College is all but unknown in Buster Keaton’s filmography. And while it was made fairly quickly and cheaply, I still don’t know if I’d call it a minor work, however modest it is in comparison to Keaton’s more elaborate — and even spectacular — films. As such, College gives us Keaton working without the benefit of huge effects, reminding us what an inventive comedian he was on his own.
Keaton plays Ronald, who’s such a devout non-athlete that his high school valedictorian speech is about the unimportance of sport. The concept not only angers most of his class, but causes the girl of his dreams (Flora Bramley) to go off with an overly libidinous jock (Harold Goodwin). Determined to win her back, Ronald decides to put himself through college and become a jock himself. That’s pretty much all the plot there is, with the humor arising from Ronald’s incredible ineptitude at both sports and the part-time jobs he undertakes to support himself. It’s thin material, but Keaton — with the aid of future Laurel and Hardy director James W. Horne — makes it work, even down to a potentially offensive bit where he insanely tries to pass for black in order to get a job waiting tables.
There are several nice touches — the in-joke where Ronald names the college rowing team’s boat the “Damfino” (Damned if I know) after the title vessel in his early short, The Boat — and a rousing finale where he rescues the girl from the jock, followed by what surely must be the strangest wrap-up gag in film history.
College may not be Keaton’s best, but it’s still Keaton at the height of his powers. And that’s enough.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park will screen College as part of this year’s Mountain Sports Festival on Friday, May 7, 2004 at City/Country Plaza. Show time is at dark (approximately 8:45 p.m.); River Guerguerian and Aaron Price will provide live musical accompaniment.]