Finite Focus: Buster Keaton tries to relax (Our Hospitality)

Buster Keaton has always been famous for his daring stunts and his deadpan face. Rarely does he break expression as he tumbles down mountainsides, fights vicious storms or survives buildings crashing around him. One of his best stunts occurs near the end of his classic Our Hospitality – as his beloved floats uncontrollably towards a huge waterfall and certain death, he ties himself to an overhanging log and swings out to catch the falling body as it plummets over the edge of roaring water. It may only be a dummy that takes the plunge over the edge, but that’s Keaton arcing out like a pendulum to catch it while swallowing torrents of water. It’s a fantastic scene that provides an exciting climax and is possibly even more remarkable in its execution today than almost 90 years ago when he performed it. There’s no editing out of safety wires or harnesses here – just a basic knowledge of physics and a great deal of nerve.

As great as it is, though, my favourite moment in the film comes much earlier and shows off one of Keaton’s other comedic skills – his impeccable timing. Unaware of a long-standing family feud (similar to a Hatfield/McCoy battle), Willie Mckay returns to his family home for the first time in decades. There he meets a young woman who just happens to be a member of his family’s rivals and she invites him over to dinner. The menfolk of her family are, of course, aghast when he arrives, but since they are hospitable southern gentlemen, they would never kill him inside their house. So they wait until he must eventually leave. Willie realizes this and stalls his departure – which also gives him more time with his new girl.

As he watches her play the piano, he becomes aware of the baleful glares of his hopeful executioners. For a full 10 seconds, he tries to appear unfazed by looking for a natural relaxed mode, but continues to shift positions, trying folded arms then leaning against the wall then hands in pockets, but never quite doing any of them before changing his mind and trying something else. It’s a wonderful little piece of funny business that shows his awkwardness and nervousness at the situation – while never letting his expression change.

You can see that snippet from the scene below:

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Bob Turnbull
Guest

Andrew Sarris on Buster Keaton –> video essay. Contains the waterfall scene from “Our Hospitality”.

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

I’m becoming more and more of a Keaton aficionado the more of his films I see. I was doodling around on Flickchart the other day idly ranking movies and was a bit surprised to see Steamboat Bill Jr. crack my top 75 films of all time. Then I thought about it and realized that isn’t surprising at all. That movie is aces. Probably should go knock Sherlock Jr. up a bit, too.

I think I’ve seen Our Hospitality before, but it’s been a while. Looks like one to definitely revisit! I like that the girl isn’t even aware of his awkwardness.

Bob Turnbull
Guest

Yeah, I’ve still got a few more to catch up on – and I really should revisit Sherlock Jr. as that was one of the first I watched (which sent me down the path) and always has huge praise.

Sarris mentions in his video essay that Keaton rarely got the big laugh – it’s mostly true I suppose, but that clip from Our Hospitality made me laugh long and loud. There’s just something about how he sustains the awkwardness throughout and shifts from one possible position to another.

I love Chaplin and recently became quite enamored of Lloyd, but Keaton is my man.

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

I’ve just latched onto Lloyd this year, with screenings of Girl Shy, For Heaven’s Sake, and Why Worry all in close proximity in April. I’d already seen Safety Last, but that was it. I’m definitely hoping to catch more soon, but I’ve kind of gotten addicted to seeing silents in theatres, and they’re not the same at home, not even comedies.

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