For the ninth year, Lea at Silent-ology is hosting the Buster Keaton Blogathon. You can click the image above to go to the full list of participants. I didn’t participate for the last two years, owing to how lockdown wrecked my mental health, so I’m very glad to finally start doing it again. This year, my subject is Buster’s brilliant 1923 film Our Hospitality.
Premièring 9 November 1923 and going into general release on 19 November 1923, Our Hospitality (originally titled just Hospitality) was Buster’s second feature-length film. It was a huge financial success, selling out at many theatres and earning $537,844 ($9,409,753 in 2023). Most critics absolutely loved it, an appraisal which continues to this day.
Our Hospitality has been remade many times in 21st century India.
Though the story is rather obviously based on the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud, which began in 1863–64 and picked back up from 1878–91, Our Hospitality begins in 1810 and is set primarily in 1830. Buster changed the historical era because he loved trains so much and wanted to feature this mode of transportation in its very infancy.
Artistic director Fred Grabourne built full-sized, fully-functional train replicas that were accurate down to the very last minuscule detail. Buster decided to use the 1829 Stephenson’s Rocket because he thought it was funnier-looking than the 1831 DeWitt Clinton engine.
Some of the train scenes were filmed in Truckee, California and Cottage Grove, Oregon. Cottage Grove was later to become one of the primary filming locations for The General. Truckee was given a makeover to look like Shenandoah Valley in the 1830s. During filming breaks, Buster and his co-workers (both cast and crew) frequently went fishing in the Truckee River.
Replica of the DeWitt Clinton built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition
Contemporary drawing of Stephenson’s Rocket
In addition to the authentic antique train, Buster also made use of a dandy horse, a bicycle precursor which was most popular in 1816. By the 1830s, it had long since fallen out of fashion.
Joe Roberts, who plays Joseph Canfield, had an on-set stroke during filming. Though he soon returned from a Reno hospital to finish the job, he sadly died of a second stroke a few months later.
Another near-disaster happened when Buster, who refused to use stunt doubles, almost drownt in the Truckee River when his restraining wire snapped and he was swept into the rocky rapids. Ten minutes later, he was finally found face-down and immobile on a riverbank. After he recovered, he decided to film the rest of that scene on a movie set in L.A. instead of a real river.
Buster used miniature scenery for another dangerous stunt where he swings from a rope into a waterfall, also done on a movie set.
Three generations of Keatons appear together in Our Hospitality. Besides Buster, we also see his father, Joseph Keaton, who appeared in many of his films, as a grumpy train engineer. Buster’s 14-month-old son Joseph plays Willie McKay in the 1810 prologue, though he had to be taken off the set when the bright filming lights irritated his eyes.
Last but not least, Buster’s first wife, Natalie Talmadge, plays Virginia Canfield, the leading lady. Since she was pregnant with their second child, Robert, at the time, she had to be filmed in such a way as to conceal her condition as it became more prominent.
Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!
In 1810, John McKay is the last of his line. The last, that is, except his baby boy. He’s terrified because he heard Jim Canfield is in town, and their families have been feuding for generations.
In the Canfield home, Joseph tries to convince his fiery brother Jim to drop the feud already, but Jim says he came a long way to kill John McKay, and he’s bound and determined to do it tonight.
After the unthinkable happens, the Canfields vow to continue the feud, and Mrs. McKay sends her son Willie to her sister’s family in NYC.
Twenty years later, Willie has grown up to be quite the dandy, in a city far more rural and sparsely-populated than we think of it as. His familiar life is disrupted when he gets a letter asking him to come to Rockville to claim his late father’s property.
Before he leaves, his aunt tells him the story of the feud and makes him promise not to go near the Canfields.
But as it would so happen, also en route to Rockville is Virginia, whom Willie doesn’t yet know is a Canfield. While riding together in one of the bumpy carriages attached to the train, they start getting friendlier and friendlier.
Troubles encountered along the way include a donkey and cows wandering onto the tracks, wheels coming uncoupled, running over a big log, coke soot getting on everyone’s faces in a tunnel, and getting on the wrong track.
When they arrive after this very eventful journey, Willie makes the mistake of asking one of Virginia’s brothers where the McKay estate is. When asked why he wants to go there, Willie identifies himself as John McKay’s son. The brother then goes to buy a pistol.
While the Canfield men are busy at their pistol cabinet at home, Virginia invites Willie to supper.
Willie is very disappointed and stunned to discover the McKay estate is nothing more than a falling-apart shack.
Unfortunately, one of the running gags is more than just dated. Willie twice encounters a man choking and beating his wife, and he naturally intervenes. The wife gets really angry at him for interfering in their business. It makes me so uncomfortable to see domestic violence depicted like this, though I know Buster was only trying to be funny in the context of that era. Today we understand so much more about domestic violence.
The Canfields constantly try and fail to shoot Willie, though only outside. Mr. Canfield forbids his sons to commit any murders in the house, since it’s against the Southern code of hospitality. As long as Willie’s inside, he’s safe, but all bets are off the second he steps out the door.
Willie is on-edge the entire supper, and prolongs leaving as long as possible by shaking everyone’s hand multiple times, pretending his hat is missing, and playing with the dog.
He gets a reprieve when a parson who was also a guest opens the door to a huge rainstorm. Since it’s too dangerous for anyone to go outside, Willie quickly reaches outside for his suitcase and decides to spend the night.
The next day, Willie again prolongs his departure as long as possible, and finally escapes by cross-dressing. The Canfields, though, know it’s really him, and go on a murderous search for him at the train station and through the fields and woods.
The chase leads to a steep, dangerous cliff which Willie can’t find a way off of until one of the brothers throws down a rope to get a better shot. They both fall into the river below, and thus begins another desperate escape.
Willie thinks he’s finally safe when he commanders a train, but all bets are off when his car derails and sends him back into the perilous river. Now he has the difficult task of finding a way to safety, rescuing Virginia when she goes to look for him, and escaping the Canfields alive.
6 thoughts on “A funny, ferocious feud of the 1830s, Buster-style”
Didn’t know he nearly drowned. Smart to finish filming elsewhere and not in an unpredictable river.
I adore the simple elegance of this film.
Glad to have you back after the past couple years, Carrie-Anne! Thanks for covering this classic so thoroughly for the blogathon, I think it’s one of Buster’s best aside from The General. (And yes, isn’t it annoying when public domain images have those dumb watermarks? Ha ha)
In case you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve won the drawing for the copy of Doughboys! Feel free to contact me on Silent-ology’s “About” page so we can exchange emails. 🙂
Welcome back to the blogathon. I am both a Buster fan and a railfan, so Our Hospitality is a favorite. The domestic violence “gag” is troubling, but I have seen it in other movies so it must have been a standard.