I didn’t actually watch Our Hospitality intentionally, at least not at first. I hadn’t even been aware of this 1923 Buster Keaton film (directed by Keaton himself with John G. Blystone) until I was about 20 minutes into it. This is, I’ll grant, a bit of an odd situation for movie viewing, but it’s simple enough. I had intended to watch Sherlock Jr., one of Keaton’s more acclaimed films that I’d been wanting to see for some time. But when I selected it, the streaming service I was using had it as the second feature following Our Hospitality; this wasn’t mentioned on the Sherlock Jr. icon, and I was looking away from the screen at the time the title card came up. So it took a little while before I realized that what I was watching wasn’t merely different from what I expected from Sherlock Jr. but was rather a different film altogether.
And so instead of a relatively short feature, I wound up watching a moderately long Buster Keaton double feature. Well, there are certainly worse ways to spend an evening, and worse films to stumble onto accidentally than Our Hospitality.
Our Hospitality is set in the late 1800s and is inspired by the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. In this story, the feuding families are the Canfields and the McKays. Buster Keaton plays Willie McKay, the last of his line, who has been raised in New York City away from his ancestral home and in ignorance of the feud. But when he comes to maturity, the executor of his father’s estate contacts him and Willie heads for his inherited lands — where the Canfields are shocked to learn their feud is not yet over. Of course, there’s an inevitable hitch in that Willie unwittingly shares the train ride home with the youngest Canfield, an attractive and friendly young woman (played by Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s wife).
Family reunions are difficult enough without people trying to kill each other. Then again, in some parts that’s an accepted part of the tradition.
The film runs for a little more than an hour and not all of that time is full of excitement or laughs. A great deal of it is spent on the train ride home for Willie and Miss Canfield, and it’s a segment that perhaps runs a bit too long. However, it does have a fair amount of mild humor of its own, and is notable as an example of how Keaton wasn’t afraid to let somebody else be the one to get the laugh. Most of the gags during this section come at the hands of his father, Joe Keaton, who plays the hapless engineer on a train that barely seems designed to run on the rails and rails that barely seem designed with an awareness that a train is to be run on them. While it isn’t a laugh-out-loud segment, it is successful at providing some mild constant humor through what could have been a dry section.
Jumping the tracks might actually be an improvement.
Where things really heat up though is in the second half, when Willie finds himself invited to supper at the Canfield estate before either he or his would-be love interest have figured out each other’s full name. Joe Roberts, who often played the heavy in Keaton’s films, plays the Canfield patriarch with suitable menace, and the Canfield sons make for good Southern dandy assassins. While the train sequence provided only the occasional laugh, it’s difficult to stop laughing once the Canfields start trying to kill Willie. There are clever gags almost non-stop, with the only breathers coming when it’s time to change the playing field to provide new opportunities for gags.
So although Our Hospitality may start off slow, it’s still a very worthwhile film for Keaton fans (or those who are interested in becoming Keaton fans) to check out. There’s moderate entertainment to be had early on, and then there’s some heavy laughter to be had once the main event begins.