We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
The concept of lovers torn apart by their warring clans is hardly a new one, but it’s rarely been depicted as endearingly as we see in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality. Complete with not just a charming romance but all the painstakingly executed set pieces and death-defying stunts that we’ve come to expect from his films. Released in 1924, Our Hospitality represents a period where Keaton is firing on all cylinders, operating at the pinnacle of his comedic prowess with hit after hit. This film is bookended by other classics such as Three Ages, Sherlock Jr, and The Navigator. This is Keaton’s earliest entry on the list, but it won’t be his last.
Buster Keaton plays Willie McCay, who has the misfortune of being born into a family cursed with a generations-old blood feud with one of their neighbors. When his father is murdered by one of the men from the rival family (the Canfields), his mother, grief-stricken, moves herself and young Willie (played as a baby by Buster Keaton’s own infant son) to her sister’s home in New York City. This will prove to operate as not an end to the violence but merely a brief sojourn, as the patriarch of the Canfield family vows revenge upon the McCays and all of their descendants.
When Willie, now an adult, returns to his small town to claim his inheritance of a small homestead (one that is considerably more ramshackle than he had imagined), all the chaos starts right back up again. There’s just one new complication: On the ride to town, Willie meets the beautiful Virginia (Natalie Talmadge) and quickly falls in love with her, only to realize that she is the only daughter of the man who has sworn to end his family line. And, as you might imagine from a Buster Keaton film, hijinks ensue.
The dynamic between Keaton and Talmadge is perfectly charming. She isn’t given a tremendous amount to do, but all of the sequences where he’s visiting her at her home, trying to evade her bloodthirsty father and brothers, are funny and sweet. Keaton, with his famously inexpressive face, may not have been an obvious choice as a romantic lead, but here as well as in many of his other films, he possesses a gentle, likable charisma that wins audiences over immediately. But aside from the romantic elements of Our Hospitality, the film’s main highlights are all tied into its many comedic set pieces.
There’s a clever bit of business that goes on with the train, as cars trade positions and the oblivious driver often fails to notice near calamities that transpire – this gives the film a sense of inertia before we’ve even gotten to the central narrative that feels pretty clearly intended to be a parody of the famous Hatfields and McCoys.
If there’s one moment that stands out above all others, it’s the extended chase sequence towards the end of the film, where Buster Keaton performs a jaw-dropping stunt swinging across a waterfall to rescue Virginia just before she falls over the edge. The waterfall may be man-made, built on the backlot of a Hollywood studio, but the danger is all real. Like many of Keaton’s stunts, it had to be extensively rehearsed and plotted out to reduce the risk of injury to the performers. And as we’ve come to expect from the famously athletic comedian, it demonstrates his utter fearlessness in the pursuit of a perfect cinematic moment.
Our Hospitality is not one of the more complex comedies of the 1920s – it’s on the short end of feature-length at just over one hour, and its plot is relatively simple. There’s certainly nothing in the romantic storyline that we haven’t seen before, although Keaton and Talmadge do a fine job of selling the budding relationship. But where Our Hospitality earns its reputation as one of the better silent comedies is its sheer inventiveness, the depth that Keaton builds into the film with its creatively plotted pratfalls. The amount of visual comedy and excitement packed into a relatively compact movie is staggering, giving audiences a fast-paced, thrilling experience (while also providing more than a few laughs along the way).