Buster is back…
We all know Buster Keaton was a versatile fellow, and he certainly knew how to bring the physical comedy. One of these is 1927’s College, about an honors student who goes to great lengths to win his ladylove.
Ronald (Buster Keaton) is one of the top students in his class. He has no need for athletics and he likes it that way. Well, that and he’s not athletic in the slightest. Never mind, though, because at graduation he gets to lecture his class on “The Curse Of Athletics,” and it lands so well that by the time he finishes the entire audience except for his mother (Florence Turner) and the faculty have cleared out.
Things change, though, and Ronald’s girlfriend, Mary Haines (Anne Cornwall) is bound for Clayton College. She gives Ronald an ultimatum: Either he quits hating on athletes or she’ll drop him like a hot potato.
Since money is a wee bit tight, Ronald decides to work his way through school. As soon as he gets off the train at Clayton College he makes a beeline for a drugstore, where he’s installed as a soda jerk. Mary is so glad to see Ronald she scornfully calls him the “Student Prince” and sashays off.
Clayton College is a big time athletics school, and Dean Edwards (Snitz Edwards) hopes Ronald can give the school a brainier reputation. Ronald’s roomates have other ideas, because to them, Ronald is the proverbial ninety-eight pound weakling.
Ronald only lasts about a day at the soda fountain. Not only is his fellow soda jerk twirling milkshake cups like a drugstore Brian Flanagan, but when Ronald sees Mary he takes off his uniform and pretends to be a customer. After getting the stinkeye from the drugstore owner, Ronald sheepishly trudges out, putting the ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window before he goes.
After that Ronald tries to join the baseball team but he’s so unathletic the other players tower over him and he falls head over heels every time someone runs past him. Ronald finally puts his baseball cap over his face and tries to walk nonchalantly down the street.
Since he still has to work his way through college, Ronald finds another job as a waiter, and here’s where it gets really awkward. The restaurant only wants a black waiter, so Ronald goes in with his face blacked up. Really, movie? Not cool. Ugh…
On the plus side, albeit a very small one, his disguise keeps Mary from recognizing him when she comes in with her date, Jeff (Harold Goodwin). Well, at least at first–half of Ronald’s makeup gets wiped off and he has to bolt from the place while the staff angrily chase after him waving cutlery.
Ronald has better luck with the track team. He can run pretty well, and Mary watches admiringly from the sidelines as he practices jumping hurdles. She’s pretty happy, but then Ronald gets called into the office because he’s failing his classes. The Dean’s pretty understanding, though, and requests Ronald join the rowing team as their new coxswain.
His new teammates like that idea so much the captain tries to slip Ronald a Mickey in his coffee, but Ronald figures it out right off the bat. He’s one of two possible Clayton coxswains, though, so his participation is still in doubt. Will he get to row in the big race and win back the fair Mary?
College is a cute movie that goes down easily…as long as one can ignore the actors being absurdly too old for high school graduates (Keaton was thirty-two when the movie came out, and Anne Cornwall was thirty). Then there’s the blackface thing, which no one liked, either in 1927 or today.
Other than that, College shows Buster Keaton’s talent for physical comedy to a nice advantage, and all without trick photography or long tracking shots–the camera basically parked in front of Keaton and they rolled film. It’s not as polished as The General, which came out the same year, but it’s still Keaton and he’s very impressive. It must have been hard for him to pretend to be clumsy; the number of somersaults he does would make Bart Connor envious. It’s ironic that Ronald was never asked to join the gymnastics team.
The simple filming style doesn’t always work; there are scenes that are framed pretty badly, such as the brief bit in the first few minutes when Mary tells Ronald he needs to get more athletic. In other parts, the film fails to follow Keaton and he’s barely visible among the considerably beefier actors he was playing opposite. On the other hand, this could be because Amazon Prime’s transfer is unrestored and looks it.
It’s not all bad, though. One of the cool things about the movie is that the majority of the filming locations don’t exist anymore–most of them have been torn down or revamped so much that they’re hardly recognizable. Parts of UCLA and USC were used, as well as what became part of Los Angeles City College and the Glendale train station, the latter of which is one of the few remaining filming sites. In a lot of ways the movie is a true time capsule.
All in all, I enjoyed College. It’s a simple film for Keaton and doesn’t waste a minute. I just wish the version I saw looked better.
For more of the great Buster Keaton, please see Lea at Silent-ology. Thanks for hosting this, Lea–it’s always great to have a visit with Mr. Keaton. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for our next installment of “During World War Two.”
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Bengtson, John. Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, LLC, 2000.