Monday, November 11, 2013

College (1927)

Director: James W. Horne                              Writer: Carl Harbaugh & Bryan Foy
Film Score: John Muri (1992)                          Cinematography: Bert Haines
Starring: Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Flora Bramley and Harold Goodwin

I’m not a big comedy fan. Most of what passes for comedy today I find pretty juvenile and not particularly amusing. My favorite comedic actor is Albert Brooks, a cerebral comedian who comes out of the Buster Keaton school. And as far as silent comedians go, Keaton is my favorite by a wide margin. He was the master of sight gags, and College begins with a great one. The title card tells about the “sunkist” shores of California where the water meets the land, then the camera shows the outside of a high school being soaked in a rainstorm. The film is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the success of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman from two years earlier, but Keaton does his own take on the format and makes it a very different film, more like one of Disney's Goofy cartoons of the forties with the hero trying out all kinds of sports with comic results.

When Keaton graduates from high school he gives a speech saying how bad sports were for academics. Harold Goodwin is the jock at the school and is making the moves on Anne Cornwall, who Keaton happens to be in love with. Keaton follows her to college and immediately begins to find out a sport that he could succeed in and win the affections of Cornwall who wants to be with a strong man. It’s the same idea that Grease would co-opt some fifty years later. He begins with baseball which, ironically, Keaton loved and was very good at. When that doesn’t work he tries track and field and goes through all of the events with comic effect. At last the dean of the school intervenes and forces the coach of the crew team to put Keaton in as coxswain. In true silent comedy tradition, he helps the team with the race and they win. To avoid direct comparisons with Lloyd he wisely avoids football. All of which leads, quite naturally, to the obligatory happy ending.

There’s also another subplot in the film in which Keaton has to pay for college by getting a part time job. The first one is at a soda fountain and, with his boss expecting him to put on a show like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, it makes for some great gags. The difficult scene for modern audiences to watch is when he gets a job as a “colored” waiter. Of course it’s racist, but there is also a physicality that Keaton has that astounds the audience in much the way his chimpanzee impersonation does in The Play House. Keaton was never really a storyteller, and his best films succeeded in spite of that fact. This is definitely a lesser Keaton, more a string of gags than a story. Still, there are some very funny moments and sight gags that few comedians of his day, or any other, could come up with. College is not great Keaton, but it is Keaton, and in my mind that will always be great.

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