Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – Our Hospitality (1923)
Buster Keaton’s classic feature The General (1926) has been rightfully hailed as a masterpiece, with its intelligent gags and exquisitely-rendered Civil War setting. Its authentic look has often been compared to Matthew Brady photographs. Keaton’s confident use of period settings can probably be traced back to his 1923 film Our Hospitality. Set in the early 19th century American south, it also had plenty of authentic period charm and is one of his most admired features today.
Keaton’s first foray into historical periods technically began with his first feature, Three Ages (1923). Inspired by the four interweaving storylines in D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance (1916), he told three tales set in the Stone Age, Roman Age, and modern day. The Stone Age and Roman periods were played more for laughs, however. Keaton’s followup Our Hospitality would be an opportunity to prove himself not just as a comedian, but as a mature, skilled filmmaker.
Keaton and his team based the story of Our Hospitality on the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The original working title was Headin’ South, and the plot revolved around two families (christened the Canfields and the McKays) who had been feuding for generations. Keaton played Willie McKay, whose father dies after a shootout with rival James Canfield while Willie is still a baby. Wanting her son to grow up free of the bitter feud, Willie’s mother raises him in New York. Once Willie comes of age, however, he learns that he’s inherited his father’s southern estate.
While traveling by train to claim the estate, Willie meets the attractive southern belle Virginia (Natalie Talmadge). Unbeknownst to him, she’s a member of the Canfield clan. When they arrive at their destination Virginia’s greeted by her father and brothers. Willie asks one of the brothers for directions to the estate, alerting him to the fact that he’s a McKay. The estate turns out to be a rundown wreck, and Willie’s invited to dinner by Virginia–both of them have no idea that the Canfield men are now determined to kill him. While at her house Willie finally realizes his life is in danger. When he overhears the father telling his sons that southern hospitality prevents them from shooting a guest in their home, Willie quickly invites himself to spend the night. His subsequent attempts at escape result in a game of cat-and-mouse.
The decision to set Our Hospitality in the 1830s was based on the primitive train recreated for a key early sequence. Once Keaton and his team decided to have Willie travel by rail, they started researching the earliest trains and came up with the rickety, eccentric-looking 1830 Stephenson Rocket. Although it was an English train it was very funny looking, and they used available drawings to make a full-size, five-car replica. Another early invention replicated for the film was a “dandy horse,” a wooden bicycle propelled by foot instead of pedals, which Willie gravely coasts around town.
The making of Our Hospitality was very much a family affair. Buster’s wife Natalie (they had been married two years) agreed to play Virginia, and they decided to have their baby Joseph appear in a scene as the infant Willie McKay. Buster’s father Joe would play the engineer of the Stephenson Rocket, and close family friend “Big Joe” Roberts was brought on board to play the Canfield patriarch. The Canfield sons were played by stage star Craig Ward and Ralph Bushman, the son of 1910s screen idol Francis X. Bushman. Many scenes would be shot in Truckee, a mountain town in the Tahoe National Forest, where the cast and crew spent their off time playing baseball or fishing in the Truckee River.
They clearly had fun with the sequence where Willie travels by train, draping its little tracks over rocks and tree trunks and showing how it moves so slow that Willie’s loyal dog can trot along easily underneath it. The spectacular waterfall scene was filmed at Keaton’s studio, where the thundering fall was constructed over the pool he once used for his short Hard Luck (1921). Some shots also showed a surprisingly convincing miniature landscape.
Keaton was no stranger to risking life and limb in the service of filmmaking, and had some harrowing experiences while making Our Hospitality. While filming the highlight of the waterfall scene, where Willie catches Virginia (rather, a lifelike dummy of Virginia) as she’s about to go over the falls, hewas dangling upside down and was hit with the roaring water right in the face. He had to be taken to the doctor to drain out his sinuses and ear canals. But most dangerous of all was the sequence leading up to the waterfall, where Willie falls into a rushing river (the Truckee River). Three men held onto the end of a sixty-foot wire attached to Keaton as he clung to a log drifting through the rapids. Suddenly the wire broke and Keaton was swept away, crashing into boulders and fighting to keep his head above the foam. Finally he managed to grab a dangling branch and hauled himself onto the bank, exhausted. When his crew found him his first question was, “Did Nat see it?”
Midway through filming, Big Joe Roberts suffered a stroke. A doctor discovered he had late-onset neurosyphilis, contracted decades earlier, and had only a short time to live. Keaton kept filming while Joe spent some time resting, but was concerned enough for his friend to consider shelving the picture. However, Joe insisted on returning to the Keaton studio to finish his scenes, a professional to the end. After attending a preview of the finished film, Joe had a second stroke at home and passed away. He was 52 years old, and had deliveredsome of Our Hospitality’s most touching dramatic scenes.
Our Hospitality was widely praised by critics and audiences alike, and did very well at the box office, grossing even more than Keaton’s anticipated Three Ages. It was declared one of the funniest pictures ever made and admired for its thrilling stunt work. Today, the opinion of this lovingly-shot period piece remains unchanged. It’s a favorite of many Keaton fans, and is certainly one of the greatest classics of silent comedy.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.
Wonderful article on my favorite Keaton film.
Thank you, Steven!
I always enjoys Lea’s posts about Buster-either here or at Silent-ology! Thanks for the additional info on “Our Hospitality”—a film that always makes me laugh, and demands repeat viewings!