Friday, July 11, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: College (1927)

College (1927)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & James W. Horne.
Written by: Carl Harbaugh and Bryan Foy.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Son), Anne Cornwall (The Girl), Flora Bramley (Her Friend), Harold Goodwin (A Rival), Snitz Edwards (The Dean), Carl Harbaugh (Crew Coach), Sam Crawford (Baseball Coach), Florence Turner (A Mother).
College is one of Buster Keaton’s least known features – a box office failure at the time, and one that hasn’t really gotten a critical interpretation in the years since everyone has agreed he was a genius. And there is a reason for that – it is a decidedly minor Keaton film – one that really is just a series of gags, quite a few of them quite funny, but none of them rising to the best work of Keaton’s career. Like other minor Keaton features – Three Ages, Go West and Battling Butler – that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film by any means. It’s still quite funny in parts. But it doesn’t reveal the man’s full genius either. Keaton, who often worked in parody in his short films – and some have suggested in Go West where he mocked Chaplin’s sentimentality by having a love story between himself and a cow – so you have to wonder a little bit if Keaton was trying to parody Harold Lloyd’s successful 1925 silent comedy – The Freshman. Both films are about a nerdy, bookish intellectual on a University campus who want to become star athletes, with hilarious results. But while normally I prefer Keaton to Lloyd, if that is the case, than Lloyd won this round – The Freshman is a fairly great silent comedy, and College is an average one.

We first meet Buster Keaton’s character – curiously referred to as A Son in the credits, although he’s called Ronald throughout the film – at his high school graduation (yes Keaton, well into his 30s at the time is playing an 18 year old – just go with it) – where he is valedictorian, and in his speech, he belittles and mocks the athletes in the crowd, while blowing his own horn on his studious excellence. The girl he loves – Anne Cornwall – is none too impressed with the speech, telling him that anyone who prefer a strong athlete to a weak kneed teacher’s pet – and unless he changes his mind about athletics, she won’t change her mind about him.

Flash forward a few months, with Ronald and the Girl both at the same college. Determined to win over the girl, Ronald tries desperately to be good at sports. He plays baseball (Keaton was a huge baseball fan) – and that ends hilariously poorly. He tries his hand at several different track and field events, and then go even worse. The Dean calls him into his office wanting to know why a star pupil has done so poorly in his studies – and Ronald explains he’s trying to impress a girl with his non-existent athletic abilities. The dead has an idea – Ronald is small enough to make an excellent coxswain on the rowing team – and makes the coach take him aboard.

The plot of College is thin even by silent comedy standards. It essentially consists of Keaton trying and failing at the various sports, trying and failing at his various part time jobs he needs to have to go to school - including an ill-advised sequence where Keaton dons blackface so he can get a job as a colored waiter. Perhaps it’s a little less racist because Keaton isn’t “playing” an African American character – he’s playing a white character who tries to pass himself off as black – but anytime you have to justify something by suggesting that “perhaps it’s a little less racist” – it’s still something that shouldn’t have been done. Much like Keaton’s use of blackface in some of his shorts – like The Playhouse (or the Redface in The Paleface) it’s hardly the most egregious or racist use of blackface of the era – and isn’t really used to mock African Americans in anyway – but it’s still something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly the finale (Keaton always pulled out all the stops in the last reel) – where Ronald has to participate in an important crew race – including his hilarious improvisation that allows his team to win (although in reality, one suspects it would have slowed the team down in reality). He then has to race across campus to save his girl from the clutches of his rival – along the way showing how he can excel at all the track and field events he screwed up earlier in the film.

Keaton was a genius, but even during the course of the 1920s, where he frequently made comic masterpieces, there are a few films where he seems to simply be coasting on his charm and skills. Here, he plays a classic Keaton archetype – the seemingly weak man who has to prove himself to the woman he loves. He faces down one obstacle after another with his great stone face. He will not be deterred from his goal. College is an amusing movie – I’ve seen it twice now, and enjoyed it both times. But it doesn’t come close to his best work. Coming on the heels of The General, his biggest, most complicated film, perhaps he simply wanted to do a simple movie. He did that – and he made it quite enjoyable. But it’s nowhere close to what Keaton could do.

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