Buster Keaton was destined for the silver screen before moving pictures were even born. As the story goes, an 18-month-old (or was that six-month-old?) Keaton took a tumble down a flight of stairs and didn’t make a sound. “That’s some Buster,” Harry Houdini said (or was it George Pardey?), and the name stuck. Yes, the story is likely apocryphal — the best ones always are — but it’s a pretty good origin story for one of the cinema’s greatest talents.
Keaton’s other nickname, “The Great Stone Face,” would follow throughout his early vaudeville career and into the movies. Born Joseph Frank Keaton VI, Oct. 4, 1895, in Piqua, Kansas, Keaton fell quickly into the family business: a knockabout comedy act. One of their showstoppers involved Pops Keaton throwing his son around the stage without a peep from the young Keaton. They were a hit, but Pops was a drinker, and by the time Keaton turned 22, the drinking became a real threat to the act and Keaton’s safety.
Keaton turned to movies, first as Fatty Arbuckle’s foil, then as the star of his own shorts. Roles in cinema were a lot more fluid back then, and Keaton had a hand in every aspect of moviemaking, except securing financing or ensuring payment — which would bite him in the behind down the road. But, for eight years in the 1920s, Keaton enjoyed a prolific string of successes, artistically and commercially, and created an oeuvre of shorts and features that are among the cinemas greatest.
Among them was his second feature-length film, Our Hospitality from 1923; a movie that never truly disappeared but was frequently dismissed due to the poor quality of prints and transfers available.
As it is with all silent works, Our Hospitality fell in the public domain and was cheaply reproduced en masse. Images were muddy, frames were missing, and the projection speed was off. Some of Keaton’s others: The General (1926) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) were deemed his true masterpieces, restored, and circulated at the expense of others.
Thankfully, Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films in France has taken a fanatical approach to silent film restoration. Keaton is one of his charges, and the work Lobster Films has done to return Keaton to his proper form is magnificent. And with Our Hospitality’s new 2K restoration — now on home video thanks to Kino Lorber — there’s no better time to rediscover the mastery of Buster Keaton.
Our Hospitality opens with a surprising six-minute prologue showcasing neither Keaton’s face nor an ounce of humor. Instead, we are treated to dramatics: Two families are feuding: the Canfields and the McKays. One side challenges the other, and a midnight duel leaves a child without a father.
Jump ahead 20 years, and that child, Willie McKay (Keaton) is grown and heads west to reclaim his inheritance. On the train ride, he meets and falls in love with Virginia (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s then-wife), only to discover she is a Canfield when he is invited over. Virginia’s brothers and father find out and vow to kill Willie. But Southern Hospitality decrees they cannot kill him in their home. Instead, they must find a way to get Willie outside to do the deed. But Willie knows the score, which sets up a cat and mouse game of the Canfields trying to get Willie, and Willie trying to stay out of harm’s way.
Adroitly constructed, Our Hospitality maintains kineticism thanks to Keaton’s ability to build minor gags into massive set pieces. Take Willie’s entrance: decked in period clothes and an oversized top hat, he doesn’t quite look like the Buster Keaton we’d expect. Enter Stephenson’s Rocket train, a hilarious mishmash of stagecoach and train that Keaton knew he needed for his movie once he saw a replica in action. Even better, the roof of the carriage is too short for Keaton’s top hat, particularly when the train goes over a bump. So, Keaton switches from the period-appropriate top hat to his iconic pork pie, a perfect anachronism constructed with the precision of a watchmaker.
Our Hospitality’s climactic set-piece on the river/waterfall shares these hallmarks — and contains some of Keaton’s best stunt work. That alone is worth the price of Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray or DVD. The disc also includes a new scores from Robert Israel — and a 23-minute documentary about researching, composing, and recording the score — an introduction about the the restoration from Lobster Films’ Bromberg; a commentary track from Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith; and two short films: Un duel à Mort, starring Keaton, and The Iron Mule, starring longtime Keaton collaborator, Al St. John, and the Stephenson’s Rocket train.
Our Hospitality (1923)
Directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone
Screenplay by Jean C. Havez, Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell
Produced by Joseph M. Schenk
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Keaton
Blu-ray released October 15, 2019 from Kino Lorber. Running time 75 minutes. Silent with score by Robert Israel and performed by The Robert Israel Orchestra.