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5.0 out of 5 stars Buster Keaton's most consistently delightful feature, 4 May 2012
By 
Trevor Willsmer (London, England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Our Hospitality [Blu-ray] [1923] [US Import] (Blu-ray)
The trade ads screamed `More laughs than sprockets holes,' and for once with Buster Keaton's second feature, the magnificent Our Hospitality, they weren't over-selling it. The first of his `Southern trilogy' of epic comedies (followed by The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), it shows traces of his more morbid side in taking the murderous and tragic Hatfield-McCoy feud and relocating it from the Appalachians to Kentucky and coming out with a genuinely charming and delightful comedy that's also one of the plain nicest films ever made. The plot is simple but sturdy, with Buster the last survivor of a family wiped out by a petty feud no-one can remember the cause of. Returning to his birthplace after twenty years, he not only discovers that his inheritance is a broken down shack but that the girl he has fallen for is the daughter of the clan who killed his father - and they're eager to finish the job. And if that wasn't enough, he finds himself invited to dinner with them, unaware of their identity...

The story is so slight it's less a three act structure than a three sequence structure, yet the result is Keaton's most perfectly realised feature, with just enough story for the film to stand up but plenty of room for him to build prolonged comedy situations and milk them for all they're worth without ever seeming to break a sweat. The first section of the film boasts his most imaginative and sustained comic setpiece, the wonderfully picaresque train journey in the old Rocket locomotive and its 18th century-style carriages, Buster's faithful dog following and eventually overtaking the prototype loco as the `mighty iron beast' tears across the countryside, locals either assembling to watch it as if it were the most popular show in town or throwing stones at the driver in the hope that he'll throw firewood back at them. Hats, mules, tunnels, smoke and some very uneven tracks are also put into service in a succession of inventive and charming sight gags, while Gordon Jennings and Elgin Lessley's photography and Fred Gabourie's art direction gives the film an unforced visual charm to frame the comedy without overwhelming it.

It's the standout sequence, but the film has plenty more to enjoy, whether it's Buster trying to escape from his hosts while all too aware that they'll shoot him the moment he leaves the front door (southern hospitality prevents them from shooting him while a guest in their home), a chase that sees him tied to a man who is trying to shoot him, a defiantly politically incorrect joke involving a wifebeater and a triumphantly exciting waterfall rescue that still impresses even if you know how it was done. Throughout Keaton abandons some of the more surreal visual touches of his earlier shorts or his later Sherlock Jr. to stand back and let the story and jokes flow naturally, but he still takes the opportunity to throw in a few neat moments of visual trickery like a cunningly disguised horse. Even simple moments like Buster riding a vintage bicycle raise a smile in a film that's just a joy to watch.

Kino's region-free Blu-ray edition is quite superb, offering a fine looking print (the titles and captions show plenty of unrestored wear but the scenes themselves look very good) with a gentle and sympathetic score by Carl Davis that understands and compliments the film perfectly, as well as offering an alternative score by Donald Hunsberger. They've also done an exceptional job with the extras, including an alternate 49-minute version of the film under Keaton's preferred title Hospitality that removes whole comic setpieces like the fishing hole sequence, turns the prologue into a flashback and removes much of the comic business to concentrate on the story. Unearthed in 2008, there's still some mystery as to whether it's a workprint - the most popular theory being that Keaton wanted to be certain the dramatic story worked before embellishing the comedy - or was ever released anywhere. It's in quite terrible condition, with the nitrate severely deteriorated in several places and the picture quality very poor elsewhere, though intriguingly the image often includes additional visual information in the same takes that's not to be found in the restored version, so clearly predates it.

Along with a couple of stills galleries there's an excellent half hour documentary by Patricia Eliot Tobias on the making of the film that looks at the historical background to the story as well as the making of the film and its importance in his evolution as a filmmaker. Also included is the short film The Iron Mule that's a testimony to his loyalty to his friends. Starring his former co-star Al St. John and directed by an uncredited and still blacklisted Roscoe `Fatty' Arbuckle, Keaton's mentor, Keaton not only loaned the train from Our Hospitality - looking very beaten up barely a year-and-a-half later - but also co-financed the film and makes an uncredited supporting appearance as an Indian chief. All-in-all a superb edition of a thoroughly delightful film.
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Our Hospitality [Blu-ray] [1923] [US Import]
Our Hospitality [Blu-ray] [1923] [US Import] by Buster Keaton (Blu-ray - 2011)
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