College falls chronologically between Steamboat Bill Jr and The General in the Keaton filmography, at least officially at the point of release, and as a result to the unmet this innocuously titled film may as well be a hyphen. The plot is routine, a worryingly slow start with Keaton as Ronald attending his graduation day, lauded as a prize pupil in a world where brawn has taken over with the rise in importance of sporting events in circles that can only having been failing in their meant for academy. A lecture promoting sports as the refuge of the moronic goes down badly with the other graduates, the sporty and their admiring girls. Dismissing him along with the mob is Mary (Anne Cornwall) who, the subject of the lovelorn Ronald's affections and she is moving on to college with he the object only of her disgust. His family are poor (the $15 tag on his graduation suit signals how important the graduation is to his mother but is a bit steep for credibility and may possibly have been added later) but he follows her, working his way through college, his goal to impress Mary by becoming a champion in one of the many areas in the sporting spectrum of the college.
Beyond this it is everything that we expect or want of the silent comedy, a series of physical sketches, chiefly in his failed attempt to steal a position in baseball or win a place on the track team. These efforts are far more amazing than they may initially seem. It is difficult to remove the CGI blanket of assumption and take stunts for the honestly life threatening acts that they are no matter how much they predate the technology, we are so infused with ready doubt. This film is almost forgotten because it does not have the big props of windstorms and steam engines that perpetually advertise his most famous shock and stock gags. Too often the stunts are disarmingly subtle, unlike the tenterhooks gags of the great Harold Lloyd who had lost fingers and wanted to make sure that if he was going to risk life and digits it would be accounted for by the finished product, scene by scene, stunt by stunt, something spectacular to spell out the risk taken. In College, Keaton is grounded much of the time almost as if the comedy genius was playing a sick joke, with himself as the loser; how slight can the resulting gag look at the same time that he is seriously endangering his life and livelihood. This is best represented by a high jump trick where Keaton goes over, head first, and his head is embedded in the sand. It's dug out with a small sheet layered in sand over the hole but the accuracy required is terrifying, a couple of inches either side and it is a broken neck for our Buster. Jackie Chan would not attempt it, not for so small a radius of action. The remainder of the sketches revolve around his attempts to keep jobs and it is possibly the politically incorrect blackface comedy that has also pushed it out of the arena of respectability. No matter how acrobatic or laboured the action Keaton is as ever so successful in maintaining his stony expression that we fail to even ask and wonder how he keep his face so unmoved.
There are hilarious moments, from a stunning trampoline, balcony and fat lady surprise stunt to the flailing limbs comedy of the shot put sequence. Captions and visuals cooperate towards big laughs, such as the gag where a customer complains and asks our star to "bring me something you can't stick your thumb in" which Keaton responds to by returning with a coconut. The captions can be biting, eager for the age of sound when they can accompany the action and double the laughs. The love rival (played by Harold Goodwin) is introduced as "Jeff Brown, who believed so much in exercise that he made many a girl walk home."
In the 1920s the world of college/university would have been as fascinating as the routines filling the film to a cinemagoer, a glimpse into how the better-off youths studied and played. Already we see stolen road signs attached to the dorm walls and witness how quickly the sports have come to dominate over matters of intellectual study. Ronald's lecture is prescient, the popularity of games the world after diseasing sense in the world.
The programme is completed by two short subjects each 19 minutes long. The Blacksmith, from 1922, written and directed by Keaton and Mel St Clair, is inventive, and at that we can wonder, but it is not funny. It is mean-spirited and Keaton is an un-likeable, ignorant menace throughout even snarling at one point at a co-starlet; the nastiness in it perhaps lending a clue as to why he held is face so rigidly in most of his work. There are inventions based on fascinating developments in the scientific and engineering community of the day, the most ludicrous of which is a saddle with a shock absorber. The poor quality of the short shots of the rider on that saddle suggest their reinstallation taken from the only considerable poorer copy that held the footage. In one clever episode left to shoe a horse the stable is compared to a shoe shop of the time, complete with a sliding ladder, shoeboxes and mirrors for the equine customer.
One Week, directed by Edward F. Cline and Keaton, is a perfect concoction, a thrilling and exciting comedy head charge with Keaton and Sybil Seeley as newlyweds with a plot of land at 99 Apple Street and a flat-pack bungalow to construct. Seeley's jilted love rival turns the three into an eight and the one into a four and the couple end up with a crazier than crazy cottage. In each film Keaton is a somewhat different character. In College he was a driven intellectual, in The Blacksmith mean and ignorant and in One Week he is a trusting and amiable fool in the manner of a Stan Laurel. For a short the effects are considerable, the stunts wild. There is even an incredibly naughty moment when the delectable Miss Seeley takes a bath following an explosion of milk in her face (already too much!) Dropping her soap out of the bath she remembers we are watching and a man's palm falls across the screen until it is recovered. I would be surprised if that scene was intact post Hays Office and in early television transmissions. This film is highly regarded and understandably so, unkind to its striving players, it is non-stop high velocity comedic antics with a dash of the raunchy and a budget the envy of most features of the day. Keaton was proud of the film too. This is a great package for introducing the lasting comedic accomplishments of Buster Keaton and should sell the silent screen very well indeed to any nearing unlearned.