Out of Buster Keaton’s independent features, I would have to say Three Ages and College seem to tie as the least favorite for most fans. Not that anyone outright dislikes these films as far as I know, but many do feel they represent Keaton and his team at their least inspired. It’s believed that the financial disappointment of the comedy epic The General forced something a bit safer and more formulaic upon Keaton, further souring the behind the scenes story of this picture. But should College really be looked upon so harshly? After all, if the similarly low-key Battling Butler had the misfortune of being made after the high point of Keaton’s magnum opus rather than before, if the places were switched, would we view College as negatively as we do? Were the places switched, would it in fact be considered underrated in the extreme?
Keaton is Ronald, a nerdy high school graduate who happens to be dating Mary (Anne Cornwall), the most popular girl of the class. Having more intellectual smarts than common sense, Ronald gives a speech about the uselessness of athletics in front of his classmates—all of whom are either athletes or sports fans. Offended and embarrassed to be associated with him, Mary breaks up with Ronald, telling him she’ll return to him if he “changes [his] mind about athletics.”
Hardcore nerd Ronald may be, but Mary’s affections reign supreme in his world, so the freshman decides to follow her to the expensive Clayton University. Of course, the path to true love does not run smooth: being from a middle class background, Ronald is forced to work a series of odd jobs to pay his way through higher education; he’s the target of campus bully Harold (Harold Goodwin, who turned out to be one of Keaton’s lifelong pals off-screen) and love rival Harold; and his attempts to break into the campus sports scene result in one epic fail after the other.
The film is largely episodic: Ronald attempts to either hold down a job or try out for one of the sports teams on-campus, fails, embarrasses himself in front of a sympathetic Mary and a snickering Harold, rinse, repeat. These vignettes range from highly entertaining to unpleasant. The restaurant sequence is universally considered the low point of the movie, with Buster appearing in blackface due to the establishment only wanting “colored help.” (Yes, this was another time where white audiences thought this way okay; that does not make it inoffensive). The parts where Ronald gets booed while giving his speech about “The Curse of Athletics” or hazed by his brawnier classmates always feel too nasty to be funny.
But what does work is fabulous. My favorite episodes in the film are the soda shop and track sequences. The soda shop is truly classic Keaton routine (one I’m surprised he never recycled for any of his later television or stage work), a great example of one character doing something with style and grace and then the main character emulating them but getting everything wrong. The soda jerk behind the counter does his work of making milkshakes with deftness and ease, catching ice cream scoops and sliding down glasses to customers with just the right amount of momentum. Ronald’s own performance of these duties is a delightful parody of physical grace, his own concoctions a wonderful mess.
The track and field scene isn’t especially groundbreaking, but it has two things going for it. The first is that it’s relatively inspired. Buster gets to jump about and torture himself in various amusing ways, my favorite being his attempt to pole vault which leaves him with his upper half stuck in the ground, his legs protruding from the dust like ungainly daisies. And the second reason? Well, it should really count against the believability of the story all things considered; we’re told Ronald is this physically-challenged nerd, made to think that under those sweaters and baggy tops he has the physique of Steve Urkel, yet the moment he changes into those track clothes we see a lean, muscular man. The only in-universe explanations I can come up with are that either Ronald got those muscles from heavy text books or being bitten by a radioactive spider during a field trip. The illusion of the nerd is broken, but—my goodness, Keaton looks so good in those clothes! No complaints here!
College is often compared to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though it might be more accurate to view it as part of one of the most popular film genre of 1920s Hollywood, the campus comedy. Comic performers such as Marion Davies and William Haines also starred in college comedies of their own during the decade. While The Freshman and College are of a similar genre and involve a rather geeky fellow going into the world of sports, the similarities end there, mainly because Lloyd and Keaton’s characters do not share the same motives for doing what they do. Lloyd wants to be the most popular man on campus and goes out of his way to impress his classmates by imitating a character in a movie and then trying out for the football team once he realizes he’s become a laughingstock. Keaton could not care less about the rest of the campus: he just wants to win the heart of one girl by conforming to what she finds desirable.
Spoiler warning—if you do not want, then skip the next three paragraphs!
Much has been made of the strange ending. Traditionally, such a lightweight, gag-based picture would end with Ronald and Mary walking out of the church hand-in-hand, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. Instead, College keeps going forward: we cut to scenes of parenthood, old age, and then death. If that wasn’t dark enough, the tone here is quite cynical. When the two are married, they seem to be fully in love, almost fused together in one another’s arms. But after? The scene of the couple with their children does not show a close family unit: the kids play in the background as their parents sit next to one another, not holding hands or even making eye contact, but absorbed in separate activities, oblivious to each other and the kids. Then we see the Ronald and Mary as an old married couple: seated side by side, there is a sense of hostility between them with Ronald disagreeably saying something to his wife while she stares into space.
When we get to the final image of the two gravestones, it is not a symbol of two soulmates together in death: there seems to be something sadder at play, a sense that Ronald wasted his potential and his life by bothering to win the day, that perhaps pursuing athletics did “curse” him after all! It’s almost the opposite of The General, where Keaton’s character saves the day and finds happiness by being who he is: an engineer, not a soldier (well, not until the end, but still—we never see Ronald use his own God-given brains to do much in College the way Johnnie Gray uses his skills as an engineer).
Of course, I’m sure Keaton didn’t intend any deep thinking to be read into this ending. I’m sure the more psychoanalytical film-goer will think this is some commentary on Keaton’s own marriage at the time, which disintegrated more with every year and ended in a nasty divorce in 1932, but I’m reluctant to go that far. Maybe he just wanted to kid the typical Hollywood ending? Or maybe he was expressing his own dissatisfaction with the film? It feels almost satiric, but if that is the case, then it does not gel with the rest of the film, which stays fast to the conventions of its genre without once poking fun at the genre itself.
Nevertheless, College is not nearly as big of a dud as some claim it to be. Yes, it’s not inventive as Keaton’s more inspired work, but even a minor Keaton film such as this has its own kind of low-key charms that make it pleasant viewing. Minor Keaton is still Keaton after all, and that can never be 100 percent bad.