Monday, August 18, 2008

College (James Horne, Buster Keaton) **1/2

Director: James Horne, Buster Keaton

Cast: Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Harold Goodwin, Snitz Edwards

Background: Not much info can be found on the making of this one, but Buster Keaton said he did not get along with co-director James Horne and ended up directing most of the movie himself. It is also rumored that a scene of Buster playing football was removed to avoid the appearance of copying Harold Lloyd's 1926 comedy The Freshman.

Story: Ronald (Keaton) is a very smart high school student who is named valedictorian of his high school class. During his graduation speech, he derides athletics as being worthless. This upsets his girlfriend Mary (Cornwall), who can't stand his elitist attitude. To win her back, he decides to try and be an athlete when he gets to college. His attempts at being an athlete result in consistent disaster.

Thoughts: You can't deny that Buster is a gifted physical comedian. There's an extended baseball sequence early on that is absolutely hilarious. However, this film contains one of the more blatantly racist moments I've seen. There's a sequence where Buster pretends to be a soda clerk to spy on Mary and the jock she is spending time with. The way he's able to hide from them is by doing blackface. The sequence is awful for many reasons. First of all, it's obvious that he is a white man doing blackface. I mean, it's possible we're to believe that the jock is stupid, but if Mary's that dumb, then perhaps Ronald should move on (more on that later). It's even worse that they've cast actual African-American actors as the other soda clerks, making it even more obvious that Buster would easily be caught. The absolute nadir of this sequence is when it looks like Ronald may be caught, but he saves himself by walking away with a limp. This is far more bothersome than the blackface sequences in The Jazz Singer. I guess we're supposed to think this is okay because Buster gets found out by the black characters when his makeup comes off, and they're really angry at him for it. This still doesn't excuse the fact that this scene is patently stupid because it makes no logical sense or that Buster used a limp for comedic effect. This sequence is so stupid and offensive that it drowns out everything else that goes on, which is a shame, because there is some funny stuff here. Another problem is the character of Mary. We're never given a reason why Buster likes her, and she's mean to him for most of the movie. I'd like just once for Buster to give up at the end of one of these movies, and say the girl isn't worth it.

Postscript: This is not one of Buster’s more memorable films. He would have more success with The General, which was released the same year and followed that up with a pair of highly praised films in 1928: The Cameraman and Steamboat Bill Jr. The sound era came and Buster kept working, but he was never as successful as he was in the silents. Perhaps his most notable performance was a supporting role in 1952’s Limelight, where he appeared alongside none other than Charlie Chaplin.

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