To reconcile with his girlfriend, a bookish college student tries to become an athlete.
Buster Keaton's Civil War epic 'The General' (1926) is considered one of the classic films of the silent era. In the introduction for the film's airing on PBS, which can be seen as an extra on Kino's Blu-ray release, Orson Welles called it "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made." In reviewing the film, I found it to be "a very impressive endeavor." Unfortunately for Keaton, filmgoers of the time didn't connect with 'The General' in the same way. The mixed reviews and poor box-office returns resulted in Keaton losing the opportunity to direct another feature film on his own.
His next film, 'College', which is no longer exclusive to 'The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection,' was significatly smaller in scale, and James W. Horne. who would go on to direct a number of Laurel and Hardy shorts and features, like 'Way Out West,' was billed as a co-director, though how much Horne contributed is unclear. It opens on graduation day, and Keaton plays high school senior Ronald, the valedictorian of his class. Although Keaton was in his early 30s, the rest of Ronald's classmates are played by actors of a similar age, so Ronald not appearing to be 18 isn't as noticeable. With Ronald being focused on academics and the rest of his classmates enjoying sports, there is a natural clash, especially with Jeff (Harold Goodwin). The only student who likes Ronald is Mary (Anne Cornwall), who is revealed to be very popular with the boys. But even Mary turns her back on him when he gives a speech called "The Curse of Athletics."
Ronald is fond of Mary and follows her to college. Needing to pay his way through school, Ronald first tries work as a soda jerk, which allows Keaton to perform small bits of slapstick behind the counter the way a magician would perform with his hands, referred to as table magic or close-up magic. Mary stops in the shop but for some reason Ronald tries to hide the fact that he works there. It's not clear why unless there was some stigma in the '20s about someone putting themselves through school.
Later, Ronald gets a job at a restaurant that only hires "colored waiters," which means he puts on blackface. If that were all he did, it would be somewhat tolerable in context of both the film, as he desperately needs money, and the times, which found most whites insensitive to minorities, but when he shuffles to the kitchen in an exaggerated walk, it becomes difficult to watch. On a positive note, the staff is shown to be offended when they find out the ruse, although it's not believable they wouldn't see through it initially.
Ronald decides that the way to Mary's heart is becoming an athlete, which sets up a number of funny sequences as he tries out for the baseball team and track and field only to fail miserably at each one. On a side note, it was absolutely stunning to see pole-vaulters and high-jumpers used to land on what appears to be piles of sawdust to break their falls. Athletes had to have been hurt even if they succeeded.
Understanding Ronald's plight, the college dean (Snitz Edwards) demands he be made coxswain against the wishes of the rowing team and their coach, who intended to keep him from competing. As if dealing with that isn't enough, back on campus Jeff has gotten expelled and has come up with an insane plan: he figures if he can also get Mary expelled, by getting caught in her bedroom, she will marry him. Will Ronald be able to save the say when so many are against him?
While a pleasant hour of entertainment, 'College' doesn't compare to Keaton's more impressive works, or even Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman', so it's slightly underwhelming. The gags seem better suited for the shorts he made earlier in his career and the plot feels thrown together as an excuse to get to the comedy. It's better suited for Keaton fans, but not the place to start exploring his films.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'College' comes on a 25GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a blue keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
While given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1 and mastered from 35mm archival sources, the nearly 90-year-old film has not aged well.
The frame is filled with scratches, dirt, and white specks throughout. While longtime watchers of silent and foreign films won't be bothered so much by those common defects, there's a distracting horizontal line that runs along the bottom of the screen for the first two chapters, which then reappears a couple more times. This section below the line is lighter and appears as if it has been cut away and reattached. There are also a few severe stains that appear when Ronald gets knocked over in the restaurant. There is major light flicker during the intertitles and minor one when Ronald is called into the Dean's office.
But it's not all bad. Blacks are strong, though they can crush. Interior shots offer limited depth with some detail seen on objects in the foreground while daytime exterior shots see an increase in the depth of field, allowing for greater details to be seen in a larger area within the frame. No digital artifacts were noticed.
The audio option is LPCM 2.0 and features the late John Muri on organ, which booms out of the speakers right from the start. The track arefree of defect or wear and the its dynamic range is limited to the organ's high and low notes.
I am suggesting a rental for the casual viewer because a minor Buster Keaton film is still better than a lot of comedies and the time commitment is minimal, but I recommend buying this for Keaton fans who want to complete their collection. Aside from performing a major restoration, Kino delivers 'College' in as good a condition as can reasonably be expected.