(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Dramatizing the uproarious exploits of a meek theatre projectionist-turned-amateur sleuth (Buster Keaton), Sherlock Jr. blends the knockabout physical comedy normally associated with slapstick with more subtly-crafted moments of humor- such as the sequence in which Keaton leaps “through” the silver screen and lands in the midst of the action… This DVD also features the wonderful film Our Hospitality. In many ways the companion piece to his 1926 classic, The General, it stars Keaton as a New York man who returns to his southern antebellum homeland to find himself embroiled in a longstanding feud between his family and that of the woman he loves.
– From DVD Production Notes
“Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?” my sister asked. At the time we were watching the finale of Buster Keaton’s One Week (1921), one of my favorite short films of all time. Like a lot of Keaton’s work it’s a film where hard work, comedy and surrealism intersect. The results are borderline magic.
As of now I own eight Buster Keaton films (not counting a collection of his early shorts and his collaborations with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle). This double feature is the first to be reviewed and it was a pleasure to watch… and re-watch. I watched both several times over several days.
Our Hospitality is an interesting study for two reasons. First of all, it sets up Keaton’s future work on The General (1926), which is also a period piece and required many gags and stunts featuring trains. Hospitality sets the ground work for it- an experiment at its best- and helped prepare Keaton for what many call his “masterpiece.”
The second reason is the casting of his wife Natalie Talmadge as his love interest (their infant son also cameos in the film). It seems Hospitality was a family affair. It’s strange to watch for this very reason. Keaton’s marriage to Talmadge was strained and unhappy, eventually leading to divorce. However, in this film you’d never be able to tell. Keaton’s Willie McKay is fiercely devoted to Talmadge’s Virginia Canfield, and vice versa.
Thing is, it isn’t the love story that makes Hospitality memorable. If anything it will be remembered for one of the most insane stunts I’ve ever seen on film. It may have employed a dummy, but Jesus Christ.
That’s how you save a damsel in distress. Damn.
It was also amusing to see an entire plot hinging on what the Canfields call “their code of honor.”
Having watched Django Unchained over the holidays this is the second time (in recent memory) I’ve seen a story turn for the better/worse because of southern manners. It’s coincidental, but also kind of hilarious.
While Hospitality is fun, the main reason I own this double feature is Sherlock Jr. It features acts of imagination and near insanity that put most stuntmen to shame. One stunt went awry and Keaton broke his neck as a result. The catch was that he didn’t discover he had broken his neck until years later.
Sherlock also contains some of the cleverest in-camera visual tricks that haven’t been rivaled since Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004). There’s the famous sequence where Keaton literally steps into a film within the film, enduring its unpredictable jump cuts before gaining control of his surroundings.
The reason why? A large chunk of Sherlock is a dream sequence, which makes me love it all the more. Keaton + dreams = instant win. It makes anything is possible.
In viewing these films again I was reminded of Keaton’s rigorous work ethic, risk-taking , imagination and devotion to his craft. What I admire about him was that he never took himself too seriously. Likewise, during the time he was making these films they were never regarded as “genius” or anywhere close to art. Keaton was one of many screen clowns and experienced his share of obscurity.
Still, watch any of Keaton’s films and it makes the screen comedians of today seem… well, lazy. He wrote, directed, and starred in them. He choreographed stunts, broke bones and risked his life to get a laugh. It was strange for him as he watched his successors show up on set and only care about getting their lines. “When we made pictures, we ate, slept and dreamed them,” he recalled.
In my opinion that’s obvious.