Buster Keaton’s first self-produced showcase anchored to a feature-length plot—its predecessor, Three Ages, was a three-tales-in-one spoof of historical epics—is grounded in the mythology of 19th-century family feuds, with the star’s naïve Willie McKay stalked by the vengeful Canfield clan (read as the Hatfields and the McCoys) upon his return to his birthplace beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. Indeed, Our Hospitality‘s six-minute prologue, in which the infant hero’s father is killed in a shootout with his enemies, is straight melodrama from the template of D.W. Griffith. Flashing forward 20 years to young Willie, raised in a dustily bucolic New York City, taking the journey home to reclaim his parents’ “estate,” Keaton centers a quarter-hour of the film on a charmingly recreated steam engine’s Southwestern journey, with absurdist gags such as tracks that can be easily lifted off a trapped mule’s hoof, close carriage quarters that force Buster to ditch a top hat for his familiar porkpie, and a canny passerby who throws rocks at the train’s surly engineer (Keaton’s father Joe) to reap the reward of free firewood chucked at him in response.
But the foundation of the hill-country warfare gives the comedy extra weight when Keaton’s sheltered youth disembarks to find the family mansion is a collapsing shack, and his neighbors are blood rivals with guns drawn in hot pursuit, with the added complication that the maiden he fell hard for on the train journey (Buster’s wife Natalie Talmadge, in their only film together) is a Canfield. Again lacing the movie’s middle act with his graceful brand of slapstick and his character’s sober resourcefulness, Keaton eludes the misfiring pistols of the Canfield patriarch (Joe Roberts) and his sons long enough to accept a dinner invitation from his sweetheart, where rules of hospitality preserve his life and compel him to linger, long after exchanging one-eyed stares with his adversaries during prayer at the supper table. When the chase inevitably resumes, it accelerates into a tour de force, labors-of-Hercules climax, again with echoes of Griffith, as Buster dangles from cliffs, falls to a riverbed, and struggles in whitewater rapids before a heroic capper of a stunt that still exhilarates nearly 90 years after it was conceived.
Our Hospitality is not fully possessed of the surreal, dreamlike qualities that came to mark the best of Keaton’s subsequent features. As a filmmaker, he was still finding the balance between the gag-driven energy of his comedy shorts and the plotting demands of a seven- or eight-reel narrative. But it is the first major work of his peak era, when a stone-faced young ex-vaudevillian became American film comedy’s first action hero with a singular, finely honed physical poetry that was made for the movies.
A 2009 remastering of Our Hospitality has yielded a vibrant transfer that's the next best thing to seeing Buster Keaton's frequently epic, frenetic action sequences on a theater screen, and which enhances the beauty of the production design in this fable of 1830s Kentucky. Scenes have also been digitally color-tinted per the 1923 instructions to exhibitors. As with Kino's transfers of other Keaton features, scratches and similar signs of wear linger, but are generally most noticeable on the intertitles. Carl Davis's orchestral soundtrack, first composed for the film in 1984, is often lush and never overbearing, and available in both surround and standard stereo. An alternate compiled score is pleasant and serviceable.
The 1925 two-reel short The Iron Mule, directed by Buster's then-scandalized pal Fatty Arbuckle and starring his onetime co-star Al St. John, is a middling Western spoof included on the disc for its use of the charming steam-powered train from Our Hospitality, and Keaton's cameo as a pratfalling Native American chief. The star-auteur's design of that train, derived from both American and British steam vehicles, is detailed in a new 26-minute documentary on the feature, which also discusses his singular use of historical context as a springboard for laughs, how Our Hospitality's melodramatic prologue functions as "a one-reel riff on Griffith," and the logistics of shooting the climactic waterfall stunt.
The most curious supplement is a divergent 49-minute cut of the film titled Hospitality, which has been sourced to Keaton's private collection, and seems to have served as a work print for the filmmaker in postproduction. It omits several digressive comedy sequences that appear in the released version, so in crafting his first single-story feature Buster seems to have initially edited it to nail down the narrative before incorporating gag-centric material. (The print of this iteration is in "late decomposition," as the disc's introduction terms the daisy-shaped blobs, faded detail, and whited-out frames that mar the images, recalling the nitrate-stock ruins assembled in Bill Morrison's Decasia.) Galleries of publicity photos and on-set snapshots round out the package.
A solid, contextualized presentation of a pivotal work by an ambitious comic with a gift for visual poetry.