Playing Mon June 13 at 6:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
Film Forum’s Keaton series continues with the delightful College, playing along with his 1921 short, The Goat. You can find a more general round-up of articles and essays on Keaton here.
From the Time Out Film Guide:
Minor Keaton but major almost any other comedian, and notably better than Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, whose plot it borrows, with bookworm Buster trying to prove himself a jock to win the girl. There is a marvellous sequence in which he apes – perfectly but disastrously – the tricks of a veteran soda-jerk; an even better one in which he attempts a decathlon of sporting events, but knocks down every single hurdle with metronomic precision, is thrown by the hammer instead of the other way round, etc. Rarely was Keaton’s grace and athletic skill demonstrated so clearly, even if he (understandably) had to get a double to perform the great pole vault through a window to rescue the heroine from assault by her jock admirer.
Alt Screen’s own Dan Callahan, surveying Keaton’s career at Senses of Cinema:
After this pinnacle, he slipped somewhat with College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), but both of these works have enchanting moments. The first, his most audience-friendly film, finds him trying to impress his girl by taking up athletics. As could be expected, the stunts dominate, and the movie has a likable calm. In an ending of breathtaking morbidity, the usual happy fade-out is extended with dissolves, to domesticity, to crotchety old age and, finally, to a shot of matching tombstones. The studio system would not take kindly to such dangerous instincts.
Imogen Sara Smith on the preceding short “The Goat” in her book Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy:
Despite a far-fetched premise and rambling construction, The Goat is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The gags, each one memorable, are woven together more carefully than appears on first viewing. Again and again, a set-up is planted and redeemed much later, after we’d forgotten about it. Mined with black comedy, the seemingly freewheeling film tightens like a noose.
Some of the gags here—like Keaton’s sudden dive through a transom and his eye-fooling transformation of a phone booth into an elevator—are among his cleverest and most audacious. In the laughter of contemporary audiences watching silent comedies like The Goat, you can hear astonishment at the sight of intelligence in action—the comedian’s alertness and ingenuity, that split-second capacity for the unexpected and effective response.
Brian Cady at Turner Classic Movies details some of the film’s historical context:
For creativity and comic genius, Buster Keaton was at his peak in 1927. Unfortunately, audiences and movie reviewers of the time could not recognize it. The General (1927), now acclaimed as Keaton’s masterpiece and the American Film Institute’s eighteenth funniest film of all time, was a disaster on its release, derided by critics and ignored by the public. For a follow-up, Keaton would have to attempt a more commercial endeavor.
The result was College (1927). At that time, America was college crazy with collegiate songs filling the airwaves along with college football games, college slang and collegiate fashion styles. In addition, fellow screen comedian Harold Lloyd had his biggest success with the college comedy The Freshman (1925). Putting the stone-faced Keaton in a university setting seemed like a natural.
The storyline is ironic as Keaton was probably the most athletic comedian of all time. Obsessed with baseball, Keaton would halt production on his movies to squeeze in a quick game with his crew. However, he did have to limit his physical prowess slightly on this film. For a scene where Ronald pole-vaults through a window, Keaton had to use a stunt double (Lee Barnes) for the first time in his career. “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.”
Mourdant Hall of The New York Times was a bit incredulous upon the film’s release:
Keaton is supposed to be a clever student, but from what happens one has no reason to believe that this is a fact. Everything he does is so silly that one can’t possibly look upon him as a bookworm. Nevertheless, this young genius on going to college decides to take up athletics, and one perceives his pathetic poses in full baseball regalia and discovers that he supposes that all base-markers ought to be kept clean. He has his experiences with the hurdles, hurling the javelin, throwing the discus, putting the shot and then when one would think that he would have sworn off athletics forever, he manages to get foisted on to the college racing crew as coxswain.
The first shell is sunk through Keaton leaping into it, and then, near the end of the race, he is supposed to develop a little ingenuity when the rudder comes off, for he ties the rudder to his waist, climbs out on the end of the craft and succeed is steering it all over the water and finally to victory.
The funniest feature of this film is the idea of having Snitz Edwards, who has been the comedy butt for Douglas Fairbanks and others, officiating as a college dean. His antics and grimaces really make one laugh. Keaton himself strives to be funny, but his actions are so frightfully absurd that it strikes one that the character he plays never ought to be out of an asylum.
Peter Bogdanovich at the deliciously-titled Blogdanovich:
Far more popular in that same year was Keaton’s foray into sports in COLLEGE, one of the most lightweight of his comedies, but for sheer into-the-aisle laughs, one of his best. What that other major comic contemporary, Harold Lloyd, had done for football a couple of years before in The Freshman, Keaton does for every other conceivable college sport, and Buster’s extraordinary athleticism is flamboyantly, uproariously displayed.
Finally, an improbably funny mash-up of Keaton and Michael Jackson: