Monday, October 17, 2011

#40 Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

It is unfortunate to me that previous to the formation of my list I had never heard of Buster Keaton. I knew of Charlie Chaplin, and had known of him for some time before the formation of my list, all the way back to my Sophomore year in High School when I watched Modern Times in my History class and thought of it as dull and unfunny. But Buster Keaton was a man wholly unknown to me. It wasn’t until I was formulating my list and was talking to my Dad about great movies that he brought my attention to Buster Keaton. However during this time a great many movies were being recommended to me from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Seven Samurai to Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men. Because of this Buster Keaton, owing to the fact that he was recommended to me by my Dad, a man who seems to be constantly recommending me things while my mind is wholly set on doing something else, was put to the back of my mind, and so I have now watched 39 other movies without even giving this great star of silent film a second thought. It was only last month when I was perusing my list for movies to watch that I came upon Buster Keaton, which I must admit, was chosen only because I was starting to realize my movie selections thus far had been fairly top (read: 60s and 70s) heavy. However, now that I have finally gotten my fill of Buster Keaton I am wholly ashamed of my ignorance of Buster Keaton and I am delighted that I finally motivated myself to watch these films. So now here is our first in a double feature of Buster Keaton films, Our Hospitality.

This movie is essentially a play on Romeo and Juliet set in the context of the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the early 1800s. It starts out with a prologue: it was a dark and stormy night when a member of the Canfields arrived in Kentucky and immediately left for the rival McKay’s house where he manages to kill the last male heir to the McKay line, but at the same time losing his own life in the process. When the uncle of the Canfield’s receives word of this his once mediatory and peaceful demeanor is changed almost immediately: “my two sons must be taught to avenge his death,” he says. Meanwhile, on the McKay side, a baby boy named Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) is left orphaned and is sent to his last living relatives in New York, where he grows up in peace, comfort, and solitude. This lasts for 20 years until young Willie, now a fully grown young man, receives word that he has inherited his family home in Kentucky, as such, Willie decides to embark on a fancy shmancy train for Kentucky. While on the train, Willie sits next to a gorgeous young woman (Natalie Talmadge), and, after a series of hilariously awkward scenes, the two of them begin to hit it off rather well. After a long series of zany scenes, the train manages to arrive in one piece in Kentucky. The two of them descend from the train, and Willie is invited to dinner, and then the woman meets her family. It is at this point that we see the conflict of this movie – predictably, the girl is the daughter of Joseph Canfield. Eventually Joseph realizes that this young man whom his daughter has invited to dinner is his enemy, as do his two nephews who he has taught to avenge their father’s death. The two nephews stalk their unwitting prey through a number of scenes, but thanks to a number of very narrow escapes, Willie escapes the machinations of the Canfields, unscathed and none the wiser. It is not until Willie arrives at the house of the Canfields for dinner that Willie realizes the great danger which he is in, however he also realizes that so long as he is a guest in the house of the Canfields, the obliged hospitality of the Canfields prevents them from killing him. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse in which the Canfields (minus the girl who is unaware of all this) are trying desperately to get Willie to leave the house, and Willie is doing everything in his power to stay. Eventually the Canfields succeed, and what ensues is a chase scene between Willie and the two nephews and the daughter, who, now wise to what’s been going on, is doing everything she can to save the life of Willie. Eventually both Willie and the daughter end up in a river leading, predictably, to a waterfall. Thankfully Willie’s nimble acrobatics ensure that both Willie and the girl escape the harrowing falls. The defeated Canfields, meanwhile, unsuccessful in their chasing of Willie, return home to find that Willie has married the girl, and that the two of them are now in-laws. The Canfields appear as though they are going to shoot Willie, but Joseph instead embraces his new son-in-law, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The acting in this movie is just superb. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore the style of acting that you see in silent films. The idea that you have to be able to emote and convey emotion effectively in motion picture without being able to actually say anything means that the actors are actually emoting – it’s easy to tell how the character feels, and what their desires are. It’s much more flamboyant, but in a good way. The lead in this movie is naturally Buster Keaton and he’s just excellent. He’s funny, but he’s also very likeable. The result is you the audience falling out of your chair in laughter when he’s caught in sticky situations or when he, say, slips on a banana peel, but at the same time you feel sorry for the guy. You really want him to succeed – you want him to get the girl, to reconcile with the Canfields, but at the same time you find yourself looking forward to moments such as when he’s stuck in the Canfield’s house without being able to leave. In general he is just an effective protagonist in general. The female lead, which isn’t actually given a name, is played by Natalie Talmadge, who I’ve since discovered is Buster Keaton’s actual wife. I thought she was absolutely gorgeous in this, and I think once again this goes back to the style of silent film – I love the makeup used on characters, and for Talmadge it really worked. As for her performance, she was compassionate and timid, really too much of a nonentity in this film, in my opinion. I think if anything she is the audience, watching from the sidelines and hoping that nothing ill befalls our hero, but not really doing anything about it. The rest of the Canfields did a good enough job, but I didn’t think any of them were anything spectacular in particular, this movie is primarily about Buster Keaton and in terms of casting and characters this is made abundantly clear.

As for other parts of this movie I was pleasantly surprised. As I mentioned before, I liked the makeup and costuming in this movie. I don’t presume to be an expert on 1830s, but the costumes felt authentic to me and I definitely got the sense that I was in 1830s America. I also liked the props. I remember reading something – I think on IMDB – about how the train used in the movie was actually designed to be as authentic as possible. The cinematography to me seemed to be standard silent film fare, but I quite liked it. My two favorite scenes in this movie were the train scene and the waterfall scene. In particular I loved the train scene. I fear using the phrase “comedic gold” but the train scene just epitomized it for me. It truly was comedy at its most fundamental; there was no story, no context, it was just 10 or 15 minutes of hilarity. I was laughing the whole time. The waterfall scene was great in another way. I love how it starts because you can see it coming, meaning the tension is already there. And then from that point, the way in which the film milks the tension, draws the movie out for as long as possible brings the movie to a boiling point. It was excellently done. There were some other superb scenes in the movie, such as the “cat and mouse” scenes I described earlier and the fishing scene, but truly the two aforementioned scenes stand out most prominently in my mind.

The music, I am delighted to say, was actually really good. This is another thing I mentioned in previous reviews of silent films I’ve done. The problem I’ve noticed, or at least it’s been a problem for me is that since these silent films when they came out were accompanied with live music, when the movies were remastered and put onto DVD or VHS, they had to be rescored. The problem comes in because generally the man doing the rescoring decides, rather than recreating the music as it may have been performed when the movie came out, will instead make an original composition which reeks of modernity. In my experience the rescores feature a lot of marimba, a lot of discordant tones, and music that often doesn’t correspond in any way to the action which is occurring on screen. The result is jarring music which I usually turn off half way through the movie. With Our Hospitality this was not the case. The movie featured a lot more piano and a lot more sounds reminiscent of what one would expect a 1920s era silent film to sound like. The result was rather than getting a lot of jarring noise coming from my speakers which took me out of the mood, I got a score in perfect harmony with the movie. Surprisingly, I actually bothered to write down the writer of the rescore for this movie, so if anyone wants to watch this, I highly recommend you watch this movie with the Hunsburger score.

I think one of the best things I’ve gotten out of this little project of mine is an appreciation for silent films. They are just so cool. I love just how different everything feels. You can really feel his vaudevillian roots coming to the forefront in a number of extended scenes, but at the same time the movies are well written and well paced. This movie was just plain excellent. One of the funniest things I have ever seen. Roger Ebert has called Buster Keaton quite possibly the greatest Actor-Director of all time, and it shows in my list, which has 5 movies by Buster Keaton. This movie in particular is fantastic and in my opinion, easily deserves its place on this list.

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