Comedy Monday: Our Hospitality (1923)

20 06 2011

With the playoffs over, my slight hiatus is done. Starting off is this early silent Buster Keaton film.

“Our Hospitality” starts off in 1810, where the McKay and Canfield families have a bitter feud. One night the two patriarchs of the families clash resulting in both of their deaths, McKay’s wife decides she wants her son, Willie, to live without any knowledge of this rivalry, so she sends him off to live with her sister in New York. Twenty years pass and Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) has grown up just as his mother intended until one day he receives a letter, it tells Willie that he has come into possession of his father’s estate. So, he decides to go and claim it and meets a beautiful woman on train there. Little does he know this is Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), and although they both care for each other quite a bit, Willie now needs to deal with her family who are adamantly trying to kill him. The story of lovers from rival families is far from new, but luckily “Our Hospitality” has a lot more going for it. It has several terrific scenes and great physical comedy. In the moments between where directors Keaton and Blystone allow the story to unfold it is handled very delicately giving this film the boost it needs due to its occasional unevenness.

One of the standout elements of “Our Hospitality” has to be in it’s set pieces, and by that I mean the smaller details placed in scenes and single locations where events unfold. The first is most highly attributed to the attention to detail. The New York set is based off an early painting and it is fascinating to see it compared to what we know now of the city. A bike that Willie McKay rides early on is an exact replica of the time, as is the train they ride. All of this gave me not only a sense of authenticity that would pay dividends later, but allowed it to be a fascinating film to be introduced to before the real events started to take place. Of the event pieces there are two that stand out; one would be the train sequence and the other is of course the infamous waterfall scene. The train allows for many scenes of comedy and really works to help the movie pick up steam (no pun intended). It builds from there up to the climactic waterfall in which the authenticity of the movie becomes extremely effective. Now, while also being funny, this scene is also quite tense and despite being mild for today’s standards it is filmed in such a way that you actually believe Keaton is at the top of a waterfall, giving this key scene in impact it definitely needs. “Our Hospitality” builds to that moment and it does not disappoint, drawing on everything that came before and creating one of the best scenes in comedic history.    

The only real downfall of the film is in the beginning. With a silent film, it is hard to give the audience the necessary backstory without it feeling slow and overwhelming. Such is the case here. In the beginning the audience is bombarded with information so that we are playing catch-up to an extent until Willie receives the letter and things cool down. The film is fairly short so the fast pace of the beginning works as a double edged sword; we move past the uneven parts quicker, but they become more uneven due to it. Like I said, once Willie McKay leaves New York the movie takes off and is incredibly enjoyable the rest of the way, yet even after this point the comedic bits are not always as consistent as a later Chaplin film would be for example. It should be noted that the high parts of this movie are as good as any silent comedy out there.

“Our Hospitality” is a great film. It starts off just alright but grows into something incredible. It has iconic scenes, a fantastic soundtrack, and great bits of comedy. If you’re a fan of silent films or old physical comedies you would be doing a disservice to yourself to miss this early one.

Score: 90/100

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