It’s intriguing how during the 1920s, Buster Keaton’s features tended to be seen as less dramatic than Chaplin’s. I recall one critic of the period claiming Keaton (and Harold Lloyd) “openly tickle” the audience while only Chaplin was interested in providing an emotional experience.
That sentiment is total nonsense when you think about Our Hospitality. Only Keaton’s second feature film, it represents a major evolution in his storytelling. Three Ages was episodic, essentially three shorts strung together. In contrast, Our Hospitality is a fully developed narrative with dramatic stakes that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock movie.
Strangely, it makes me think of Chaplin’s The Kid—not in terms of tone, as the two movies are nothing alike, but in terms of the way it blends comedy with other genres. The Kid features heavy melodrama that induces more tears than laughter for me. Our Hospitality keeps me on the edge of my seat from the sheer suspense.
This mood comes on strong from the first scene. For those who think Keaton is only a “tickler,” this opening can be shocking, since there is no humor in it at all, not even a twinkle of irony. During a stormy night, two men locked in a generations-spanning feud shoot one another dead. Their families grieve both their lost loved ones and the sad fact that these killings will only extend the vengeance into perpetuity.
Keaton’s plucky, modest persona isn’t a relief from the tension. It makes the audience fear more for his life when he’s cornered by the physically imposing, revenge-obsessed Canfield family. The feud is no laughing matter and the movie makes it clear that Buster isn’t going to be able to walk off a bullet in this storyverse. If he gets shot, he’s dead. Movie over.
It’s amazing how the movie juggles so many tones. It’s got humor and suspense, which as we’ve seen in other films often do go hand in hand, but there is also a gentle whimsy augmenting these elements. The prolonged train scene offers more than gags about how quaint and rural America used to be before mass industrialization—it also provides the sense that the refined Willie McKay is moving to unfamiliar territory where his guilelessness will be a liability.
In the end, love wins the day. Willie outwits his would-be killers (attacking them back seems to be only a last resort judging by that last gag), rescues the girl, and makes peace with the Canfields. In a great many stories, the hero has to beat up, kill, or even just humiliate the villain. I’m not saying that’s an unacceptable approach, but it is always refreshing to see a story where reconciliation is the answer. That might be why I go back to Our Hospitality so often. Its gentleness is all the more appealing in a landscape where so many film “comedies” rely on vulgarity and mean-spiritedness to entertain the audience.