College (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
March 3, 2013 by Dennis Amith
“College” is an entertaining Buster Keaton comedy. It’s not his best silent film and its three-shot epilogue may seem unnecessary to audiences but at the same time, Keaton able to defy his own cliched endings of the past and possibly a scene that revealed more about the actor’s own personal life and outlook of his own marriage. But I look at “College” as the rebound film after the box office failure of “The General” and giving audiences what they wanted at the time, a straightforward comedy lacking anything deep but still able to produce laughs. For Keaton fans or the new fans of silent cinema on HD, “College” is recommended.
FILM RELEASE: 1927
DURATION: 64 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1, B&W, LPCM 2.0 Stereo
COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Directed by James W. Horne
Story by Carl Harbaugh, Bryan Foy
Cinematography by Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Edited by Sherman Kell
Buster Keaton as Ronald, the Son
Florence Turner as the Mother
Anne Cornwall as Mary Haynes, The Girl
Flora Bramley as Her Friend
Harold Goodwin as Jeff, the Rival
Snitz Edwards as The Dean
Carl Harbaugh as Crew Coach
Sam Crawford as Baseball Coach
Buster Keaton goes back to school and stages a hilarious send-up of university life in College. Keaton stars as Ronald, an idealistic freshman who attends Clayton College in pursuit of higher learning, but finds himself instead embroiled in a war of athletics as he fights for the heart of his beloved coed, Mary (Anne Cornwall).
More than he had in any other feature, Keaton stretched the boundaries of solo physical comedy. In a series of unforgettable vignettes, stone-faced Ronald tries his hand as a baseball player, soda jerk, waiter, coxswain, and track star, performing each task with a steady determination but with consistently disastrous results. These scenes are especially amazing because in demonstrating Ronald’s athletic inadequacies, Keaton reveals a surprising degree of physical prowess and finesse, particularly during the film’s exhilarating climax.
In 1927, the year was a major year for silent cinema. With the release of F.W. Murnau’s “Faust” and Harold Lloyd’s “Little Kid Brother”, while released in 1926, in January 1927, Buster Keaton’s “The General”, his most expensive film yet, would be release and would perform poorly at the box office.
While “The General” is regarded as Keaton’s true masterpiece, back in 1927, people felt the film was too dramatically heavy and not the comedy they were used to seeing from the actor. Also, many audiences who had parents who lived or were born during the civil war did not see how one could make a comedy about one of the bloodiest wars on American soil.
The result from the failure of “The General” was that studio moguls felt they could put their trust in Buster Keaton for cinematic ideas. His marriage with Natalie Talmadge was suffering, he was drinking more and spending a lot of his own savings on building an Italian villa in Beverly Hills.
So, his next film would be “College”, a film that was not directed or written by Buster Keaton. While considered a good, entertaining Buster Keaton film, it’s also considered as his weakest film. But people wanted the old Buster Keaton that would deliver many laughs and “College” was a film that provided that for audiences and more physical comedy the following year with “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”.
But what “College” provides cinema fans today is an earlier look at the University of Southern California (USC) and the old UCLA building which later became Los Angeles City College. The film would also be one of the few silent athletic films after Keaton’s “Battling Butler” and Harold Lloyd’s 1925 football film “The Freshman”.
And now “College” will be released on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber in March 2013.
“College” is a film about Ronald (portrayed by Buster Keaton) who is the “most brilliant scholar” graduating from high school. He is not popular like the jocks at school, especially the popular and athletic Jeff (portrayed by Harold Goodwin) but he is in love with Mary Haynes (portrayed by Anne Cornwall), the winner of every popularity contest in which the boys were allowed to vote, and wishes she would recognize him.
Unfortunately, after a mishap with his clothes, during his graduation speech titled “the Curse of the Athlete”, Ronald talks badly about athletics and how books are much more important which upset his fellow graduating class including Mary who vows not to recognize Ronald until he accepts sports.
As Mary and Jeff plan to go to Clayton college which the dean calls it a “athlete-infested college”, Ronald decides he wants to attend Clayton, even though his mother doesn’t have the money to put him through college, he would work odd jobs to help pay for it.
While at Clayton, Mary ignores Ronald (who is dating Jeff) and to make things worse, his dorm roomates are Jeff and a few jocks that like to intimidate and make fun of Ronald.
And while Dean Edwards (portrayed by Snitz Edwards) hopes that Ronald would bring his intelligence to Clayton, instead Ronald tries to join up with the sports teams.
Not knowing a thing about sports, he joins the baseball team and the track team. He fails miserably with each sports but Mary has been watching him afar and is proud that he is putting the effort and trying to be an athlete, which she respects. But because of his lack of athletic skill, he is often bullied by the athletes.
But when Dean Edwards talks to Ronald about why he is failing his classes, he tells him the truth. He loves Mary and because she thinks he’s weak, he has been focusing on sports.
The Dean sympathizes with Ronald because the same thing happened to him and that is why he is still a bachelor. Feeling bad for Ronald he tells the rowing coach that Ronald will now be the member of the competition team and will be the coxswain for their rowing team.
And with this opportunity, will it be enough for Ronald to win Mary’s heart?
“The Coach” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio, black and white). The film has been remastered in HD from 35mm archival elements. Having owned the previous DVD version, this Blu-ray release of “College” is quite literally the best looking version of the film available and for an 86-year-old film, Kino Lorber has once again done a spectacular job on a silent film release on Blu-ray.
Before I discuss the picture quality of “College”, it’s important to note that because this is a silent film, it’s important to emphasize that each silent film has been handled and stored differently. With that being said, I also want to add that there are only so many very good silent films still around, many destroyed from fires started by the Nitrate film or mishandling (or improper storage). Fortunately, a good number of Keaton films have strong film elements that have led to Kino International wanting to release more Keaton films on Blu-ray and to also make sure the film has not been digitally tampered.
Presented in 1080p High Definition, black and white, yes, the film is not pristine (no silent film in HD will be) looking as it does have scratches, dust, hair and other damage that the film has gone through within the last 86-years. But this is to be expected, if anything, many silent films on nitrate were not well taken care of, so each time I see a film in which the films are much better than I expect, I’m quite pleased and for “College” in HD, it’s definitely a major improvement over its original DVD counterpart.
I have watched many silent films that have had considerable nitrate damage but this film still looks fantastic for its age and you will not see the nitrate damage or acid buildup in the film’s sides. Yes, it’s not pristine but it’s the best looking version of the film that I have seen so far. You will see white specks, occasional scratches but the grays and whites are well-contrast, solid black levels and detail is much more apparent on the Blu-ray release.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“College” is presented in uncompressed linear PCM 2.0 and features the original organ arrangement by John Muri, that was on original DVD release. Granted, this is an uncompressed version and Muri did a wonderful job with the organ arrangement.
“College” come with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary – Featuring a well-detailed audio commentary by film historian and Slapsticon founder Rob Farr.
- Tour of Filming Locations – (9:55) An adaptation of “Silent Echoes” author John Bengston showing viewers of how locations for “College”, as seen on the film, looks today.
- The Scribe – (29:29) 1966 Construction Safety Association of Ontario industrial short starring Buster Keaton. In one his final appearances on film before his death.
“College” comes with a slipcase.
“College” is a formulaic film by Buster Keaton, always known for playing the underdog characters trying to win the girl that he loves.
But unlike his previous films, what makes “College” stands out for viewers today is its comedic charm, less of Keaton flair but also historic shots of an earlier Los Angels and its multiple campuses and features the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum which was built several years earlier.
It’s also a film in which partakes in racial humor which was acceptable for its time will not win many people today as Keaton is in black face trying to pretend he is Black in order to get a job. And also showcasing a woman, who is unable to barely live on her own without a man (unlike “The Navigator” or “The General”), which again is a sign of the time. And the former done without malice, while the latter is how women were portrayed in many films at the time. Females often portrayed as the damsel in distress.
And last, it’s a film that could have ended happily with simple banality, but unlike previous Keaton films that show a happily ever after, perhaps it was part of the original story by Carl Harbaugh and Bryan Foy or something inspired by Keaton’s own failing marriage, it strays from a formulaic approach and ends with man and woman ala tombstone.
But while Buster Keaton did not write or direct “College” it still has a lot of charm and humor. It’s not the death defying, risky stunts that Keaton is known for but its a character that has no athletic skill or knowledge, trying to partake in a baseball game, thinking he can be just as good as the track athletes but each time we watch him fail, it’s how he fails that make audiences laugh. But also how he tries to be cool whenever he sees Mary, may it be on the field as an athlete or during a part-time job, Keaton is actively wanting to do this for his love, Mary. But its the character of the underdog that people rally around for and wanting this individual to overcome adversity by the film’s end. We know how Keaton films end, we enjoy the journey of how that character becomes the hero.
“College” is a fun film and among the “collegiate” sports films, this and Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” are possibly the most well-known. But I suppose in 1927, perhaps it was a tired trend as even critic Carl Sandburg remarked in his review of the film, “Judging from the films that the studios are putting out, Hollywood is done and the University of California has taken its place. How the professors at the university can conduct classes with Richard Barthelmess kissing coeds in the hallways, Bebe Daniels in a bathing suit kicking the president soundly and Buster Keaton bounding through the classroom windows with Snitz Edwards in comic pursuit something to be imagined”.
But possibly the most stinging review for “College” is from one of the biggest supporters and reviewers of Keaton films, Daniel Moews, in his 1977 book “Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up”.
Moews writes, “The blacks, however, are simply accepted throughout as unacceptable, with no chance of ever being included in the hero’s world. They and not he are the true outsiders in the films, existing in segregated state, a state most clearly revealed in the several gags where their being momentarily mistake for a socially acceptable person is intended to be incongruous, impossible and wonderfully funny. A more description of these gags, which are also unpleasantly tainted by anti-Semitism, will demonstrate Keaton’s almost automatic reliance on repressive ethnic stereotypes to product what at that time were easy laughs”.
But Moews does add that to understand the portrayal of racial stereotypes or even how women were presented in his film, Moews wrote, “it was also a time of derisive ethnic stereotyping, of ethnic separatism and mistrust”.
Also writing, “a point to repeat and remember, however, is that the only seemingly real person in most of the films is the hero, with nearly everyone else reduced to an extra, a romantic or a comic type or an ethnic joke, and never intended to be viewed more than that”.
And I have to echo Moews sentiment. In today’s day and age, no one wants to see people doing a black face routine and no one wants to see females characters who are portrayed as weak women. But society has evolved so much since 1927 and I approach this film as one part comedy but also one part of a historic time capsule. To see how stereotypes were featured in cinema but also its ending to see how Keaton deviates from portraying a couple from his past films. But I also see this film for showcasing Los Angeles in 1927 and many structures that are no longer there and structures that are still around. So, I look at “College” as a film that signals how things were at the time for American cinema.
As for the Blu-ray release, “College” looks so much better than the original DVD release. The whites and grays are well-contrast, the blacks levels are nice and deep and while not pristine, it just looks so much better, no blurring or DNR, Kino presents the film in HD, remastered from 35mm archival elements and presents the film as is.
The inclusion of John Bengston’s visual essay on film locations are always a plus for these new Keaton releases, the audio commentary by Mr. Farr, creator of Indiana-based silent film festival Slapsticon, is wonderful as he is a person with wonderful insight on silent film. The Blu-ray release of “The Scribe”, one of the last filmed performances of Buster Keaton from 1966 is amazing in the fact that we see a late performance included with a Keaton silent release but at the same time, sad in the fact that we know this is a Keaton who was ill that year and was unaware he was dying of cancer.
Overall, “College” is an entertaining Buster Keaton comedy. It’s not his best silent film and its three-shot epilogue may seem unnecessary to audiences but at the same time, Keaton able to defy his own cliched endings of the past and possibly a scene that revealed more about the actor’s own personal life and outlook of his own marriage. But I look at “College” as the rebound film after the box office failure of “The General” and giving audiences what they wanted at the time, a straightforward comedy lacking anything deep but still able to produce laughs.
For Keaton fans or the new fans of silent cinema on HD, “College” is recommended.
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