Thursday, September 4, 2008

18. Our Hospitality - 1923

Dude is straight up hanging from a log over a waterfall.
Director: John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton

Synopsis: Willie McKay returns home for the first time in 20 years to claim his father's estate. He falls for a girl on the trip each unaware they are opposing members of a familial blood feud. McKay must avoid being murdered while attempting to win the girl. Doesn't that sound like a comedy?

Review: Explaining why physical humor works--facial gags in particular--is virtually impossible. This is a new idea that has never once been mentioned in the reviews of Keaton; do try to keep pace. Somewhere between "Buster Keaton makes a face that is funny" and actually seeing Buster Keaton's reaction the humor is lost. This film is a perfect example of having to be there to get it.

Having to be there to get it comes in at another level. I can't help but think that I'm missing something by not being around in 1923 or experiencing first hand Southern hospitality. Seeing the evolution of physical humor and decline of hospitality in general for 80+ years works against a modern viewer. I see the jokes. I get the jokes. I don't laugh at many of them. The best way to describe it is seeing I Love Lucy after seeing every comedy since steal from I Love Lucy; the impact isn't the same as it once was.

Perfect example: Natalie Talmadge comes on screen. Before being introduced a few seconds later by intertitle, I know that Buster Keaton is going to fall in love with her and she is going to be a Canfield leading to comedy. This is so standard that there isn't even a name for the it. It's a bit backwards knocking a movie for doing something so right that even those unaware of Keaton are aping his work. I won't claim that Keaton originated the unlikely romance leading to comedy as that probably belongs to the first teenager but this is the first instance to my knowledge on film.

Anyway...Our Hospitality does have some great things working for it. Once the movie gets going and it becomes Buster's show instead of an overly long trainsequence, the quality raises immediately. Keaton is probably the master of oblivious comedy where everything happens around the protagonist while he remains clueless to his surroundings which is pretty heavily done for a while here. It's a subtle difference between that and Tati's Monsieur Hulot for example who was overcome by his circumstances.

Where Buster really shines is when he becomes suddenly aware of his situation at the Canfield's. He's able to use his face more which is previously pretty unexpressive. I think the most under appreciated scene in Our Hospitality, because the waterfall sequence truly deserves the most praise, is Keaton attempting to prolong his first evening with the Canfields. Keaton realizes he has to stay to avoid certain death and starts performing some tricks with a dog. After two tricks, he has nothing and performs them again with an earnest begging for approval across his face. As stated earlier, it's impossible to describe physical humor and facial gags.

I guess I should talk about the waterfall sequence. It's pretty amazing and a shame that truly dangerous gags don't make it into movies anymore. Of course, Keaton lost control of a guide rope and hurtles down the river lucky to be alive. Studio wariness isn't baseless but knowing that Jackie Chan is the only direct descendent of Buster Keaton is rather a drag.

Our Hospitality works but mostly in the latter half of the film. It's difficult to rate the film so low but there are too many low sections to rank the film highly.

Score 6/10

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