Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Our Hospitality was the second feature Buster Keaton made, and the first that truly told a full feature-length story (the Intolerance parody Three Ages was essentially three shorts combined into a larger structure). This film, set in the early 1800s, is derived from the notorious Hatfield/McCoy feud, depicting the bloody rivalry tearing apart multiple generations of the Canfield and McKay families in the rural South. Keaton, along with co-director John G. Blystone, takes his time setting up the dramatic stakes in a prologue, in which two of the latest male heirs of these two families kill each other in a gun battle, after which the last surviving McKay, then just a baby, is sent to New York to grow up far away from the feud. The film then jumps forward twenty years, as the young McKay (Keaton) returns to the South to claim his inheritance, meets a young woman (Keaton's wife Natalie Talmadge) on the train journey, and realizes only too late that she's actually the daughter of his mortal enemies.
Because of this patient approach to the narrative, the film has a pleasant, easygoing pace as it meanders along, wandering through several different modes: deftly performed physical comedy, romance, and increasingly frenetic action that's balanced somewhere between comic slapstick and genuinely thrilling stunt extravaganzas. The film never quite becomes a manic comedy, because that's not what Keaton's after here, instead balancing the humor with the romantic drama and the carefully researched period detail. Particularly in the first half of the film, Keaton indulges in a lot of low-key humor based on the changes wrought in society since the film's 1830s setting, mocking the then-modern state-of-the-art technology and pointing out just how much progress had been made in the intervening years, to get up to the 1920s cutting edge. (Of course, seeing the film now only exaggerates this dimension of the film, since the modern viewer is even more struck by the rapid pace of change and the technological gap between past and present.)
Early on, an intertitle prepares the viewer for a shot of the New York intersection at Broadway and 42nd Street, then cuts to a dusty view of two crisscrossing dirt roads flanked by small wooden stores and homes, where a traffic pile-up of a peddle-less bicycle (a hilariously awkward conveyance in retrospect) and a horse-and-buggie causes one observer to remark, "this is gettin' to be a dangerous crossin'." Then comes the fantastic train ride, for which Keaton recreated the "Stephenson Rocket," which is basically a very small train of passenger carriages tied together and harnessed to a wood-powered engine, propelled along a shaky and uneven rail line.
The train journey, on which the bumps and mishaps of the primitive train push McKay and the Canfield daughter into intimacy, the girl clinging fearfully to the young man, is a comic masterpiece with one great gag after another. The gentle pacing gives the impression that each joke is carefully calibrated and considered, the gags spaced out, each one methodically developed and thought out. There's little trace of frantic slapstick farce in Keaton's deliberate gags, which have a formal logic and precision that makes them seem almost inevitable. At one point, the train is stopped by a donkey that's stubbornly blocking the way, and after much effort the conductor decides that it's easier to drag the tracks' path a few feet to the right than it is to move the donkey, and he creates the new curved path without fuss. Later, in one of the best gags, a mishap with a track switcher separates the engine from the rest of the train, sending them forking off on parallel paths. Keaton's staging is absolutely brilliant, shooting from directly behind the train so that at first it seems as though nothing has happened until the paths begin curving away from one another and the separation is revealed. In a subsequent shot, the distracted conductor, belatedly realizing that the rest of his train has disappeared, stands up into the foreground of the frame, comically peering all around for the missing cars, which are of course gliding along on the nearby track in the background.
This careful framing and meticulous feel for set-up means that Keaton's comedy never feels truly out of control here, and this even extends to the subsequent Southern sequences, in which McKay courts the lovely young woman he met on the train while her family tries fruitlessly to kill him to fulfill their old debt. McKay evades their attempts, at first accidentally and innocently — coming upon one of the Canfield sons trying to unjam his pistol to shoot McKay, McKay grabs it, gets it to fire, then walks away, thinking he's done a good deed — and then cleverly exploiting the rules of Southern hospitality, since he can't be killed as long as he's a guest in the Canfields' home. This leads to some funny antics with McKay dodging quickly in and out of the house, with the Canfields chasing him and firing at him the moment he sets foot past a threshold.
The film's epic finale is its real highlight, though, less comedic than truly action-packed, as McKay flees one of the Canfield sons across a steep rock face, down into a roaring river, briefly crossing paths with yet another train, before tumbling towards a waterfall for the climactic set piece in which McKay teeters on the edge of the deadly falls, trying to untangle himself from a rope in time to rescue his beloved, who's also drifting towards the precipice. Keaton performed all the stunts himself, and proves himself as adept an action hero as he is a comedian; his daring rope swing to grab the girl just as she falls off the waterfall is breathtaking. Keaton, with his mild-mannered, slightly sharp-edge face, is so unassuming that his physicality is stunning, eliciting equal amounts of shocked laughs and gasps of awe. Our Hospitality is a fantastic showcase for his many talents, both in front of and behind the camera.