Our Hospitality (1923) was Buster Keaton‘s first true feature film. Keaton’s previous “feature,” Three Ages (1923) was actually three short films assembled together. There was both an artistic and a commercial reason for this: Three Ages was a parody of the similarly structured D.W. Griffith feature Intolerance (1916). Additionally, Keaton had proved his audience appeal in shorts. Metro Pictures realized the inherent risk of a Keaton feature, and the structure of Three Ages created the option of breaking it down into three shorts. Fortunately for all concerned, Three Ages was a commercial and critical success.
Our Hospitality may be seen, in retrospect, as a model for Keaton’s features and a precursor to The General (1926). What separates Keaton from his peers (Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon) is the way his character integrates into a larger narrative. That is not to say that Keaton’s films are not character driven, but the character serves the narrative, not vice versa.
Our Hospitality opens with a prologue of the ongoing feud between the Canfields and the McKays. A young Canfield and the McKay patriarch are killed in a rainy shoot out at night. To avoid the curse of the feud and further bloodshed, the McKay widow takes her infant son, Willie, and sends him north to New York. Meanwhile, the Canfields swear revenge.
Twenty years later, Willie (Keaton) is the personification of a 19th century New York Yankee, adorned in a dandified suit. His mother has since passed away when Willie learns he has inherited his father’s estate. Imagining a southern mansion waiting in the wings, Willie hops onto the next train like a salmon returning to its birthplace. Before departing, he is warned by his guardian to stay clear of the Canfields.
The trip south foreshadows the archaic world Willie is about to enter. The train itself is primitive and, naturally, encounters numerous mishaps along the way. Luckily for Willie, the ordeal is made bearable because his fellow passenger is a pretty girl (Natalie Talmadge, the first Mrs. Keaton). Unfortunately, Willie’s spawning choice here, unknown to him, is a Canfield daughter.
There are numerous aquatic metaphors. Willie stands apart from his fellows, like a fish out of water, with city clicker suit and queer umbrella. While fishing, he catches a minnow, throws it back, and then gets pulled into the water by a bigger fish. Willie’s mansion turns out to be a dilapidated shack and he unwittingly finds himself in the home of his sworn enemies. True to Southern hospitality, the Canfields vow not kill Willie while he is a guest in their home. When Willie learns of this, he naturally tries to remain a permanent houseguest. Almost forced out, Willie is saved from leaving by the sudden appearance of a heavy downpour. A dam blows up, nearly drowning Willie, but it also safely conceals Willie from his predators, the Canfield boys. In a reversal of the fishing line, Willie is tied, by rope, to a Canfield son. Both get hauled into the water. A descent into the rapids brings further peril, as does a waterfall. Willie dangles over the waterfall like that salmon on a line. Yet, it is the waterfall which unites Willie with his girl, allowing him to spawn.
Our Hospitality is replete with inventive sight gags (a tunnel is cut to fit the train, a horse’s rear-end is disguised as Willie in drag), but it’s really a sophisticated, yet simple retelling of the Romeo and Juliet narrative.