An old feud between two southern families is rekindled after a lost heir, Willie McKay (played by Keaton), returns to his hometown to claim his father’s estate. Optimistically returning by way of an odd stage coach meets train, he is unaware of the dangers that await him. When he is invited over to the house by the Canfield daughter, played by Keaton’s wife (Tilmadge), the Canfield family is unable to murder him in the house as it would go against their tradition of good hospitality. This fuels the cat and mouse antics. Our Hospitality, Keaton’s second feature film, is filled with a few stunts and the antics that the world will soon associate with Keaton.
Our Hospitality pokes fun at the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the late 19th century by telling the story of the Canfields and McKays. The Canfields, led by the father Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts) and two sons, Clayton (Francis Bushman Jr.) and Lee (Craig Ward), are embroiled in the feud that Willie is almost completely unaware of. This ignorance that Willie has about the situation and town he is entering is the foundation of the first half of the film.
The story itself is a romantic comedy version of Romeo and Juliet in the sense of forbidden love between the youth of two families in conflict. Obviously Our Hospitality, has a much different tone and goes down a much different path.
Most of the gags are framed around conflict. The opening prologue of the film sets up senseless conflict nicely.
Once upon a time in certain sections of the United States there were feuds that ran from generation to generation.
Men of one family grew up killing men of another family for no other reason except that their fathers had done so.Our Hospitality – prologue intertitles.
The conflict became tradition and the players end up fighting for reason’s they can no longer explain or understand. The conflict ultimately progresses only because of the cyclical retaliation that persists. Leaving the actions empty and routine with no way to fulfil or resolve anything.
There are other conflicts in the film that supplement these ideas as well. Some of these scenes are: the Locomotive Engineer and Locomotive Leader squabbling over the fault behind the train separating from itself or a husband beating his wife outside their home and the wife ending up beating up Willie when he tries to chivalrously intervene. Whether a simple dispute or domestic violence, the ideas of stubbornness and ignorance seep through most of the encounters.
Our Hospitality is not jam-packed with stunts and gags, like some other Keaton films, but they are peppered throughout. As usual the gags rely on careful timing and smooth execution by Keaton. This happens throughout the film, but one clear example of it is when the Canfield boys are looking for an unaware Willie and he is conveniently hid by a spontaneous waterfall.
The big stunt of Our Hospitality is set on a waterfall, but many other stunts are set on the river, on a cliff side, and one of Keaton’s favorites, the train. Apparently, Keaton almost died during the river scene when his safety line broke and almost drowned and was found face down on the river bank 10 minutes later.1 I am sure these stunts were spectacular at the time in the same way action films are today. Some of these are still astonishing to this day.
It is incredible how many stunts and gags Keaton was able to dream up as well as carry out. Definitely a forerunner in stunt men.
I have yet to watch any Keaton films that are earlier than Our Hospitality or later than Steamboat Bill, Jr. It would be interesting to watch some of the earlier short films, or Three Ages, or some films that he made later than 1928, and see if the rom-com stunt filled films existed outside of the Buster Keaton Production films.
Directed by: John G. Blystone & Buster Keaton
Cinematography: Gordon Jennings & Elgin Lessley
Story by: Jean C. Havez, Clyde Bruckman, & Joseph A. Mitchell
Starring: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts, Francis X. Bushman Jr., Craig Ward, & Monte Collins.
Runtime: 1h 14m
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Thriller
Distributed by: Metro Pictures Corporation
1 – Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, by Marion Meade, Da Capo, 1997, pp. 139.