College (James W. Horne, 1927)

21Dec11

Starring Buster Keaton. Directed by James W. Horne. Rating: U. Running time: 66 minutes.

A short scrawny bookworm nerding it out 24/7 in the library as other boys bat baseballs and chuck javelins, Keaton here plays a boy intent on getting sporty in a final go at fulfilling his love-crush’s wishes and rescuing his chances of wowing her. That’s College in a nutshell, and after the situation is set-up the visuals gags start rolling in. If anything, the slapstick here seems slightly slower than normal, but the joys lost in a lack of pace are more than made up for by the deadpan expressions taking on new meaning. No longer do they merely imply stoical indifference to the madness surrounding him; now, in the context of being bullied by his fellow, hencher students, for the first time a hint of solemnity and sadness seems to be detectable. It’s the closest I’ve seen him come to the emotions Chaplin persistently played on.

As Keaton fails at baseball, destroys the hurdles and high jump and creates some frightening situations involving javelins, discuses, shotputs and hammers, the film threatens to lose sight of the story it had seemed intent on sticking to and keeping significant, and by the time the rowing race arrives the pace drops further and the purpose seems to be lost somewhat. And yet then, like a long distance runner finding energy reserves at the dead, College explodes again and matches the magic of an early milkshake-making scene, as Keaton scrambles to save his girl from another man’s proposals, combining all the skills he learnt on the athletics field to go flying through a second-story window before batting household objects at his rival. Think of Manhattan‘s finale, which was supposed to be based on City Lights, but I see College in it even more now. Here we get a level of energy and creativity to rival something like One Week. Knock 15 minutes off and this would be reaching similar heights. It’s more human, more varied, and ultimately simply Keaton.

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