Monday, September 22, 2008

College (1927) (/w The Electric House (1922), Hard Luck (1921) and The Blacksmith (1922))

After the unfortunate box office for his masterpiece The General, Buster Keaton retreated to a more traditional framework for his followup. College proves to be a fun collection of gags based on Keaton's ineptness at sports, but feels a bit slight compared to his more accomplished works. That said, we're still treated to the comedian's trademark physicality, and it's interesting to think how robust the college comedy has remained. From Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925) to today's usual sex-romps, the genre has proven a strong one on which to anchor comedy.

Ronald (Buster Keaton) is a studious young man who rallies against athleticism in his High School graduation speech (while also dealing with a rapidly shrinking suit). Having alienated his girl Mary (Anne Cornwall), he decides to work himself through college while also proving himself in athletics. His hilariously failed attempts at Baseball, Track & Field and rowing make up the crux of the film, until Ronald proves himself when saving Mary from his rival, Jeff Brown (Harold Goodwin).

While this short (66 Minutes) silent feature begins with a series of sight gags, it soon becomes a showcase for Keaton's famous pratfalls. His attempts at Baseball are a highlight, as he attempts to bat simultaneously with another player, ineptly plays third base, and painfully accordians himself in a misguided attempt to slide into home-plate. The final segment has Buster rapidly running, jumping and (memorably) pole vaulting into Mary's dorm room. The pole vault was actually performed by Olympic Pole-Vaulter Lee Barnes, but this doesn't take away from the physical feats performed by Keaton.

In order to afford college, Ronald works a number of jobs. First as a soda jerk (Keaton's attempts to mimic his fellow employees glass-flipping theatrics is a highlight), and then as a waiter in a "colored" restaurant. This crude example of black-face humor is tame compared to other films of the time, but still proves to be patently offensive to a modern viewer. Otherwise, the film is fun and fast-paced, though obviously a step backward from The General.

This Kino release also features three shorter Keaton films:

The Electric House (1922 - 23 Minutes) is a gadget-filled romp focusing more on props and sight-gags than physical feats. Buster (a botany graduate) is mistakenly hired to wire a new home. When the owner returns home, he finds it filled with fanciful gadgets like an escalator staircase, an automatic pool table, and a model train that delivers food to the dinner table. Buster's rival (and actual electrical engineer) sabotages the devices which wreak havoc with the owners.

The Blacksmith (1922 - 21 Minutes) is also prop and gadget based and features Buster as a blacksmith's apprentice forced into running the shop after the brutish owner is imprisoned. Keaton's ingenuity keeps him in business temporarily, but he eventually botches things quite convincingly.

Hard Luck (1921) is the most interesting short film here, starting with a distraught Buster attempting to commit suicide. After accidentally ingesting whiskey he signs up to capture an armadillo, only to run into the outlaw Lizard Lip Luke (Keaton regularJoe Roberts) and saving the day (and the girl). While uneven, and originally thought lost, the film is best known for its final gag. Realizing he can't have the girl, Keaton climbs to the top of a high dive and jumps off, missing the swimming pool and crashing through the earth. The film then originally ended with what Keaton called the biggest laugh of his career, featuring him climbing out of the earth with a Chinese wife and children.

The ending of the short was thought lost forever, with the still photo above being the only remaining segment of either the dive or the subsequent climbing from the earth. The Kino release leaves the ending unshown, but recently the ending has been found again and i've included it here:

College features well above average video quality. However, there are several scenes throughout the film which show a dramatic quality loss, obviously taken from different prints of the film in order to give the viewer the most complete version available.

The video quality in the three shorts vary, with Hard Luck suffering the worst and The Blacksmith holding up surprisingly well. The Electric House is watchable, but shows significant signs of its age.

A fine collection of work from Buster Keaton's most prolific and enjoyable period, Kino's release of College shows his work from this period to be wonderfully entertaining, though these particular films do not match up to his masterpieces.

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