by Samuel Wilson
Buster Keaton grew up on trains. Travelling from town to town with his vaudevillian parents as The Three Keatons, Buster might have been expected to take trains for granted, but his movies demonstrate a continuing sense of wonder about them. While his ultimate train movie, The General, is a fantasy of power and destruction, in his earlier Our Hospitality a train figures in the young hero’s rite of passage. The film, co-directed by Keaton with John G. Blystone, is a mock epic that slowly and slyly reveals its parodic character, opening with a deadly earnest prologue explaining the feud of the Canfields and the McCays. The little tale of mutual murder in a rainstorm, the darkness illuminated by lightning and gunshots, with a third man’s good intentions curdling into vendetta and a new widow recoiling in sheer terror from a new corpse, is genuinely horrific. The intertitle narrative retains the prologue’s portentous tone even as Keaton’s imagery undermines it. His resort to a footnote claiming that a forthcoming vision of 42nd Street and Broadway circa 1830 as a barren hinterland derives from “an old print” is a jab at D. W. Griffith and others who asserted authenticity in that pedantic fashion. Throughout the funniest section of the picture, Keaton exaggerates the primitive state of the country and its youthful feebleness that makes 1830 America an analogue for his character, a McKay scion raised in safety far from the feud yet returning to the kill zone to claim an inheritance – and vice versa.
Our Hospitality’s train is one of cinema’s great special effects. Watching this rickety collection of linked coaches wind its way through the wilderness of New Jersey, you keep anticipating the moment when it’ll be revealed as an ingenious product of stop-motion animation. Yet it’s real and it works, and you can always see live people riding the thing. This train is a poor thing. A disgruntled hobo can stop it in its tracks by grabbing it with one hand and bracing himself. Buster’s dog can easily keep up with it the entire way. It’s liable at any moment to roll off its tracks and become a proto-automobile, to everyone’s dismay. Yet it remains a wonder of the world, truly the “iron monster” of the intertitles’ imagination to the people of its time. In a great deadpan shot, the denizens of a hinterland even more barren than Manhattan slowly gather by the tracks as the train slowly passes by, and then slowly trudge back to their glum occupations. And the train is beautiful to behold in all its intricate flimsiness. Our Hospitality will go on to be a kind of on-location imitation of Harold Lloyd’s thrill pictures, substituting cliffs and waterfalls for skyscrapers, but we could just as happily stayed on that train the whole 74 minutes.
Maybe that’s the point, though: finally you have to get off that train and take root someplace. For Willie McKay the train is a kind of midwife taking him away from his childhood and a kind of umbilical cord linking him to his coddled upbringing. The contradiction resolves itself in a manner that was probably unconsciously symbolic for the unpretentious Keaton. When he realizes he can no longer stall the reckoning the Canfields have in store for him by staying in their house (courting the daughter he met on the train, played by Mrs. Keaton, Natalie Talmadge) and exploiting “our hospitality,” Willie makes a desperate dash for the train, buy can’t get out of town that way. Pursued to the falls by one of the Canfield sons, Willie ends up tethered to him by a rope. The rope figures in the film’s most famous sight gag when Willie, trying to dodge gunshots above, tugs the rope to send Canfield plummeting and pauses one long moment before realizing how physics has doomed him to go plummeting too. Both men survive and remain tethered, the chase resuming until, in an example of what the critic Walter Kerr called the “Keaton curve,” the train catches up to Willie and severs the rope linking him to a fatal past. Now Willie can use his end of the rope to perform incredible stunts to rescue the Canfield girl and win her for himself. He is a man at last, and as he comes of age the country transcends its feuding history, its contending bloodlines merging. Yes, there was a Civil War to come, but that’s another movie.
Wikipedia informs us that Our Hospitality has been remade three times in India, in three different languages, in the last three years. Wherever there are feuds and hospitality traditions, the story will remain fresh and relevant. All these Indian films seem to be contemporary stories, denying themselves the opportunity to play with history as Keaton did. That extra dimension helps make the Keaton film a comedy classic that continues to resonate now that it’s as old today as its imagined past was then.
How Our Hospitality made the Top 100: