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VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER'S LODGE: OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

Video
by Jim Beaver
July 18, 2012 8:55 AM
10 Comments
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This is the second installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a weekly series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

A guest at a screening of this masterpiece at my home recently literally leaped out of her seat upon seeing the final, transcendentally beautiful stunt executed by Buster Keaton. I've never seen anyone do that except at a horror movie. Our Hospitality is a comedy, without an ounce of horror element. Yet it has heart-stopping thrills, made all the more heart-stopping by the knowledge that it was Keaton himself risking his neck in stunts that no star until the Keaton-inspired Jackie Chan would approach, seventy years later.

The title Our Hospitality refers to a peculiar brand of rural courtesy that says one can't murder a guest INSIDE one's home. The Hatfield-McCoy feud of legend is the inspiration for this story of a young man (Keaton) coming home to claim his inheritance, unaware of the feud between his family and another that will lead anyone in the other family to try to kill him on sight. Invited by fluke into the Canfield family residence, young Joseph McKay (Keaton) learns of the feud and realizes his only safety lies in never leaving. This is the setting for the central comedic sequence of the film, in which the Canfield family is constantly on the ready to shoot him whenever he gets anywhere near an exit door. It's pretty amazing how many brilliant comic variations Keaton is able to play out with the situation.

The earlier portion of the film is wonderful in its own right, both for the masterful comedy of which Keaton was unmatched at creating and for the wonderfully amusing look at 1830, the period in which the film is set. Manhattan's Broadway and 42nd Street intersection is not much more than a pasture, yet people are already complaining about the traffic. Keaton, who in real life was a railroad buff, recreated the first locomotive for this film, and it is both historically fascinating and wildly funny to watch his trip across country on rails that can be moved out of the way to avoid obstacles and which aren't always even necessary for the train's progress.

The final third of the film is a thrill-seeker's paradise. On the run from his enemies, Keaton finds himself adrift in a cascading river along with the girl he loves (the daughter of the enemy Canfield clan). Keaton's attempts to save himself and then his girl from the spectacular waterfall toward which they race is one of the great comedic stunt sequences of all cinema.

It's difficult for me to pick my favorite Buster Keaton film, but this is usually the one I show to people I want to convert to Keaton idolatry. I've never known it to fail. The word classic gets thrown around a lot—maybe not as much as the dreaded awesome, but far too frequently, nonetheless. But this is a genuine comedy classic. It's awesome.


 

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10 Comments

  • Julia Walter | December 22, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    Thank you for this! By the way, that wooden bicycle he rides in the beginning of the movie he donated to the Smithsonian, because he had it made from a picture of the bicycle and they didn't have one. And besides the stunts this is a genuinely funny movie.

  • Leigh Ann Wallace | August 2, 2012 10:50 PMReply

    Okay, instead of awesome I'm going to go for breathtaking, stupendous, remarkable, amazing -- those stunts were REAL? Holy cats! And I loved that whole scene with the guys shooting at him in the field and just missing him -- the way he kept raising his head to look around him, trying to figure out what was going on, that was fun. So much said with so little!

  • GlissyVega | July 20, 2012 12:14 AMReply

    I'm really glad you are doing this; I love everything you do. Thanks for share one part of your life that you like so much. xoxo

  • Di Roach | July 19, 2012 3:00 PMReply

    I discovered Buster by accident when I was 14 and picked up a DVD of "College" off the $1 rack on a whim. I've loved him ever since. Thank you for your wonderful essay, Jim! I enjoy your insights on the classics!

  • jim emerson | July 18, 2012 8:28 PMReply

    Beautifully done! I go back and forth between "Our Hospitality" and "Sherlock Jr." (and maybe "Steamboat Bill Jr.") as my favorite Keaton. That reminds me: In "Project A Part II" Jackie Chan did an amazing variation on the famous falling housefront from the short "One Week" (if I remember correctly) and "Steamboat Bill Jr." Love what you did with the Press Play logos at the beginning and ending, too.

  • RackOnInNC | July 18, 2012 7:30 PMReply

    Thanks so much for this Jim. I really enjoy reading and hearing your thoughts on these wonderful old gems. The stunts definitely are breathtaking...this from someone who tends to watch Supernatural frame by frame in fight scenes to see if I can catch the stunts guys' faces (and I do quite frequently!)

  • Shelley Callahan | July 18, 2012 7:10 PMReply

    The first time I saw Keaton, I was 15, and my uncle had taken me to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Keaton's 'Young Sherlock Holmes' was shown as a short before it. I liked it better than the Monty Python.

  • Maria | July 18, 2012 4:15 PMReply

    Stunts of those days are so impressive! Today they CGI actor's faces over stunt people's, they ware safety wires and remove them digitally. Loving these episodes, Jim!

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | July 18, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    My favorite part of this piece is Jim's appreciation of Keaton doing his own stunts, and the physical reality of this film, all Keaton's films and old movies in general. This was also a theme in Jim's first Press Play video on "Emperor of the North Pole." CGI really has affected that aspect of audience response. Everything feels more abstract now. There's no danger, only "danger."

  • Jed | July 18, 2012 12:00 PMReply

    I look fondly upon the time when I first discovered Keaton's films. For me, "The General" was the first of his work I viewed and the experience of utter joy is still unmatched by any trip to the cinema. Just as Jim explains, "Our Hospitality" is filled with great humor and breathtaking stunt work. And as he mentioned, the viewers disbelief is furthered by knowing that Keaton did every insanely dangerous stunt himself. The shot with him floating down the river was actually the most dangerous and nearly cost him his life. The safety line he was attached to broke and sent him hurling down the rapids, engulfing drowning levels of water as he went. But Keaton's cameramen were instructed to never cut until he said cut - the resulting shot plays in the film, and was almost a record of his death.

    This series is classically awesome and I can't wait to see the upcoming videos. Thank you Jim and Press Play!

    Jed

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