College, an underrated silent slapstick comedy, resolves its ridiculous plot with a formally brilliant and profoundly moving illustration of the limits a boy can bust through for the girl he loves.
Ronald, beautifully played by Buster Keaton, as his high school class valedictorian irks Mary (pert, lovely Ann Cornwall), the girl he desires, with his speech praising book-reading and denigrating athletics: Jeff, Mary’s boyfriend, is the graduating class’s star athlete. Determined to win Mary over, Ronald follows her and Jeff to the same California college and attempts to participate in various sports, where he proves to be clueless and inept. Meanwhile, working-class (unlike Mary and Jeff), Ronald must also work, but he is equally inept at his jobs. Meanwhile meanwhile, his grades are in the toilet. At least Mary has begun to approve of Ronald for his efforts as a would-be athlete, and the dean, sympathetic, orders that Ronald be made the coxswain of the rowing team in the big competition—a race that the team wins. Meanwhile, expelled, Jeff holds Mary hostage in her dormitory room, hoping that they will be discovered and Mary will also be expelled (for having a guy in her room), so that the two can marry. However, Mary manages to phone Ronald in the school locker room, and the one-man rescue-race is on.
Early on, too many title cards interrupt the film’s flow. Soon, however, sequences involving baseball and track and field, mostly very funny, dispense with titles entirely.
Two other sequences astound. One finds Ronald in blackface in a restaurant hiring “colored waiters.” A slip onto the floor erases some of the blackface, and in the kitchen the other workers, all African-American, run the white guy out of the place and out of his job: a subversive gloss (as if by photographic negative) on the “whites only” standard in hiring.
But the greatest sequence is, as earlier noted, the finale, where Ronald, buoyed by his success in the rowing race and fueled by his need to rescue Mary, gracefully executes the track-and-field events at which he earlier failed so miserably and hilariously (for instance, he pole-vaults up into Mary’s dorm room!). The film ends with Mary and Ronald racing together—and headed for the campus chapel to marry.
According to the official credit, James W. Horne alone directed this wonderful film, but Wikipedia has wisely added Keaton’s name to Horne’s. The inspired race to rescue Mary is Buster through and through.
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