In a 1949 Life magazine article, James Agee described Buster Keaton’s deadpan face to an audience about to rediscover his talent. “[His expression was] an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood …. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply ‘silent’ of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell.” Keaton’s stoic visage remains one of the most iconic images from the era of silent cinema. Yet at the time of Agee’s tribute, Keaton was toiling in obscurity as a gag consultant for MGM, the studio where his career had effectively ended two decades earlier. Agee’s article was part of a renewed interest in Keaton’s work, sparked by movie enthusiasts who had saved many forgotten silent films and their history from extinction. Part of his resurgence was thanks to actor James Mason, who bought Keaton’s Hollywood mansion in 1949 and, seven years later, discovered a trove of Keaton films previously thought lost. One of those, according to Mason biographer Kevin Sweeney and Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, was a pristine copy of Keaton’s first feature-length masterpiece, 1923’s Our Hospitality (although Blesh also recalled seeing it at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1950s).
The film earned the sort of lofty praise that the humble Keaton would have thought ridiculous. In a 1925 Life magazine article, Robert Benchley claimed that ”if the movies can capture humor as it was captured in that picture and, with no evident effort, express it as it was there expressed, then we old writing-boys had better pack up our leaden words and wooden phrases and learn a new trade.” Keaton himself claimed a less grandiose goal than the death of the written word. In an interview at the time of Our Hospitality’s release, he said, “I’ve heard mothers complain from time to time that their children were getting nothing but buffoonery in comedies. Consequently, I’ve tried to do something that would be educational, without losing anything in the matter of laughs.”
Our Hospitality was Keaton’s second feature-length film but the first in which he was able to choose the cast, the subject matter, and the setting. He recognized early on that the move to feature-length films demanded more compelling characters and plots. “Once we started into features,” Keaton wrote in his autobiography, “we had to stop doing impossible things … we had to make an audience believe our story.” This transition was not always easy for veterans of two-reelers like Keaton, who were used to improvising around a loose series of gags and skits. A member of Keaton’s crew came up with the idea of satirizing the Hatfield-McCoy feud, a famous bloody struggle between two families that raged along the border of West Virginia and Kentucky in the late 19th century. For a railroad sequence at the beginning of the film, Keaton, a railroad enthusiast, jumped at the chance to build a recreation of the railway in use at that time. The railroad sequence in Our Hospitality anticipates Keaton’s most acclaimed film, 1927’s The General. Deviating slightly from historical authenticity, Keaton chose Englishman George Stephenson’s “Rocket” instead of DeWitt Clinton’s earliest American locomotive, because he thought the “Rocket” looked funnier. The historical reconstructions in Our Hospitality were so accurate that the Smithsonian Institution asked Keaton to donate the “dandy horse” bicycle, which he had built specially for the film.
Shooting began in the summer of 1923 near Lake Tahoe, and Keaton brought along the whole family. In addition to his infant son James (credited in the film as “Buster Keaton Jr.”) and his pregnant wife Natalie, all the members of what film historian Rudi Blesh refers to as Keaton’s “tripartitepaternal figure … the Three Joes”—Keaton’s father, Joe Keaton, his longtime friend Joe Roberts, and his producer and brother-in-law Joe Schenck—were involved in the film. These three made substantial contributions to Keaton’s successes as a performer and filmmaker, and to his failures as a businessman. Perhaps the biggest influence on Keaton, both for good and ill, was his father Joe.
In 1895, Joe Keaton eloped with Myra Cutler and the couple joined the traveling medicine show circuit. Joe was a dancer and comic, and Myra played saxophone. Part of Joe’s repertoire was acrobatic comedy, including a famous high kick on display in Our Hospitality. At the time of Joseph Jr.’s birth in 1895, Joe and Myra had formed a traveling show with Harry Houdini. The infamous escape artist is credited with giving Joseph Jr. the nickname “Buster” after the infant tumbled down a flight of stairs without apparent injury. By the age of three, Buster had joined the family onstage as part of “The Three Keatons.” The act consisted of Joe hurling Buster around the stage under the pretense of disciplining a rowdy child. Buster quickly learned to land in such a way as to avoid injury, although the violence of the act earned Joe accusations of abuse. As the show grew more successful, Joe became an increasingly violent alcoholic. Eventually, Joe’s erratic behavior forced Buster and Myra to abandon the show in 1917. Buster remained in touch with his father and later gave him roles in many of his films, most notably Our Hospitality and The General.
Soon after Buster Keaton left the vaudeville circuit, he met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a portly former vaudevillian who had made the transition to silent comedies. Arbuckle was churning out popular shorts for Joe Schenck and invited Keaton to the set. About their meeting historian David Robinson writes, “The casualness of it is outrageous … however, there must have been a powerful instinct of predestination.” The moment Keaton stepped onto a movie set, “he lived in the camera,” as Arbuckle put it. The pair made more than a dozen shorts together and became lasting friends. By 1920, Arbuckle was starring in feature-length films and Schenck, recognizing Keaton’s talent, gave Keaton his own shorts series along with a film crew and use of Charlie Chaplin’s former studio. Soon after, Arbuckle’s career was destroyed by a scandal involving his connection to the death of a young actress. Despite his full acquittal, Arbuckle was blacklisted. Keaton remained one of his few loyal friends.
In 1921, Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, whose sister, actress Norma Talmadge, was married to Joe Schenck. Schenck, an affable and generous man who believed in Keaton’s talent, made Keaton’s remarkable productivity in the 1920s possible by providing the financial backing to do what he wished. Without this support, the expensive Our Hospitality, with its lavish production values, might never have been made. However, Schenck’s ultimate allegiance was to the Talmadge family and he did not support Keaton during the breakup of his marriage and the introduction of talkies. Unconcerned with financial matters, Keaton had been coerced by Natalie into signing over his paychecks to her and transferring ownership of his films to the Talmadges’ production company. Following their divorce in 1931, Keaton was left almost penniless, separated from his children—whose last name Natalie changed to Talmadge—and dependent on the rigid studio system for work. Like his father, Keaton fell into alcoholism and out of work.
By the time of his death in 1966, Keaton was again considered one of the geniuses of silent film. Today, Our Hospitality is recognized as Keaton’s first great film and represents a leap forward from the two-reel format and the herald of a short but remarkable string of feature-length cinematic masterpieces.
Presented at Silent Winter, February 2009 with live music by Philip Carli