“You’ll graduate with a perpetual smile!”
Director: James W. Horne
Cast: Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Flora Bramley
Synopsis: To reconcile with his girlfriend, a bookish college student tries to become an athlete.
Keaton’s The General is acknowledged as a classic today, but it was a box office flop when first released, so his producer and brother-in-law Joseph M. Schenck was reluctant to commit another large budget on his star comedian’s next feature. Schenck also wanted Keaton to select a topic for his next movie to cash in on the then-current trend for college movies inspired by Harold Lloyd’s comic hit The Freshman in 1925. Keaton duly obliged, but he wasn’t happy about it. In fact Keaton wasn’t happy about much at all back then: his marriage to Natalie Talmadge was floundering and she was making it difficult for him to see his kids. Keaton was drinking heavily as a result, although you wouldn’t think so to look at his physical condition. It’s something of a surprise, then, that College is as good as it is; it’s no classic, that’s for sure, and it’s not amongst Keaton’s best, but it contains some solid laughs and features some superb physical comedy.
Keaton plays Ronald, a bookish student who invokes the wrath of his entire college year when he delivers a speech at their graduation ceremony ridiculing the contribution of athletics to college life. ‘What have Ty Ruth and Babe Dempsey done for science?’ he asks shortly before his entire audience — apart from his adoring mother (former Vitagraph Girl Florence Turner, one of the cinema’s first movie stars) — departs in disgust. Amongst the unimpressed audience is The Girl (Anne Cornwall — Mr Smith Goes to Washington — who would have a tiny, uncredited role in The Buster Keaton Story in 1957) on whom Ronald is keen. With the kind of immature fickleness that should have Ronald breathing a sigh of relief that she’s shown him the cold shoulder, The Girl coldly informs Ronald that from now on she won’t like him until he likes sport, and prances off with the school jock (Harold Goodwin — All Quiet on the Western Front).
Ronald determines to win her back by enrolling in the same college as both her and that jock and becoming a top class sportsman. The particular sport in which he’s to excel isn’t particularly important to him, so he packs every imaginable type of sportswear into his case. The trouble is, Ronald is hopeless at every sport he attempts, and his attempts to win back The Girl’s heart look doomed.
There’s a fairly lengthy section in the middle of College which sees the hapless Ronald endeavouring to participate in every track and field sport you can think of. Each effort inevitably ends in complete and utter failure, and the way that Keaton succeeds in making his character look so inept at everything he tries shows just how adept he was at physical comedy. Faking incompetence at something is almost as difficult as faking proficiency at the same thing, but Keaton achieves his purpose with inelegant perfection, and these scenes are by far the strongest of the film. In fact, if the rest of College had been as funny as this part of the movie, there’s little doubt that it would now rank amongst his finest achievements.
That doesn’t mean that the rest of College is poor, it’s still high quality material which falls a shade short of Keaton’s usual high standards. Modern critics seem incapable of viewing a scene in which Keaton wears blackface while waiting table in the context of its time and therefore feel compelled to lament the racial stereotyping rather than focus on the quality of the comedy. The fact is it’s a funny sequence, topped off by an incredible backward roll performed by Keaton during which he spills not one drop from the bowl of soup he’s carrying at the time. The fact that Keaton was able to devise and perform such gags and stunts at a time when his personal life was at a low is testimony to just how talented the man was.
(Reviewed 13th August 2014)