One of Buster Keaton's earliest feature length films, Our Hospitality, uses the conceit of the Southern family feud for its melodrama. At the outset, the Canfields and the McKays (an obvious play on Hatfields and McCoys) continue the family feud in 1810, and the heads of the latest generation kill each other in a rain-soaked duel. The surviving elder of the Canfields swears that his grandchildren will avenge their father when they grow up, so baby William McKay is sent off to live with relatives in New York City.
Jump ahead twenty years. William (Buster Keaton) is living contentedly in 1930 New York City, where 42nd and Broadway looks like rural farmland and where a policeman declares that an intersection is getting really dangerous when he has to stop Buster on a bicycle while a horse drawn cart passes. Its dry humor touches like this that provide much of the humor of the piece.
William returns to his Southern past for his inheritance, riding a flimsy railroad train. Coincidentally, he sits next to a beautiful young woman (Norma Talmadge--soon to become the real life Mrs. Buster Keaton), who happens to be a member of the Canfield clan returning home to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The stage is set to proceed as a romantic comedy of errors when the Canfields discover William's family identity. The predictable plot provides few surprises, so the main pleasures come through the details and delivery.
Keaton was a stickler for historical accuracy, even well before his classic Civil War period piece, The General. Here the train is modeled after the earliest DeWitt Clinton steam engine that had movable track and was extremely slow, shown visually here with the dog that follows the train all the way. Passengers are jostled, and faces are blackened along the way--humorous exaggerated touches, but representative of early passenger train travel in the 1830s. Additionally, take note of the costumes; Keaton insisted on making them representative of the times. The rural setting of New York City isn't merely inserted for its humorous qualities--Keaton points out that the city scene is based on an actual photograph.
When William's family identity is discovered, a cat-and-mouse game commences, and numerous chase scene gags abound, the best occurring during the river pursuit. Keaton swallowed so much water during the filming that he required first aid. Of course, the most famous stunt is the incredible waterfall rescue--a scene that you'll want to rewind a few times. Keaton is well known for performing his own stunts, and this certainly ranks as one of his most dangerous. (Reportedly he was injured during the stunt.) At least he didn't risk the life of his future wife; a dummy stands in for her.
Once again Keaton's physical acting highlights Our Hospitality, and he demonstrates his directing skills with a great sense of pacing and timing. You will see this film listed as either his first or second feature film (since The Three Ages was loosely constructed, designed to show as three shorts if it wasn't well received as a feature).
If you're already a Keaton fan, you've probably already seen this one and will watch it a few more times. If you haven't already discovered Keaton's talents, this 1923 film provides a good introduction to his work. Don't expect Keaton's film to provide great insights or change your life, but it's certainly an entertaining way to spend sixty-five minutes--and we can't say that about most modern comedies.