After the unfortunate box office for his masterpiece The General, Buster Keaton retreated to a more traditional framework for his followup. College proves to be a fun collection of gags based on Keaton’s ineptness at sports, but feels a bit slight compared to his more accomplished works. That said, we’re still treated to the comedian’s trademark physicality, and it’s interesting to think how robust the college comedy has remained. From Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) to today’s usual sex-romps, the genre has proven a strong one on which to anchor comedy.
Ronald (Buster Keaton) is a studious young man who rallies against athleticism in his High School graduation speech (while also dealing with a rapidly shrinking suit). Having alienated his girl Mary (Anne Cornwall), he decides to work himself through college while also proving himself in athletics. His hilariously failed attempts at Baseball, Track & Field and rowing make up the crux of the film, until Ronald proves himself when saving Mary from his rival, Jeff Brown (Harold Goodwin).
While this short (66 Minutes) silent feature begins with a series of sight gags, it soon becomes a showcase for Keaton’s famous pratfalls. His attempts at Baseball are a highlight, as he attempts to bat simultaneously with another player, ineptly plays third base, and painfully accordians himself in a misguided attempt to slide into home-plate. The final segment has Buster rapidly running, jumping and (memorably) pole vaulting into Mary’s dorm room. The pole vault was actually performed by Olympic Pole-Vaulter Lee Barnes, but this doesn’t take away from the physical feats performed by Keaton.
The Blacksmith (1922 – 21 Minutes) is also prop and gadget based and features Buster as a blacksmith’s apprentice forced into running the shop after the brutish owner is imprisoned. Keaton’s ingenuity keeps him in business temporarily, but he eventually botches things quite convincingly.
Hard Luck (1921) is the most interesting short film here, starting with a distraught Buster attempting to commit suicide. After accidentally ingesting whiskey he signs up to capture an armadillo, only to run into the outlaw Lizard Lip Luke (Keaton regularJoe Roberts) and saving the day (and the girl). While uneven, and originally thought lost, the film is best known for its final gag. Realizing he can’t have the girl, Keaton climbs to the top of a high dive and jumps off, missing the swimming pool and crashing through the earth. The film then originally ended with what Keaton called the biggest laugh of his career, featuring him climbing out of the earth with a Chinese wife and children.