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To reconcile with his girlfriend, a bookish college student named Ronald tries to become an athlete.
For more about College and the College Blu-ray release, see College Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on December 19, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Harold Goodwin, Snitz Edwards
Directors: James W. Horne, Buster Keaton
» See full cast & crew
College Blu-ray Review
Keaton goes collegiate.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, December 19, 2012
In 1926, stone-faced comedian Buster Keaton made The General, an enormously expensive, high-concept comedy— in which Buster commandeers a train during the Civil War—that's now considered one of the greatest films of the silent era. Of any era, really. Keaton himself felt that it was his masterpiece. When it was initially released, however, it was drubbed mercilessly by critics—characteristically gloomy New York Times writer Mordaunt Hall said of it, "the fun is not exactly plentiful"—and it sagged at the box office. Keaton would get a second chance at lavish spectacle with 1928's Steamboat Bill, Jr., but immediately following the poor performance of The General, his longtime producer, Joe Schenck, was wary of giving Buster another large budget. Their next film would be College, a comparatively small-scaled production that's often overlooked in Keaton's filmography, particularly since it's sandwiched between what are arguably Buster's two best movies. If short on the exorbitant, over-the-top sight gags of The General and Steamboat Bill—a collapsing bridge, a house-lifting hurricane, a raging flood—College is exemplary of Keaton's brilliant low-key character work and his ability to wrangle laughs out of just about any scenario.
In College, Keaton plays a variation of a character he'd played numerous times before—an out-of-his-element nebbish who can't seem to do anything right. Here, he's "Ronald," and the film opens at his high school graduation, where he's wearing a $15 suit so new that he's forgotten to take off the tags. It's also sopping wet—he's just come out of the rain— so when he sits next to the radiator, his clothes begin to steam and shrink, until the sleeves recede several inches and the buttons pop off. As the school's "most brilliant scholar," he's been asked to give a commencement speech on "The Curse of Athletics," which infuriates the jocks—led by the dumb-but-handsome Jeff (All Quiet on the Western Front's Harold Goodwin), who's been in high school for seven years—and prompts a mass student exodus from the auditorium. Sample line: "What have Ty Ruth or Babe Dempsey done for science?"
Outside, Ronald's uber-popular crush, Mary (Anne Cornwall), gives him an ultimatum: "Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak knee'd teacher's pet. When you change your mind about athletics, I'll change my mind about you." And there we have the impetus for the rest of the film; to win back his girl, Ronald endeavors to become a collegiate all-star, following Mary—and Jeff, her new beau—to the fictional Clayton University, with a suitcase full of baseball and track gear and instruction manuals on a variety of sports. Naturally, he makes the goofiest, gangliest athlete imaginable, and his on-the-field ineptitude knows no bounds.
The irony here is that, in real life, Keaton was extremely fit and almost miraculously coordinated. In College, he parlays his physical abilities into looking effortlessly bungling, which is much harder than it seems. While there are fewer death defying stunts here than in some of his bigger films, the movie is a showcase for the nuance and exactitude of Keaton's body-comedy.
The middle act is basically a Buster decathlon, with Ronald trying and failing—spectacularly—at a number of different sporting events. He plays baseball but has no idea how to hold a bat. He knocks down about a dozen hurdles in a row. He skids on his posterior doing the long jump, failing to even make it to the landing pit. And while he actually clears the bar at the high jump —after numerous botched attempts—he then promptly lands head-first in the sand and gets buried up to his waist. Pole vaulting, shot put, and javelin end disastrously too. At one point, he throws a discus and knocks the hat right off the school's dean—frequent Keaton collaborator Snitz Edwards—nearly decapitating him.
It's not all fun and bumbling games. Ronald takes two part-time jobs near campus, first working as a soda jerk, where he throws a milkshake into a patron's lap and generally makes a mess, and then—in a sequence that's somewhat cringeworthy now—shows up in blackface when he sees a "Wanted: Colored Waiter" sign outside a restaurant. It may have dated racial overtones, but the scene also has a great bit where Keaton does a backwards somersault while holding a saucer and cup of coffee, all without spilling a drop.
Like many Keaton films, College saves its best—or, at least, biggest—gags for the end. Ronald is made the coxswain of the rowing crew, piloting The Damfino—a reference to Keaton's short The Boat—to an unlikely victory. (When the rudder falls off, Keaton ties it to himself and drags his ass off the back of the racing shell.) Unfortunately, his Mary isn't there to see the win; Jeff is holding her hostage in her room in a bid to have her expelled—guys were obviously forbidden in the girls' dorms in these days—and forced to marry him. Ronald finds out about this and rushes to her rescue in a mad dash that has him leaping hedgerows, long jumping across a moat, and pole vaulting up through Mary's window, where he fights off the offending oaf in what may be the most violent encounter in a Keaton movie.
College Blu-ray, Video Quality
If you're familiar with Kino-Lorber's other Buster Keaton Blu-ray releases, you'll feel right at home with College, which has been given a newly mastered 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that's striking and faithful to source. Some might say too faithful. As usual for Kino, the print is essentially presented "as is," meaning there's been no significant digital restoration or clean-up. So, you will notice semi-frequent white specks, small scratches, mild contrast fluctuations, and a few brief moments of staining and warping. None of this is distracting in the slightest—particularly if you're used to watching silent films—and all things considered, for an 85-year-old 35mm print, the damage here is minimal. On the plus side of Kino's approach, there's been no digital noise reduction, edge enhancement, or other significant filtering; the picture has a natural look, with a visible layer of grain. The lone oddity, which you can spot in the screenshots, is that there's a constant line near the bottom of the frame where the brightness level shifts slightly but suddenly. I'm not sure exactly what may have caused this, but it's almost certainly a source-related issue, and to fix it would likely require significant time and effort. Once again, though, it's something you quickly glaze over. What you will constantly notice is how great the film looks in high definition, with finer detail, better resolved textures, and an all-around appreciable increase in clarity. The film's monochrome gradation is handled nicely as well, with some inconsistency in contrast between scenes, but generally solid black levels and white that never peak.
College Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There's only one accompaniment track on Kino's Blu-ray release of College, but it's a good one—a vintage organ arrangement by the late John Muri, who passed away in 2000. Presented in uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 stereo, the music sounds good and suits the film well, complementing the onscreen action without overshadowing it. No issues here.
College Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
College Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Made between The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.—arguably Buster Keaton's two best films—the comparatively smaller-scaled College unfairly tends to be forgotten. What it lacks in big-budget spectacle, however, it more than makes up in clever gag-work and the charm of Buster's bungling would-be athlete of a character. As usual, Kino's Blu-ray release is a joy to watch, and it comes with an informative commentary track that's well worth a listen for Keaton fans. Highly recommended!
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