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.