Thursday, August 2, 2012
Buster Keaton's penultimate independent film before signing with MGM, College is not one of the silent comic's better efforts. Credited to director James W. Horne, it was, like Keaton's other silent features, actually directed almost entirely by Keaton himself, but it's a little lackluster and pedestrian compared to his other work, especially considering he'd just made his absolutely brilliant masterpiece The General.
Keaton plays a high school graduate who's eager to impress Mary (Anne Cornwall), the girl he loves, by demonstrating that he's not just a bookish intellectual but can also excel at athletics. That's certainly casting himself against type, since Keaton's primary attribute had always been his physicality and athleticism, so the fact that he spends the bulk of the film clumsily failing to pull off athletic feats might account for its lesser status. Some of the gags are amusing, but not uproariously funny by any means, and not enough of a compensation for the lack of Keaton's daring stuntwork. The middle of the film is dominated by a long section in which he tries his hand at a number of sports and track events, comically failing to clear hurdles, crashing into the pole when attempting high jumps, and best of all, doing a pole vault in which he attempts to climb the pole when it's briefly standing straight up.
It's faintly amusing, but it all lacks the clever staging and precision of Keaton's best comedy; these are simple jokes about physical incompetence and clumsiness that any slapstick comedian of the era could have pulled off, when Keaton is capable of so much more. The crew race that serves as the film's climax is also lacking in the typical excitement of Keaton's best chases and races, though there's a nice sight gag when the boat's rudder comes loose, causing Keaton to tie it to his backside and stick his rear in the water to steer. That gag pays off again after the race when Keaton's fin repeatedly slaps girls in the ass every time he turns around, causing one of them to slap him.
This film also has the dubious distinction of having the most uncomfortable blackface sequence of any of Keaton's work, with Keaton himself donning blackface to pose as a "colored waiter." It's a stupid and painfully unfunny scene that climaxes with the other, genuinely black waiters chasing after Keaton when some of his makeup rubs off.
The best part of the film is undoubtedly the very end, when a contrived rescue scenario with Mary causes Keaton to finally, belatedly display his athletic abilities. The earlier scenes of his failures now pay off as the whole world becomes an obstacle course, with Keaton dodging around pedestrians, hurdling and high-jumping over hedges, and finally pole-vaulting up through Mary's window — the latter is the one stunt Keaton himself didn't perform, subbing in an Olympic pole vaulter for that one task. This is an enjoyable and frenzied few minutes in which Keaton remakes the world as a sporting arena, taking ordinary objects and transforming them into baseball bats, discuses and javelins.
Even better, though, is the utterly unexpected and morbidly hilarious final seconds of the film, in which Keaton and Mary get married, and Keaton inserts a short little montage that rushes through the rest of their lives: coming out of the chapel together, sitting surrounded by babies and rambunctious kids, growing old together, and then a cut to a pair of side-by-side gravestones. That final image mocks and tears apart the conventional romantic ending, subverting the guy-gets-the-girl happy ending by suggesting that the end point for all this romance is ultimately only death. It's a surprisingly funny and savagely clever conclusion to a film that had otherwise been a rather slight outing for Keaton.