Catching Up: College

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

Time to go silent era on all your butts again. I’d previously seen The General when I went through AFI’s 100 Movies list, but otherwise, I had watched no other Buster Keaton films up till now. I figured it was time to change that. Unfortunately, it seems that the one I picked at random turned out to be something of a minor work from the legendary comedian. Still, minor Keaton is above a lot of other actors’ best stuff.

There’s a reason that College isn’t quite up to the snuff of Keaton’s other work. While it’s now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, in its own time, The General was a financial and critical disappointment. Subsequently, United Artists put a creative leash on Keaton in order to rein in expenses, and the result was that he couldn’t indulge his imagination for setpieces the way that he wanted. After a long and fruitful partnership with UA, he only made this movie and Steamboat Bill Jr. with the studio before leaving them for MGM.

College is cute and fluffy. Keaton plays Ronald, a college freshman (He was 32 at the time. Today’s adults-cast-as-teenagers TV shows have nothing on the 20’s) who is studios and most definitely not athletic. But Mary Haynes (Anne Cornwall), the prettiest girl in school, prefers jocks to scholars, so Ronald tries to bone up his athleticism in an attempt to impress her. Many pratfalls ensue, as he tries and fails his hand at every conceivable sport.

In anyone else’s hands, such minor, easy stuff as this would flop horribly. The movie essentially repeats the same joke of “man tries to do sports thing, does it incorrectly” a hundred times. It works because Keaton sells it. His legendary stone-faced unflappability is a great asset here. Other silent film actors might exaggerate all of their actions into embarrassing clowning, but not Keaton. The level of control that he has over his body language is nothing short of incredible, especially considering how physical everything that he’s doing here is.

It’s interesting to see how older movies are paced. College doesn’t get into the meaty, actiony bits of comedy until something like fifteen minutes in, and it’s a little more than an hour long. Back then, they took their time to firmly establish story elements before complicating things. That’s something that’s lost in most mainstream filmmaking these days.

But on the other hand, these days, you’re not likely (well… less likely) to see examples of cringe-inducing racism in your movies. There’s one sequence where Ronald, hurting for a job, becomes a waiter at a restaurant. The catch is that this eatery is only looking for colored staff. It seems that, in this time period, blackface was the answer to at least half of the problems one might have in a movie. That’s Ronald’s solution, and it goes over about as well as you’d expect. Yeah yeah, “product of its time” and all that, whatever. I’m sure future generations will hold Transformers 2 against us for the same reason. Well, among many other reasons.

It might be a minor movie, but there’s still some great stuff in College. Two scenes near the end in particular, a rowing race and a climactic show of athleticism from Keaton, are thrilling and funny and memorable. I might have picked the wrong film to see Keaton at his heights, but I’m not sure there’s a wrong choice possible when it comes to showcasing his talent as a performer. The man is an American treasure that everyone should dig up (Metaphorically speaking. Don’t exhume him. He can’t do cool things anymore).

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