Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr Review
This DVD is part of Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton's silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn't expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score - in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
Buster Keaton's second and third features were such colossal advances on the ramshackle Three Ages that it's hard to credit that they were made by the same film-maker in the space of just one year. Our Hospitality (1923) was the first feature that showed his remarkable ability to build a complex, sophisticated narrative across a running time of an hour and a quarter, and where the film was most groundbreaking was that although it's crammed with inspired gags from beginning to end, they all, without exception, derive from the narrative and the situation: they're never just thrown in for the sake of a cheap laugh as they would have been in Keaton's earlier work or that of all his contemporaries. This may not seem particularly unusual today, but it was almost revolutionary back in the early 1920s.
Two families, the Canfields and the McKays, have been fighting a feud for so long that they've forgotten what it's about - if the opening sequence is anything to go by, it's mostly prolonged through tragic accidents rather than malice on either side, and after one fatal incident the only surviving McKays (mother and son) leave for New York City, and the feud dies down.
When Willie McKay (Keaton) reaches the age of 21, he inherits the family home in the Deep South, and his return to reclaim it rekindles old passions. Worse, on the train on the way down he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman (played by Keaton's real-life wife Natalie Talmadge)... and there are no prizes for guessing which family she comes from!
But despite ancient hatreds, the even more ancient traditions of Southern hospitality hold sway, which means that whenever McKay is actually under the Canfields' roof, they will do nothing to harm him - though the second he steps outside he becomes fair game. McKay quickly cottons on to this, and resolves to stay in the Canfields' home by any means necessary - though eventually he runs out of excuses and has to go on the run, with gun-toting Canfields (led by the large, moustachioed Joe Roberts, a memorable foil for Keaton in virtually all of his shorts - but who sadly died shortly after production on this film finished) in hot pursuit, leading up to a memorable climax (and a truly astonishing stunt) involving a waterfall.
This was the first of Keaton's great portraits of America's past (Three Ages doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny in that department!), and it's a remarkably thorough reconstruction, right down to the wonderfully rickety locomotive - an exact replica of Stephenson's 'Rocket' - that transports Keaton to his inheritance. One of the many areas where Keaton was a true pioneer was in his belief that the fact that a film happens to be a comedy doesn't mean that it should skimp on other aspects: by any yardstick, Our Hospitality and The General rank among the most beautiful films of the whole silent era, but never self-indulgently so - the images add lustre and richness to the story rather than providing annoying distractions.
The print has suffered a fair bit of surface damage (mostly scratches), but it's rarely serious enough to affect enjoyment. Visually, it's adequate in terms of detail but it's a bit soft and decidedly grey overall (the print of Sherlock Jr is noticeably superior on every level). Oddly enough, the intertitles appear to have been cut in from a different print that's suffered rather more damage, which creates the illusion that the print is worse than it actually is. Donald Hunsberger's multi-instrumental music score is charming and effective, making inventive use of famous Southern musical themes. Chapter stops have been set at an adequate but not overly generous ten.
Magnificent though Our Hospitality undoubtedly is - certainly among Keaton's three or four greatest achievements - even it is eclipsed by Sherlock Jr (1924). In just 45 minutes, Keaton crams in enough visual, conceptual and comic invention to fuel a dozen full-length features, creating a film that may lack the emotional impact and visual sweep of other masterpieces like The General, but which undoubtedly provides the most breathless excitement, not to mention fuel for critical analysis (it's not being at all pretentious to say that Sherlock Jr experiments with film form in a way that would remain almost untried for at least three more decades, the gauntlet being picked up by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard in the late 1950s).
Keaton plays a cinema projectionist who's also obsessed with detective stories and given to daydreams. After being accused in real life of stealing his would-be fiancée's father's watch (in reality, he was framed by his love rival), he dejectedly returns to his job, falls asleep at the projector, and dreams himself walking down the cinema aisle and literally climbing into the screen, taking part in a story whose characters bear a strong resemblance to those in his own real life.
The first time he enters the screen leads to one of the all-time classic Keaton set-pieces, as he discovers the principle of film editing the hard way - by staying in the same position on the screen while the background changes around him: in seconds he's transported from his lover's front door to a safari park (plus lions), a rocky outcrop in the middle of crashing waves, a snowdrift, a railway line and various other disparate locations. There's an obvious logical flaw to this sequence - that if Keaton hadn't walked into the screen the audience would have been watching an abstract Koyaanisqatsi-like collection of landscapes, which seems a little unlikely - but it's so jaw-droppingly inventive that you certainly don't worry about it while you're watching it!
From then on, his confidence increases, and he takes on the persona of master detective Sherlock Jr, solving a case involving jewel thieves who have kidnapped his girlfriend. They try to place every obstacle in his path, from booby-trapping his chair, poisoning his wine and replacing a snooker ball with a bomb (this latter leading to yet another great set-piece, as Keaton miraculously manages to pot every ball but the bomb, missing it by millimetres every time), but to no effect.
And it all ends in the chase to end all chases, much of which is performed by Keaton sitting precariously on the handlebars of a motorbike, sublimely oblivious of the fact that its rider was knocked off some time earlier. Somehow he manages to keep his balance, even when dodging traffic and trains, inadvertently performing Evel Knievel stunts on collapsing bridges, receiving a shovelful of earth in the face from every single workman as he rides past a whole line of them or dragging an entire tug-of-war team behind him. Many of these sequences were shot in single uninterrupted takes, making the pacing and timing all the more incredible.
The word "genius" gets so over-used these days that it's in danger of becoming meaningless, but Sherlock Jr is the real thing: balancing laughs, thrills and complex narrative and conceptual convolutions with the precision of a virtuoso juggler while showing off its star's astonishing physical gifts (to say nothing of his emotive skills) and at the same time pushing the technology of 1920s cinema to the absolute limit. Some of the special effects look a bit primitive by today's standards, but that does nothing to dilute their impact - indeed, the fact that you can see the sheer effort that went into them in a way that you can't with, say, a CGI-generated shot, makes them all the more impressive.
So how have Kino treated this masterpiece? Pretty well, for the most part - the print is in excellent condition with hardly any damage (none of it remotely obtrusive) and a gratifyingly wide dynamic range from deep, rich blacks (that still retain plenty of detail) to brilliant whites, and it has arguably the best score in the entire Keaton collection: the Club Foot Orchestra fully matches the visual inventiveness with appropriate musical analogues (best demonstrated in the scene where Keaton is caught up in the film's editing, where the accompaniment changes in perfect time to the background switches, from tinkly silent-film to sagebrush guitar to wah-wah trombone).
So is this a perfect DVD? Not quite - inexplicably, Kino have decided that Sherlock Jr could get by with just three chapter stops (that's including the start of the film, so effectively there's two). Considering that many of the other shorts in their collection that run to less than half the length get five or six, quite apart from the inexhaustible riches on offer here, this is pitifully inadequate. But given the quality of the films, it's a relatively minor quibble - and this DVD just edges ahead of The General as being my personal favourite in Kino's entire Keaton collection.
(Incidentally, this DVD rather defeats the standard DVD Times scoring system, which is why I've left the "extras" field blank - technically, there aren't any, unless you count Sherlock Jr as an extra, in which case it deserves full marks with a vengeance!)