Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#24) Buster Keaton in COLLEGE

Ah, Buster Keaton, where have the likes of you gone?  Keaton had the peculiar and genius knack for being one of the primary comedians of his time, while actually looking on the surface rather ordinary.  Sure he was a little short and had a face like a banker, but when he got to work with facial reactions, physical timing, and of course those stunts, there was no limit to the possibilities.  In the scope of a career in the 1920's that had him doing feats of daring-do that might have made Chaplin sometimes double-take, and with a few big-time masterpieces (The General, Steamboat Bill Jr, Sherlock Jr, most of Our Hospitality), a movie like College is kind of a minor work.  This is at least when it comes to the stunts category; considering that it's a work that focuses on Buster doing his stuns at a college as a would-be sports jock with all kinds of activities (baseball, track, Olympic-style javel throwing, rowing crew), he doesn't do quite as much harrowing work one might expect... until the climax, that is.

Another reason College might rank as kind of a minor work for me is that the premise is just a little fishy for me: a girl whom Buster pines after sees that he's just a big "egg-head" as he gives a speech as valedictorian at the high school graduation about how sports are nuthin' and science and education is really where it's at.  It also doesn't help poor Buster's predicament that his suit becomes smaller and tighter before the speech as he's caught in rain and sitting right next to a heater waiting to speak.  The girl tells Buster that his speech was "ridiculous" and that unless he goes for sports instead of boring stuff like science and literature, she wants nothing to do with him.  So he goes for all the sports he can- baseball, track, gavel-throwing, the whole works from that sports game that we used to play as kids on Nintendo (the one with the mat, sorry I digress again)- all for her affections.

It's a little suspect to me that Buster wouldn't just say 'screw it' and find just one other girl who, you know, might be interested in him just on the basis of being all nerdy and not like a jock.  This is the kind of premise one might expect in a stupid comedy of present day, maybe starring Jay Baruchel or something (please, studio execs maybe reading this, don't get any ideas).  And yet I can almost forgive the dopey premise because it's Buster Bust-a-Move Keaton, and he's hilarious even in a minor key role such as in College.  Some of the gags seem kind of basic but are taken to some wild levels, like when he works as a Soda Jerk and doesn't know a lick of how to throw up a soda glass or eggs (of course).  Other gags veer into outrageous territory as, for example, Buster sees a job offering for waiters, but only "Colored", so he goes in in blackface.  I was a little taken aback at first, until I saw the pay off.

There was never a moment I doubted Keaton's abilities with quick or just sublime timing, and even the title cards indicated humor where I didn't expect it (example: "A call to the dean's office means only one thing: GRIEF").  And when Keaton gets into a groove with some of the sports gags it picks up some comic steam; seeing his struggle to just jump over a stick turns into an epic struggle, and his triumph a gag that had me howling in my couch.  What worked best for the movie is that just as it looks to be over, following a madcap mayhem with the rowing competition- first Buster isn't drugged like the rowing crew tries to do, then turns into the rudder(!) to help win the race- it turns into a daring rescue mission for the girl, trapped by a big lout of a jock.  It's this climactic sequence that it becomes a classic Buster Keaton sequence as he takes all of the previous strands of gags and vignettes and ties it altogether as if he becomes a superhero (or, as I joked to myself watching it, "... He's the One").

"Mr. Anderson, that's the sound of your life running out."  "MY NAME... IS BUSTER!"
After this the movie basically ends, though not without giving a possible influence to... Zardoz(?)  But anyway, College is a fun piece of Keaton stylization, with his sharp direction (he's not credited but really directed most of it himself) and that look on his face that makes it sometimes very hard to laugh.  It's hard to find some of it funny without thinking afterwards "Poor Buster", since we want to root for him despite the hackneyed premise.  His genius was getting us to care about him almost without thinking we could; he and Chaplin were the masters of the underdog silent comic.  And if College is minor work, it's still better work than most slapstick/rom-coms of the present day.

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