“It would be the death of anyone to go outside tonight.”
Something I find beautiful about film is that once you become aware of works from throughout film history, you start to distinguish artistry and innovation from more uninspired works, regardless of the year of release. When you watch a more contemporary comedy without much inspiration, let’s say the new Ghostbusters, and then you watch Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, you see that cutting edge comedy requires commitment and comedic insight, and these principles are timeless. You may be sorry to hear that I’d prefer Our Hospitality over some hackneyed reboot any day. When you watch a comedic genius like Buster Keaton on the top of his game, the difference in talent becomes apparent. Our Hospitality is a terrific product of the silent film era, and it endures as a delightful, hilarious slice of comedy to this day.
Our Hospitality brings us a fun premise: a riff on the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. Buster Keaton plays Willie McKay, the son of John McKay, who was rival to James Canfield before the two men killed each other in 1810. Twenty years later, Willie has been brought up without knowledge of the feud, and he receives a letter informing him that his father’s estate is his for the taking. When he goes to claim the land, he engages in a comedic scenario in which he is violently pursued by the Canfield family in accordance with the feud. At the same time, Willie also falls in love with the daughter of the Canfield family, Virginia (played to perfection by Natalie Talmadge). While the Canfields (minus Virginia) desperately want to kill Willie, they are unable to do so while he is a guest in their home due to the laws of hospitality. Therefore, most of the film involves Willie manipulating this loophole to stay alive. It’s a fun, fast premise that lends itself to a wide array of gags.
Buster Keaton stands among Chaplin as a leader in the silent film era when it comes to comedy. While Chaplin puts forward a silly, almost athletic approach to physical comedy, Keaton’s humor feels smarter and more gag-oriented. We actually see this contrast in comedy today, with physical shock humor facing off against a drier, more intellectual or situational humor. I’m more inclined to enjoy the latter, which is why I think I actually find Keaton much funnier than Chaplin. His stone-faced approach is one of the greatest deadpans in comedy to this day, and his situational approach to comedy is witty and surprising in a way that Chaplin never seems to manage. Keaton seems to incorporate the plot of his film far more often into his gags, such as Willie having to engage in wacky antics (such as wearing a dress or getting drenched by a waterfall) in order to escape certain death. I always find this connection between gag and story to be smarter and funnier as a result. If this sounds more like your type of comedy, I would recommend Keaton over Chaplin.
While Keaton leads the foray with his comedic vision (directing, writing, and starring in the film), his supporting cast only escalates the payoff. Joe Roberts is worth noting for his powerful but terribly silly presence as the patriarch Joseph Canfield. Perhaps the most interesting piece of trivia associated with Our Hospitality is that Roberts suffered a stroke during the film’s production but insisted they continue filming. He then suffered another stroke shortly after the film’s completion and died as a result. Now that’s commitment to comedy. Natalie Talmadge plays the romantic interest of Virginia well, even if she isn’t given much to work with. The early scene with Keaton and Talmadge on the train is one of the high points of the film, and their chemistry works beautifully for the bumbling nature of the situation.
At only 74 minutes, I would highly recommend Our Hospitality as a starting point for silent cinema. The comedy is witty enough that it holds up today, and this film would be a lot of fun to put on with a group of friends for some laughs. Any aspiring comedian (or film auteur) should observe Keaton’s unrelenting commitment to the craft. His deadpan, perservering attitude towards comedy permeates through his entire work as an artist, with his attention to detail as an obvious result. There’s nothing lazy about Our Hospitality, which is far more than can be said about just about any comedy released today. Plus, you don’t even need to buy a ticket.
Films Left to Watch: 916