College (1927)

Having watched a handful of Charlie Chaplin silent films, I thought I’d take a look at one of the other renowned actors of the silent film era, Buster Keaton. So I queued up the 1927 film College, supposedly directed by James W. Horne (but really by Keaton himself unofficially), and settled in for what I hoped would be a funny hour of entertainment.

Unfortunately, I was left with a sense that I probably should have picked a different film for my introduction to Keaton’s work. College is a bit directionless, a bit tepid, and a bit uncomfortable.

Of course, some might say that’s an apt description of the college experience as well.

Keaton plays Ronald, a young man who is graduating from high school at the start of the film, along with the jerk jock Jeff (Harold Goodwin) and the girl he has a crush on, Mary (Anne Cornwall). Ronald has the best grades in the class, and, on the insistence of the principal, he gives a speech in front of the audience about the value of books over sports… getting several details of sports wrong and largely insulting his audience. Mary finds the speech ridiculous, and tells him that until he gives athletics a chance, she won’t give him a chance.

So once he arrives at Clayton College, Ronald takes odd jobs to pay for his classes, while trying out different sports in an effort to redeem himself in Mary’s eyes. He tries and fails at both baseball and track and field (though he does start to get the hang of the high jump). When his plight comes to the attention of the Dean (Snitz Edwards) due to his slipping grades, the Dean is surprisingly understanding having been in a similar situation in his own youth; he then insists the coach of the rowing crew (Carl Harbaugh) take Ronald on as coxswain, despite the coach’s extreme reluctance.

Drugging your coxswain’s tea to oust him has got to be against some official guideline or other.

Of course, Ronald winds up winning the day, and winning the girl, and putting all of his hard-earned athletic skills to work rescuing her from his rival. As plots go, it’s simple, but that’s nothing unexpected for a relatively short silent film. And the film has to be praised for including a fair amount of dialogue through the title cards, yet not slowing down the picture with them.

Unfortunately, the film is a bit short on laughs. Keaton is known as a great physical comic, and it’s possible to see a little bit of that here, but only a little bit. Most of the gags just aren’t particularly creative here. Plus, the ones that are funny have nothing to do with the plot; it winds up feeling like we’re moving from vignette to vignette. The film lacks both energy and elegance in its direction.

There are also some uncomfortable aspects. One that is still common nowadays, and more than a little irritating, is the old nerd/jock dichotomy, particularly the notion that a smart person must be not just incompetent at sports, downright idiotic about them, as if their high intelligence suddenly ceases when there’s a muscle movement involved. I know it’s meant to be funny, but the idea that someone would mix up the names of Babe Ruth and Ty Dempsey is hard enough to believe; the notion that a smart person would think a discus is something to be jumped over is simply too unbelievable to be funny.

The other uncomfortable aspect is one that is thankfully less common in film today, and that’s the use of racial tension for comedy. There’s a scene in which Keaton’s character starts working at a restaurant that specifically placed an ad for a “colored waiter”. Keaton performs in blackface for this section, and for a modern audience in particular, this is likely to feel awkward. It’s possible, however, that some of this discomfort is intentional. Much of the scene consists of Keaton hassling a white patron who insisted that he be brought something “you couldn’t have stuck your thumb in”; i.e., a patron who doesn’t want to eat something black people have touched, a racist. Keaton’s literal and imaginative interpretations are actually kind of funny, and it may be that the discomfort of the scene was intentionally invoked as a commentary against racist behavior. It’s hard to be sure, though, and at any rate, the scene is still uncomfortable to watch.

I’m not going to give up on Keaton after just one film, especially a relatively short one. But College just has too little to offer in my eyes. Hopefully next time I hit upon one of his better works.

Rating: 2 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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1 Response to College (1927)

  1. Pingback: Seven Chances | Morgan on Media

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