Willie McKay being pursued and ultimately falling into a river. McKay’s sweetheart sets out to help, and she too falls in, so McKay has to help her. The scene, shot on the Truckee River, nearly killed Keaton. He was splashing in the river with a hold-back wire tied around him. At one point, the wire broke, and Keaton took off like a shot down the river rapids. Production coordinator Ernie Orsatti and several other men working on the film ran after him along the riverbank but were unable to help him. Finally, Keaton was able to grab onto a branch of an overhanging tree, barely preventing himself from colliding into the oncoming rocks, but not before an entire school of little water snakes swarmed around him. What must have seemed to Keaton like hundreds of baby eels were flicking their tongues at him, and he did not know whether they were poisonous or not. All he could think of was finding something to hold onto before he was smashed to bits. Of course, Keaton kept all of that in the film in what is perhaps its most thrilling scene. The finished sequence is one of Keaton’s marvels, a demonstration of his physical dexterity and skill, as well as his moviemaking genius.

Although most of Our Hospitality was filmed on location, they shot the amazing waterfall rescue sequence at the Robert Brunton Studios in Hollywood. Keaton constructed a waterfall over the studio’s large, concrete swimming pool, with a miniature landscape in the background to create the illusion of a distant valley below the falls. Keaton performed all the stunt work for the rescue himself, swallowing so much water as he dangled beneath the falls that he required medical assistance. As Keaton later recalled, “I had to go down to the doctor right there and then. They pumped out my ears and nostrils and drained me, because when a full volume of water like that comes down and hits you and you’re upside down—then you really get it.”

All the difficulties aside, Keaton remembered the production fondly. The location filming in Tahoe with his family reminded him of his happy boyhood summers spent on Lake Muskegon in Michigan. Keaton was proud of Our Hospitality (he always referred to the film simply as Hospitality) and considered it one of his finest films. The critics agreed. Variety wrote, “The picture is splendidly cast, flawlessly directed and intelligently photographed. The usual low comedy and slapstick have been modified and woven into a consistent story that is as funny as it is entertaining.” The New York Times maintained, “This picture is one of whims, and in many sequences whimsical … This funny film moves along quietly at the outset, but in the end it gets there, and to our mind is a mixture that is extremely pleasing, as there is no out-and-out slapstick effect.” According to Keaton, the film also was profitable. Our Hospitality was produced at an approximate cost of $225,000 with a worldwide gross of more than $500,000. Important and influential film critics such as James Agee, Walter Kerr, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert later championed Our Hospitality among Keaton’s other silent-film work.

The Buster Keaton canon is an invaluable gift to students of cinema history as well as to a long list of illustrious actors, filmmakers, and animators who were greatly inspired by Keaton’s films. Lucille Ball, who had known Keaton from their days at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the late 1940s, acknowledged her debt to Keaton with respect to handling props in comedy situations. Such lessons served her well in one of television’s most enduring situation comedies, I Love Lucy (1951–1957). Cartoonist Chuck Jones and actor-director Mel Brooks have cited Keaton as an influence. More recently, Jackie Chan, George Lucas (for the Star Wars franchise), Tom Cruise (for the Mission Impossible franchise), director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road), and animators affiliated with the Walt Disney Company and Pixar Animation Studios have studied Keaton’s silent masterworks to create their own breathtaking stunts and visual comedy. Nearly one hundred years after its release, Our Hospitality and the genius of Buster Keaton remain inestimable for those who wish to learn and, of course, for those who merely wish to laugh.