This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Planes, Trains and Automobile Blogathon. Click HERE to view more fabulous entries about our favorite modes of transportation in film.
Buster Keaton loved trains. “The General,” one of his most famous films, is about a man’s love for his train; a love that transcends his love for (an admittedly dopey) woman. Keaton found ways to incorporate trains in short films, long films, early films and late films. One of my favorite sight gags of all time – from Keaton’s 1920 short “One Week” – involves a locomotive. Check it out if you’ve never seen it. It never gets old.
But by far my most favorite train in all of Keaton’s films is the recreation of Stephenson’s Rocket for his first feature length film, 1921’s “Our Hospitality.”
Buster plays Willie McKay, a dandified youth living in pre-Civil War New York. Unbeknownst to Willie, his family, the McKays, were engaged in an epic family feud with the Canfields for decades down South. Willie’s mother, now deceased, wanted to raise her boy away from the feudin’ and fightin’ and moved up North without ever telling her boy that the Canfields were the McKay’s mortal enemies. Twenty years later we find Willie, a true innocent, living with his aunt in the big city.
|Willie gets around New York City on his Gentleman's Hobby Horse|
One day Willie gets a letter informing him that he is heir to his father’s estate. Willie dreams of a great Southern mansion and immediately prepares to head down South. His aunt tells him of the feud, but Willie is determined to collect his inheritance. His method of transportation will be the train. This train.
Keaton and his team built a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket and train becomes one of the film’s most endearing characters. Based on the time period, he said that had a choice between the Rocket and The DeWitt Clinton and chose the Rocket because it was funnier looking. It also had personality. It was genteel, it was homey, it constantly jumped the tracks and magnified every bump and dip in its path. It was a modern mode of transportation that retained the elegance of an earlier time. The New York to Appalachia trip is beautifully photographed. There is a loving, nostalgic quality to the journey, as seen in Willie’s little dog follows the train to be with his master.
On this charming, unique and faintly ridiculous train, Willie meets, Virginia, the lady of his dreams. Unfortunately, he doesn’t learn until much later that Virginia’s last name is Canfield. After a harrowing, bumpy, dirty, and wholly delightful train trip, Willie and Virginia are in love. Virginia, also innocent of Willie’s pedigree, invites him to dinner to meet her family… a family that consists of a father and 2 brothers who remain rabid for McKay blood.
|Willie and Virginia: Strangers on a Train|
Willie, of course, is oblivious at first as the brothers try to rub him out. But, they are inept and Willie is just plain lucky. After many hilarious attempts on his life that are thwarted by Willie’s clever escapes, the 2 families finally bury the hatchet (sort of) when Willie bravely rescues Virginia from a raging river. In one of Keaton’s greatest stunts, he clings to a tree branch as it sweeps across the river, managing to pluck the drowning Virginia out just as she was almost carried over a waterfall. Willie and Virginia marry and the brothers lay down their arms (but Buster has a few pistols concealed in his coat – just in case). Oh, and, of course, Willie's inheritance was a shack.
|Willie must always keep one eye open when the Canfield Boys are around|
“Our Hospitality” was a real Keaton family affair. In the prologue, Buster’s infant son, Buster, Jr., played Willie as a baby. Virginia was played by his wife, Natalie Talmadge. While Natalie as not a star like her sisters Norma and Constance, she is quite lovely here and very convincing. The Engineer, who had to put up with much harassment on his journey, was played by Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, and it is a treasure to see them perform together.
As Stephenson’s rocket roams the American landscape, navigating tracks laid over logs, rocks and gullies, Keaton’s eye for beauty is on full display. The journey and the mode of transportation are one: modern with an appreciation of the past. Keaton loved the steam that takes us places, but also loves the beauty and serenity of all of the places on the way.