Archive for Our Hospitality

A Horse of a Different Colour

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on April 14, 2012 by dcairns

I found another short directed by Buster Keaton at MGM (the first can be seen HERE). The little musicals he made are quite nice — in another universe one can imagine him working his way up the ranks as a jobbing director rather than as a jobbing actor, after the decline of his Hollywood stardom.

Of course, this lightweight thing doesn’t compare to the shorts he co-directed in the silent era, and it’s not quite as good as its companion film, STREAMLINED SWING, but it’s charming enough. The racial jokes aren’t too offensive (there are worse in SEVEN CHANCES and COLLEGE, and in the title of this post) and the Hollywood cameos are diverting — the best being Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards early on, the most evocative being Oliver Hardy. But “Babe” is part of a montage of stars captured in off-the-cuff, verité fashion, at the racetrack, maybe not even by Buster.

I’m also tickled to see Buster using the character name “Canfield” again. He’d used it as his character name in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR , and as the rival feuding family’s name in OUR HOSPITALITY. This third occurrence clinches SOMETHING — either the name had some personal significance for Buster, or it was just a lucky name, like Billy Wilder’s “Sheldrake”. Whatever the secret, the name’s inclusion strongly suggests that Buster not only directed but wrote or co-wrote, uncredited, this little item.

The Sunday Intertitle: Moral Turpin-tude

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2011 by dcairns

The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees, 
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, 
The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor, 
And the highwayman came riding– 
Riding–riding– 
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door. 

Tom Mix as Dick Turpin? Some instinctive urge for variety must have goaded William Fox (the lifesblood of El Brendel not yet coursing through his arteries) — Mix was a great cowboy star, but could he not play other roles? As long as there was a supporting role for  Tony the Wonder Horse.

With its cartoon character names — Lord Churlston and Squire Crabtree are churlish and crabby as you might expect — this movie really shows how childish Hollywood was prepared to be. Perhaps only nostalgia makes it appealing, because I’d have no time for a modern movie as stupid as this. Turpin is rewritten as a Robin Hood figure (he even has Alan Hale, longterm Little John to various Robins, as sidekick), which outdoes the romanticism of his popular fiction appearances to date: the real guy was a murderer and thief with no redemptive charitable impulses: they hanged him in York.

As is so often the case with Fox productions, the sets are impressive (and the film impossible to see in a good condition print), and the crowd scenes reputedly feature Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard boosting the numbers, but good luck spotting either of them. At least Bull Montana is clearly visible as a prize fighter.

“That sounds like something out of Blackadder!” observed Fiona.

Director John G. Blystone finished his days directing Laurel & Hardy — probably regarded as a step down from this in industry terms, but I can think of worse fates. At least his immortality is assured. Outside of the highwayman genre, comedy was very much his bag, and he was Buster Keaton’s collaborator on OUR HOSPITALITY. The film of his I most want to see is THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924), no relation to the Vincent Price version of I Am Legend — this is that rare bird, an apocalyptic hillbilly comedy.

The Sunday Intertitle: Anti Bellum!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by dcairns

Thursday evening was wild — we’d booked seats for Buster Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY at the historic Cameo Cinema (as featured in Chomet’s THE ILLUSIONIST) at 7, and then belatedly found out that, after initially being rejected, we had, after all, been granted free tickets (as part of a promotion for Grolsch beer and Little White Lies magazine) free tickets to see SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, at 8. Depending on projection speed, OUR HOSPITALITY is about an hour and ten minutes long. It looked dicey.

Fortunately, I realized that both films were playing in the same auditorium, so unless they intended to project the first ten minutes of SCOTT P on top of the last ten minutes of OUR HOSPITALITY, it looked like we were OK. And while, yes, I agree that would have been interesting, I’m glad they adopted the more traditional one-film-at-a-time approach.

Neil Brand on the piano — live! Fully amplified, and making a dramatic racket to simulate the onscreen thunderstorm in Scene One. I’ve seen solo piano accompaniments before, but none as effective as this at the serious bits. I once saw NOSFERATU with a pianist who made it seem funny and quaint with his tinkly counterpoint, and wondered whether a single instrument could do justice to a more serious tale. Now I’m itching to hear Brand’s take on Murnau.

This was ideal musical treatment, melodic at times, percussive at others, standing in for absent sound effects but in a discreet and elegant way. With the Edinburgh Festival raging outside, the audience wasn’t as big as I’d have liked, but the laughter still resounded at these eighty-year-old gags. Fortunately, despite the film’s deep south setting, Keaton eschews the racial caricaturing endemic to films of the time, so there’s nothing to greatly embarrass amid the pleasure. A joke about domestic violence (Buster intervenes to protect a battered wife, and she furiously drives him off with heavy blows, before proudly surrendering to her husband’s brutality once more) is certainly non-PC, but contains an uncomfortable kernel of psychological veracity.

I hadn’t actually seen a 35mm projection of this, Keaton’s second feature as (co-)director. My first big-screen viewing of SHERLOCK JNR had allowed me to appreciate the fine ensemble playing more (on TV, Keaton completely dominates). Since everyone save Keaton and a couple of locomotive workers (one played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, athletically kicking hats off tall men’s heads — a trick that once rendered Buster unconscious) is played straight here, that wasn’t the revelation this time, although I appreciated Natalie Talmadge (Keaton’s real-life wife) a little more.

What came over were the production design details, like the little brushes affixed to the front of the train (a working copy of Stephenson’s Rocket) to clear small obstacles from the track, which incidentally is also Henry Fonda’s job description in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. What was also noticeable was the storytelling style, which isn’t as refined as it would later become. While it’s fascinating to see Keaton shoot the melodramatic opening in a serious manner, he hasn’t quite reached the minimalist perfection of his coverage of THE GENERAL. Richard Lester said of that film, “You can’t take a single thing from it.” Every shot is absolutely essential to the scene it’s in, and every scene essential to the plot. This theoretically means that if a single shot hadn’t worked, the film would be fatally flawed… based on this assessment, THE GENERAL may be one of the very few objectively perfect films, in terms of construction at least.

OUR HOSPITALITY doesn’t aim for such economy and precision. When Natalie is introduced, her dog, who has no narrative function whatsoever, gets a length closeup. When Buster goes for a ride on his bike, there are numerous shots of him running along astride it. The later Keaton would have settle for one. But these “flaws” are so charming they can hardly be objected to. They merely characterise the film as a more loose and rough-edged production than the “so real it hurts” detail of THE GENERAL.

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