Saturday, April 21, 2018

Buster Keaton, "Our Hospitality"

My third time seeing a Buster Keaton movie at a local church, with an organist playing along as would have happened in relatively good theatres back in the day. This time: "Our Hospitality" (1923). Two families feud in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Buster's character is in one of the families, but he has deliberately been raised in New York to keep him out of the feud. As a young man he gets word that the family "estate" has been left to him, and he should go south to claim it. Of course the estate is worthless. Members of the other family have been there all along, and his mere appearance is enough to make them resolve to kill him on sight. One twist is that on the train ride, he has formed at least a bit of an attachment to a young woman--who of course is a member of the rival family. She invites Buster to supper, and her male relatives, putting two and two together, say something like the visitor will never forget "our hospitality." From then on, if these relatives appear, they are probably shooting at Buster--even wildly, at a distance.

In 1923 Buster had enjoyed some success, and he was getting ambitious. Before 1920, Buster appeared in some Fatty Arbuckle movies, and directed one of them in 1917. From 1920 to 1923 he starred in and directed a number of short films. One feature film, "The Saphead," was made in 1920, but generally the features start in 1923 and continue to 1936. "Our Hospitality" was therefore an early feature for Buster, and fairly early in his directing career. The other two I've seen recently are "Sherlock Junior" (1924), and "The Cameraman" (1928). At this point I would say the latter two are both better than "Our Hospitality." Film buffs love this one for its loving recreation of a historical epoch--"long ago" by the time the film was made, and by the extent to which shooting was done on location--not in Virginia, but in rural areas that were supposed to be close. The countryside is beautiful, and the meandering train ride is made to seem attractive despite the many inconveniences. Buster always loved trains. This may be the first "comedy" film that had really thoughtful and attractive "cinematography," that would previously have gone with dramas. Indeed there is somehow a genuine drama in this movie. The white South, pre-Civil War, is portrayed as courtly or mannerly, but homicidal and crazy. The "father" tells the sons not to kill Buster "while he is our guest," but this rule doesn't seem to apply as soon as Buster sets foot outdoors--sometimes he runs outside from door to door to lose the brothers. For a young New Yorker--admittedly somewhat foppish, and ridiculous in his own way--the South can easily become a nightmare--except for the young lady of his dreams, who is probably saner than her male relations. (The southern women, going back to a scene supposedly set about 1810, I believe are never seen egging the men on to keep up the feud; instead they make efforts, usually futile, to end it). There is a black "servant" in the southern home where Buster eats, tries to court his girl, and dodges bullets; this would no doubt be a slave. To my recollection no blacks are seen in New York, or anywhere on the train ride.

Why did Buster (or Jean Havez, the writer and (uncredited) scenario-writer) choose the South, and a time period almost a century earlier? Partly I think for a kind of freedom from modernity and urbanization. The train is a ridiculous early train--a fair bit of money was spent on getting this right. The cars in which passengers ride look like stage coaches on rails, and the locomotive is small and primitive; grab wood from the back, throw into the front. As people say, many anticipations of The General, possibly Buster's masterpiece, the only film of his that has had the full 35 mm. reproduction treatment. (Set during the Civil War, again with a kind of pro-south orientation; a much more advanced locomotive). The track is flexible, capable of going up and down bumps, and forcing each car to go up and down the same way. If the "crew" falls asleep, the train can run fairly easily on level ground with no track. Buster, chatting with the young lady, says with surprise, something like "now we are having a smooth ride." A mule or donkey gets in the way, so the track is simply twisted to get around him. As soon as there is a siding running parallel to the main track, of course the locomotive can end up behind the rest of the train, and then crash into it. A guy sits on the back of the rear car, not with a gun but with a trumpet. Buster climbs up and down, talks to the guy, and when the guy is asleep, naturally Buster has to blow the trumpet, successfully or not. There are only a few minutes in New York, but there is an emphasis on how rural it was at Broadway and 42nd at about 1830--I would think the heart of the Theatre District in the 20th century. We see two gravel roads meeting in a rural countryside, and the "sign board" says this is based on an actual photo from the relevant period. Buster seems to have liked technology, but like many of us, he would have liked to freeze it at a particular moment in time--it was interesting, a lot of fun, and seemed to improve life without spoiling anything. Buster also gets to ride a "dandy horse," a precursor to the bicycle which required the rider to push with his or her feet, even though such a machine would have been out of date by the 1830s.

It is always incredible that Buster did his own stunts. He almost died in a river in Oregon while shooting this movie. Partly in response to this, he decided to do a fair bit of shooting at a fake waterfall in Los Angeles. But many stunts involving rapids and such are real, including the one that could actually belong in a circus: a rope, Buster, the young lady, all dangling over a waterfall. The handling of guns is also funny: a macho guy shoots many times and misses; finally has a clear close shot at Buster, click click empty. It takes time to re-load these "pistols." At one point Buster wants a break from the gunplay directed at him, so he steps outside, grabs a gun from a guy much bigger than himself, shoots it into the air and gives it back. That will hold him for a few minutes. At one point something falls to the floor, and at least some people, no doubt including Buster, hit the floor thinking a shot has been fired. In the last scene Buster is back in the house of his enemies, but he has actually managed to marry their daughter/sister, so the Pastor protects him. Not only that, he reveals by emptying his coat that he has taken any guns he could find in the house so they couldn't be used on him. There is a real Bugs Bunny quality to much of this--Buster is always smaller than his male antagonists, but smarter or more resourceful, tougher in facing physical ordeals, and let's face it, probably luckier. He deserves good luck, so the movie-maker arranges for exactly that.

Little guy against nature, capable of admiring its beauty and power; little guy against much bigger guys, trying to get girl against great odds. Nature perhaps on his side insofar as girl will like him if she gets to know him, but how will this happen? There are both natural and conventional forces (he is usually broke) against him. Little guy getting to try out technology with childish and infectious glee; he knows the new power of locomotives and guns can be as dangerous as the old natural powers like rapids and waterfalls, especially since so many human beings are lunatics. Whatever the problems with the old rural life--and in a way, there is a good chance the wrong people were always in charge--the new urban life will bring problems of its own, and may be worse on the whole. Always, through everything: stone face, with heavy white makeup.

No comments:

Post a Comment