Judge Daryl Loomis takes his pratfalls with a side of morphine.
Now the feud must go on and on. My two sons must be taught to avenge this deed!
Our Hospitality is the first silent film I've viewed on Blu-ray. While I was excited to revisit this classic comedy from the legendary Buster Keaton (The General), I was a little nervous about whether the damage, inevitable for a near-century old film, would be magnified in high definition. I needn't have feared; Kino Lorber's release looks fantastic in the format.
Facts of the Case
Willie McKay (Keaton) grew up in New York, but just found out that he has inherited an estate in central Kentucky. On the train going south, Willie meets a girl (Natalie Talmadge, Passion Flower), a beautiful southern belle on her way home from school. They fall for each other and she invites Willie over to her house for supper. When he arrives, though, he learns that the McKay family has feuded with the Canfield clan and, unfortunately, this girl's last name is Canfield. While her father and brothers are aching to put some led in Willie, they have a problem: they have invited the boy into their home, and southern hospitality dictates that no harm can come to him, at least until he leaves the premises.
What makes for good comedy tends to change over time. Even the best regarded comedies from earlier decades feel dated, rarely touching a viewer's funny bone the way it did when it first appeared. One thing that never gets old, though: a guy taking a beating. From Moe poking Curly in the face to Ed Helms taking a punch from Mike Tyson, pain is clear comedy gold. Few in history took more punishment better than Buster Keaton, a genius comedian and an innovator of comedic cinema.
Our Hospitality was Keaton's first feature-length film, which he directed after years of making successful short subjects. The film works well on the whole, but this is more surprising than it sounds. In 1923, a seven reel film was generally reserved for more prestigious dramas and period pieces, while comedies, westerns, and the like were much more often only two. Keaton, therefore, had very little to work from to figure out how to stretch the narrative and still make it funny. Smartly, instead of just a series of gags, he built a straightforward drama and let the comedy fall out of that.
The story is an obvious take on the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. The inherent violence of this family war has been mined for laughs for years, and the story here works pretty well. Keaton really sells the haplessness of the hero and his chemistry with real life wife Natalie Talmadge is very natural. They're a charming couple whose success is easy to root for, while the girl's family is typically diabolical. This is very typical comic material, but Keaton extends the story well by milking the romance and building up to some big action set pieces for the finale.
Keaton was obsessive about details and, with a couple of exceptions, everything is pretty accurate. He changes the time and place slightly, to central Kentucky in the 1830s. The time change is the important one, as it allowed him to utilize even further outdated and quaint technology for comedic effect, including the awesome train, which is a character unto itself. An amalgam of the first two viable commercial trains, it is as goofy as you could possibly imagine and would fit right into a Pixar film. Keaton recreated the sets based on old photographs and drawings of the time and it does feel authentic, even if it was shot on the Truckee River in California instead of Kentucky. He shows the landscape, nearly untouched at the time, very nicely, letting us appreciate the beauty of the land.
More than that, though, it's on these rivers and ridges that some pretty great action takes place. Keaton's stunts are phenomenal, for that time or today; he was a natural at pratfalls, but the guy could swing from a rope pretty well, too. Despite the focus on locomotives, there aren't any harrowing train scenes (a couple of pretty rough falls off of them, though), but the threat of careening down a river over a waterfall is harrowing enough. All around, Our Hospitality is a whole lot of fun.
I went into Kino's Blu-ray with highly muted expectations. Prints I had previously seen for the film were certainly not the worst I'd seen, but still pretty mediocre. The image here certainly isn't perfect, but it's the best representation I've ever seen of Our Hospitality, without a doubt. There is surprisingly little damage to the film, none of the burns or explosions from nitrate degradation you come to expect. There are plenty of scratches and the color tinting is inconsistent in the frame, but that's a small price to pay for a film that is nearly a century old. On a technical level, both sound mixes are good, and the 5.1 mix is excellent. It also appears as a 2.0 mix, but that's less interesting. The problem here is, and I'm apparently in the decided minority on this, I really don't like the work of Carl Davis, whose scores have bored me for years in silent films I otherwise love. People seem to love his work and that's fine; you might like what's here. But I find his music to be much too reflective of the action without any comment or personality of its own. The mix is very good, but after I quickly tired of it, I do what I always do: pick out a score for another film that I actually like and enjoy the synchronicities (if you care, I selected Ennio Morricone's score for The Stendahl Syndrome). A second score, this time a song compilation by Donald Hunsberger that I like much better than the original stuff by Davis. It's simple standard stuff that's nothing spectacular but gets you through.
The special features are not numerous, but they are of quality, starting with a solid documentary on the making of Our Hospitality, which goes into a lot of detail about the film, specifically laying out how Keaton achieved some of the crazier stunts and explaining what is location footage and what was shot in the studio. It doesn't even run 30 minutes, but features a lot of valuable information. Next is an alternate cut of the film, called "Hospitality," that is the entire film missing most of the comedy sequences. Likely, Keaton used it to make sure the film could work dramatically, and it's an interesting look at the process. It looks horrendous, though, so fair warning. We also get a complete additional short film called The Iron Mule, a train comedy using the same train as featured in Our Hospitality. It stars Fatty Arbuckle's son, was directed under pseudonym by the blackballed father, and featured Keaton in at least three roles, so there's certain historical interest in this film, substandard though it may be. Finally, a couple of photo galleries, one featuring production photos and the other a more candid look at the actors. All of this is excellent stuff and this Blu-ray disc is one all silent film fans should own.
I don't know why violence and pain is so funny, but I can't help it. Homer Simpson said it best: "Barney's movie had heart, but 'Football in the Groin' had a football in the groin," and that's pretty hard to argue with. Keaton wasn't the first guy to crash through a wall for our amusement, but he was one of the best. His first full-length feature was a complete success, and so is Kino Lorber's Blu-ray disc.
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