The Seventh Art 2.0: Our Hospitality

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The copy of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality on Youtube looks great, and this is because it’s a rip of a DVD released by Kino International. Kino is one of the best sources for silent films on disc, and perhaps it’s here I should emphasize that this series is not meant to dissuade anyone from owning physical media. Indeed, I think owning physical media is almost an imperative for people interested in film and TV; Youtube, Netflix, and the other services are convenient, but even when you “buy” a film on iTunes or Amazon, you’re not buying it: you’re licensing it from its owners. You can’t loan it to friends or rip it to your hard drive (which is, by the way, legal)—you don’t own it. One can’t buy everything, so streaming services like Youtube can expand our horizons. But if you’re into silent film, I’d encourage you to pick up some discs from Kino. They do good stuff.

Keaton’s Our Hospitality is one of the comedian’s best films as a director, but it’s also one that contains fewer overt physical gags than classics like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). It sets its sights elsewhere: the film is a parody of the kind of romantic melodrama popular in the teens and early 20s, particularly those associated with the director D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s films were often sentimental portraits of the antebellum South, and they set the mold for Hollywood’s idealized portrait of womanhood and chivalry, the moral struggles of simple people that climax in heroic deeds. His then-recent hit Way Down East (1920) had concerned a woman (Lillian Gish) who is seduced, impregnated, and betrayed, its climax sublimating this intense emotional drama into a thrilling rescue of mother and child on a partially frozen river.

Our Hospitality likewise concludes with its male hero rescuing the object of his affection from watery death, but that male hero is the slight Keaton—who is not racing across ice blocks to grab the heroine, but hanging awkwardly over the precipice of the waterfall by a rope caught on a branch. Keaton’s typical persona, with his small frame and impassive face, is, as usual, part of the joke. Far from the typical melodramatic hero, he is not someone who makes things happen, but to whom things happen. 

In the story, set in the 1830s, Keaton’s character has returned to his hometown, where his father was killed in a duel with a rival family years before. This history is given in an opening sequence devoid of humor, a straightforward melodramatic involving a nighttime storm, a panicked mother, and a shootout in the dark. Fearful for her baby’s life, the widow flees to New York City, which Our Hospitality jokingly depicts as a two-street, rural town. Then, grown and eager to claim his inheritance, Keaton departs for the South, taking a rickety, primitive train whose tracks can be adjusted by hand. The convention of melodramatic coincidence necessitates that on this train Keaton meet and fall for the daughter of the rival family, and be invited over for supper to a house full of men who want to kill him. 

Part of the humor is in the actors chosen to enact these melodramatic conventions. Far from the honorable hero or passionate lover, Keaton’s character is both self-interested and stoic. The head of the rival family, the father of his love interest, is less a southern aristocrat and more a typical vaudevillian “heavy”—a tall, portly man with an absurd mustache. 

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Calling the parody subtle would be a gross overstatement, but Our Hospitality does find the conventions of the Southern melodrama fertile ground for humorous scenarios. Realizing Keaton is a man he’s sworn by family duty to kill, one of the rival family’s sons stops in to ask to borrow a pistol at every store he passes while carrying on a conversation with his target, Keaton. Discovering another of the brothers hiding behind a shed struggling with his pistol, the hyper-oblivious Keaton un-jams it and shoots it for him. The rival family’s sense of southern hospitality forbids that they shoot a man who is a guest in their home; an amusing sequence has them trying to trick Keaton into stepping out of the house so they can shoot him.

To me, though, where Our Hospitality really distinguishes itself from other silent comedies of the era is in its storytelling and its use of the camera. While the humorless prologue is perhaps a bit long, the story is tightly controlled and expertly paced, with the humor arising organically from the story. And the camerawork distinguishes itself from other comedies in the film’s use of composition in the frame. In general, the frame of the film image is more important to the humor of Keaton than that of Chaplin or Lloyd: to them, the frame is simply where the action happens, but for Keaton it is a player in the action, and its meticulous arrangement can express character, theme, and humor. In films like Playhouse (1920) and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in-camera effects self-consciously push the boundaries of the cinematic frame. 

In Our Hospitality, Keaton uses balanced, often symmetrical frame compositions that have sometimes a certain humor in themselves. Perhaps the trademark shot of his films is the frontal shot of Stone Face himself, situated directly in the middle of shot and directing his impassive gaze almost directly at the camera. Inside the rival family’s plantation, Keaton uses staging in depth and frames within the frame to express themes and gags; the film’s two most effective gags—one involving a waterfall, the other a horse in a dress—consciously use the perspective of the camera as part of the joke.

These days, there’s little point in continuing the old Chaplin/Keaton debate, but to indulge the Keaton side of the argument for just a second: at least in the 1920s, Keaton does seem to be the one who is most interested in playing with the cinematic image itself. The effects of camera perspective, composition, and even editing come alive in the films of Keaton in a way they do not in Chaplin. And this Keaton is able to do while often maintaining a more rigid narrative structure than most Chaplin features, which tend to be very episodic. 

That being said, Keaton’s films, particularly this one, can feel somewhat mechanical: his approach to narrative and character is more detached, much more ironic than Chaplin’s. While Chaplin, initially an anarchic vaudevillian, came to believe in the humanity of his character, Keaton’s Stone Face persona has always been a symbol of ironic distance from the machinations in which he is caught. Chaplin’s passionate tramp recognizes that mechanized labor is exploitative and struggles free; Keaton’s young man feels the waterfall coming and puts up an umbrella.