(1923) dir. John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton
viewed: 02/14/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
There was a special winter Valentine’s Day Silent Film Festival at the Castro and I made the most of it. Three films was a bit of an endurance run, especially with a lot of outward travel wrapped around it, but the opportunity to take the kids to see Buster Keaton on the big screen was just plain not to be missed. Unfortunately Felix had a conflict, having to do some karate testing to earn a stripe for his belt, but Clara was availble and the family from upstairs, both girls and their folks, plus my ex-in-laws, come from England for a visit, we had quite the little crowd for the event.
It was quite something, lots of young kids and families and people. I mean, it’s Buster Keaton! He’s the man. The most amazing and wonderful silent film comedian/writer/director/actor/auteur. And, you know what? Fun was had by ALL! I mean it. Coming out of the film at the end, the joy and smiles on everyone’s faces were as fresh and pure as one could imagine, the true and genuine response to such masterful, wonderful, fantastic stuff.
And this is not even Keaton’s best!
Our Hospitality is the first of Keaton’s feature films to be created and conceived as a feature film, the story of a dilletantish fellow from the North, who inherits a family estate (such as it is) and a historical feud (of the Hatfield and McCoy variety) that had pushed his widowed mother from the South in the first place. It’s also the setting for a Romeo and Juliet-like romance between Keaton and “the girl” that he meets on the “train”-ride down, who happens to be the descendent of the opposing family.
The main story takes place in that Keaton ends up in the warring family’s house as a guest of the girl, but the family has sworn to kill him to settle the blood feud…only they can’t shoot him, out of Southern hospitality while he is a guest in their house. They just need to wait for him to go outside. Thus is the setting for many of the gags, with Keaton finally aware of his predicament and trying to stay indoors.
The two main other sequences that are the prime pieces of the film are the train ride down in the very old fashioned train and the amazing waterfall rescue that sets the finale. The old fashioned train is a working model of Stephenson’s Rocket, a hilarious steam-driven train that is far closer to the carriages of the Old West than a proper train, a true missing link in the evolution of transit. The discomfort of traveling by this means and the rickety qualities of the train are the setting for a series of a number of gags, exacerbated by the tracks built for the job, making ride more twisty and bumpy than necessary. And it does sort of lead the way for the work that will be one of his true masterpieces, The General (1927).
But the totally amazing stunt, the waterfall rescue at the end, is just one of those great cinematic moments. Clara was sitting on my lap so that I could whisper the intertitles to her, and when Keaton swoops over, tied to a rope and snags the girl from the boat just as it is about to go over the waterfall, is just pure physical genius. Clara sponaneously started clapping and cheering the stunt, the heroics, the wonder. It was awesome in the most pure and wonderful ways.
Keaton is a true cinema god. Wonderful beyond words.