• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:August 22, 2020

Our Hospitality: Family Feud

ourhospitalityThe Hatfield-McCoy feud has become legendary, even turning into a miniseries in 2012. Spanning several decades, the feud played out between members of two families in an area covering parts of West Virginia and Kentucky in the late 1800s. It was an ugly affair involving disputes over land and revenge; many people died in the conflict. Over a century later, it’s easy to look at the feud almost condescendingly and miss what must have been a tremendous tragedy.

But already in 1923, Buster Keaton could certainly see the humor in it and based his first great feature film comedy on the feud.

A conflict gets worse in 1810
The Canfields and the McKays have been feuding forever, and their conflict takes a turn for the worse one stormy evening in 1810. Jim Canfield and John McKay end up killing each other – and their loved ones have different reactions. Jim’s brother Joseph (Joe Roberts) swears to raise his sons hating the McKays above everything else; John’s wife takes their infant son Willie to New York City. After the death of his mother, Willie (Keaton) is raised by his aunt. After twenty years in the city, he receives a letter telling him that his father’s estate is now his.
This is when his aunt tells Willie about the Canfield-McKay feud. Willie is alarmed, but decides to leave for the place where he was born anyway. He gets on a southbound train where he meets Virginia (Natalie Talmadge), a pretty girl…

A great interest in history
The filmmakers, perhaps Buster Keaton in particular, showed a great interest in history. Early in the film, there’s a shot of Broadway and 42nd Street the way it looked in 1830, its rural scenery striking. A title card tells us that it’s a reconstruction inspired by an actual photograph from that era. The first major set piece of the film is the train ride down South and the train they’re using is a perfect, functioning replica of a locomotive called Stephenson’s Rocket, which was first built in 1829.

This passion of Keaton’s was obviously a precursor to The General (1927). The sequence is one of the film’s best, immensely charming for how it emphasizes the brittleness and precariousness of the early trains. It’s funny and playful, but with a few effective stunts as well. When Willie arrives in the community where he was born and is recognized by the Canfields, who immediately decide that he must be killed, there’s another hilarious sequence where he ends up being their houseguest and desperately tries to avoid falling victim to Joseph and his bloodthirsty sons. The final act of the film expertly picks up the pace again, with a series of scenes involving falling off a cliff, escaping on a train (that turns into a makeshift boat!) and finally rescuing himself and Virginia from plunging off a waterfall. That last adventure allegedly came close to killing Keaton, but considering his general attitude to stunts, what didn’t? In the end, it looked absolutely stunning on film and I suppose that’s the only thing that mattered to him.

Keaton surrounded himself with effective co-stars, including frequent collaborator Roberts, who suffered a stroke during filming and died afterwards, and Talmadge, who married Keaton and quit movies after this one.

One of the key themes is redemption, and the filmmakers illustrate it brilliantly, using a homemade sign reading “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself”, first in a darkly sarcastic way, then ultimately as a message of truth. It took the Hatfields and the McCoys a lot longer to learn that message. An official truce was called in 2003, to serve as an example “to the world”.

Our Hospitality 1923-U.S. Silent. 74 min. B/W. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Directed by Buster Keaton, Jack Blystone. Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell. Cast: Buster Keaton (Willie McKay), Natalie Talmadge (Virginia Canfield), Joe Keaton (The Engineer), Joe Roberts (Joseph Canfield).

Trivia: That’s Buster’s son as young Willie; his father Joe plays the Rocket’s engineer. Remade in India as Maryada Ramanna (2010).

Last word: “The second picture was really a big seller, called ‘Our Hospitality’ (1923) and there I used a story of a feud in the South, and placed the period in […] 1831 to take advantage of the first railroad train that had been built. That’s when they just took the stagecoaches and put flanged wheels on ’em. And they had those silly lookin’ engines – one called the Stephenson ‘Rocket’ and [one called] the ‘DeWitt Clinton’. And they’re naturally narrow-gauge, and they weren’t so fussy about layin’ railroad track [then] – if it was a little unlevel, they just ignored it. They laid it over fallen trees, over rocks [laugh]. So I got quite a few laughs ridin’ that railroad.” (Keaton, “Buster Keaton: Interviews”)



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