US (1927) Dir. James W. Horne & Buster Keaton
Sandwiched in between two of Buster Keaton’s most cherished and revered films – The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) is a film which ironically feels like a mere filler as old Stone Face recharges his batteries from one epic in preparation for another. This is not to dismiss College as a bad film but the aspiration of the two surrounding outings is rather lacking here.
Ronald (Keaton) is attending his High School graduation ceremony where, as the most prized academic, he gets to give a speech. However he chooses to denounce sports and extol the virtues of books which causes everyone to walk out, including Mary Haynes (Anne Cornwall) the girl he cherishes. Mary gives Ronald an earful, saying she prefers jocks to bookworms.
Mary, along with Ronald’s athlete rival Jeff (Harold Goodwin), gains entrance to Clayton College, which Ronald can’t afford but he follows Mary there anyway. Whilst the Dean (Snitz Edwards) is overjoyed to have an academic over achiever in his “athlete infested” college, Ronald instead tries his hand at every sport to impress Mary.
As you’ve probably guessed the story, or what there is of one, writes itself and the source of the humour is also fairly predictable, but Keaton does at least swerve us a little first. Because Ronald is a poor lad, living with his elderly but proud mother (Florence Turner), he has to work his way through college, his foray into part time employment being his first major challenge.
Prior to this we are treated to some subtle comedy at the graduation ceremony which takes place on a horrendously rainy day that sees Ronald in his cheap, thrift store suit get soaking wet then suffer the ignominy of having it shrink as he gives his speech. Buster also throws in a cheeky gag revolving around the buttons on his jacket falling off which is tame by today’s standards but would be the height of risqué in 1927.
Before we go any further it is fortunate that this film was made in a time when people would be willing to accept a 32 year-old man playing a college student as this is comedy. Of course Keaton was not alone – Anne Cornwall was 30 (although could pass for 17) whilst the lofty Harold Goodwin was the baby of the trio at 25.
That said Keaton was still in his physical prime and not only pulled off the acrobatic slapstick shenanigans with his usual ease and finesse but executed something which is rather difficult and that is to convincingly perform all the athletics badly! From knocking over hurdles to almost breaking his neck with the pole vault Keaton piles up the catalogue of sporting disasters one after another.
As impressive as Keaton’s youthful energy was, this is essentially a one-note joke and as the centrepiece of the film, it quickly becomes a bit of a repetitious drag, since we know he is going to fail. Some of the gags do work very well, like the struggles with the high jump or Ronald being out run on the main track by two kids. Elsewhere a game of baseball is met with a similar fate.
It has been said that an additional scene featuring Ronald trying out for the football team was shot but later discarded when it was felt to be too close to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman made two years earlier. Evidence of this being in the script can be found in the final cut when Ronald is shown with a “Learn To Play Football” textbook and later dodging crowds of people as if he were in a game
One thing which is important to note is that despite James W. Horne getting the director’s credit (Keaton’s name was not mentioned on screen in this role), it has been said by Keaton himself that Horne contributed nothing to the film, leaving Buster to do all the work. Perhaps the film’s anaemic narrative is a result of Horne not bringing the requisite support and ideas to the project.
Back to the film and on a more positive note, one of the highlights, if all too brief, is Ronald’s temporary stint as a server in the soda shop. This puts Buster in familiar territory as he is supposed to emulate the flashy, juggling skills of his more experienced co-worker in making milkshakes with pizzazz. Naturally Ronald’s attempts are far from successful and the comedy is in the minutiae of his deft clumsiness.
Less successful to modern sensibilities is Ronald blacking up to take a job as a waiter in a restaurant which specifically hires all black staff. Whether this concept is progressive in terms of willingly hiring coloured people or just another example of the white man playing master to the black man is open to interpretation; suffice to say Ronald gets caught out and his black colleagues are not best pleased.
With the story not being as focused as it could have been, one is left to wonder if this film was supposed to be an ode to athletes and not an attempt to set them up for ridicule. Of course scholars will endorse the importance of brains over brawns but as the final act illustrates – which includes a pole vault spot NOT performed by Keaton, (one of the few stunts he didn’t do) – athletic prowess does have its advantages.
In terms of where College stands in the Buster Keaton canon, it is certainly a different direction from his previous works whist adhering to the core principles of the staple “boy winning over the girl” plot device. Keaton is given the chance to show off his incredible physical dexterity and athletic ability in an appropriate arena for once and diversify his slapstick creativity under more grounded and relatable circumstances.
Certainly an enjoyable Keaton romp, College is neither Keaton’s best nor his worst film, but one where the strongest moments absolutely outweigh the weaker ones.