Buster Keaton was at his best in the years prior to leaving for MGM. During this time in the mid to late twenties, anything collegiate was all the style rage. Although Harold Lloyd tackled the topic first in THE FRESHMAN (1925), Keaton ‘took a run’ at it in his lesser known classic, COLLEGE (1927).
In this story, scholarly nerd Ronald (Buster Keaton) starts off on a bad foot with his valedictorian address to his high school classmates. He condenscendingly insults the jocks and sports fans by praising academics over the pursuit of athletics. His gal Mary (Anne Cornwall) is not impressed. She thinks young men should be more athletic like Jeff (Harold Goodwin).
With a fresh start in college, Ronald is determined to win her back by attempting to learn how to become the jock of her dreams. He scrambles to balance his studies with training on a variety of sports, and pursuing a couple of part-time jobs, too. If anyone is the master at juggling physicality, it’s Buster. Which is exactly why this character is so hilariously ironic. Buster Keaton was hands-down the most athletically fit of any comedian in history. And for anyone looking for some Buster eye candy, this film shows off his physique quite nicely.
While pursuing some part-time gigs, he hides from his girl (he assumes Mary frowns upon a working man) as both a soda jerk and briefly in a racy scene as a waiter in blackface. The soda jerk scene is ironic again as he attempts miserably to keep up with the stylish skills of the current expert, mixing masterfully at the counter. (Behind the scenes you wonder if the teacher and student were flipped.) I found a personal thrill watching this scene as the role of a real soda jerk was my real job at the age of fourteen at an old-fashioned counter. As for the scene when he attempts to disguise himself when a restaurant is hiring African American servers, it’s incredibly clever and funny. But any blackface scene makes me squirm with awkward discomfort.
With each sport and team he pursues, he fails in hilarious results. In a last-minute intervene of ‘fate’ Ronald subs as the coxswain for the crew team and manages to overcome his bumbling clutzy self on the “Damfino” (a nod to Buster’s earlier 1921 film, THE BOAT) then the “Old Iron Bottom” rowing team boats by strapping an impromptu rudder to his back and edges out the competition to win the race.
Expecting to finally impress his gal after leading his team’s victory, she was no where to be seen. As we all suspected, Jeff is a cad. He’s trapped her in the dorm room in an attempt to force her hand otherwise be scandalously shamed and thereby kicked out of the ‘no boys allowed’ residence.
In an impressive ending, Ronald rushes to her rescue by showing off all those skills he’s been in training (track, shot-put, discus, javelin, and even pole-vaulting) were honed after all. He just needed a little romantic, chivalrous push… and the athletic skills that only the great Buster Keaton could muster. Full disclosure: the pole-vaulting scene where he nabs a make-shift pole from a neighboring clothesline and leaps into a 2nd story window is one of the very few (some say only) stunts he didn’t do himself. He later said this was due to the fact he simply had never pole-vaulted before and didn’t want to waste months learning the skill. Something tells me if he had, he would’ve been the first actor to learn pole-vaulting and shortly become an Olympian at the sport even as a novice.
COLLEGE (1927) may not be as well known or as celebrated as Buster Keaton’s other classics such as STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. or as THE GENERAL, but it delivers impressive physical comedy and solid entertainment as only a brilliant Buster Keaton film can.
*This article was my contribution to THE SILENT CINEMA BLOGATHON, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Please explore their blogs for a full roster of talented contributors.
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: James W. Horne/Buster Keaton (uncredited, but Keaton claimed he did all the directing)
Screenplay: Bryan Foy, Carl Harbaugh
Cinematography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Film Editing: Sherman Kell
Cast: Buster Keaton (Ronald), Anne Cornwall (The Girl, Mary), Flora Bramley (Her Friend), Harold Goodwin (A rival), Snitz Edwards (The Dean), Carl Harbaugh (Crew Coach).