d. James W. Horne & Buster Keaton / USA / 61m.
College, Buster Keaton’s ninth feature, is not exactly a bad film, but it demonstrates how wildly sporadic genius can be. It is, at its core, Keaton on auto-pilot — and by most historical accounts, consciously so. Biographer Marion Meade introduces the film in her book Cut to the Chase by noting Keaton set out to do a film that required as little ingenuity as possible, and on that standard you could say he fulfilled the small expectation he set for himself.
Released in the same year of The General — what many consider to be his, or perhaps the, high-water mark in silent comedy — College plays instead like a less mature offering from earlier in his career. The comparison might be unfair, because few films are counted among the caliber of The General, but College is not even among Keaton’s upper-tier work. It is minimally inventive and largely predictable, hindered in part an episodic gag structure reminiscent of his shorts or an awkwardly assembled film like Three Ages.
Now—yes, it is something akin to a cinematic truth that a Buster Keaton misfire still lands within a reasonable distance of the target. College isn’t a pain to sit through, but its treats and creative flourishes are few and far between. (As Walter Kerr says in his essential volume, The Silent Clowns: “College is weak Keaton because —for the most part—it could have been just as well done by Harold Lloyd.”) The film is hindered by a plot that is go-go-go-for-the-girl and not much else, not even a gargantuan gag that swoops in to save the film as there is at the end of Keaton’s Seven Chances. The story here is of bookworm Ronald (Keaton) who must take up athletics to impress a girl named Mary (Anne Cornwall) for whom book smarts isn’t nearly as appealing as the triumphalism of sports. Many of the jokes involve the trials and failures and ultimate successes as Ronald attempts to win Mary. A few, like a bit with a javelin, succeed. Most others, like an uncomfortable and unfortunate race-based humor with Keaton in blackface, don’t.
Keaton can be an exhausting figure to watch on-screen. Thirty-two at the time and still in excellent physical condition, Keaton performed all his own runs, dives, leaps, and falls. However, for the first and only time in his silent career, for College Keaton used one stunt double — a U.S. Olympic pole vaulter who performed a gag Keaton chose to sit out. Later Keaton said, “I could not do the scene, because I am no pole vaulter and I didn’t want to spend months in training to do the stunt myself.” I certainly can’t, and won’t, blame him, but it is a historical fact that looms heavy over a film that embodies mediocrity. Keaton was in fact known to devote months to perfecting a desired sequence or action, and the failure to do so here speaks volumes about the actor-director’s lukewarm attitude toward the film.
If College is remembered for anything today, it may be its final moments. Not surprisingly, most critical scholarship on the film is devoted to what might be the era’s bleakest “happy ending”: after Keaton has spent the entire film attempting to woo the girl of the dreams, he wins and weds her. Immediately following this joyous occasion, however, is a series of quick fades, each showing the couple as they grow older and older and then: a tombstone. Kerr asks:
What is this abrupt slap in the face doing at the end of an otherwise unquestioning love story? It takes no more than eleven seconds of playing time to deliver its chill, and yet it undoes on the spot all the yearning, the struggle and the victory, of the narrative. The bitter candor—and it is bitter—is not prepared for; it not only takes us by surprise, it seems to take Keaton by surprise, as though a truth too long suppressed had turned to bile and erupted with volcanic force. It’s still funny, because there is truth in it; but it is bleak indeed.Bleak, perhaps, to leave some sort of unique stamp on the film. Halfway through the 1920s, Keaton had begun to realize audiences would only tolerate so much ingenuity; when it strayed too far from the plot or become focused too exclusively on Keaton instead of both he and his love interest, it didn’t play well during screenings. And because the plots were always about a boy pursuing a girl (either to save her or win her), it imposed some restrictions on the personal touches Keaton could put onto a film. It was the first external force to mainstream Keaton, and a film like College suffers for it. The ending here is outside the box and shocking in its wit: if you want matrimony and ‘til death do us part, then part we shall by death.