COLLEGE will be proceeded by the Buster Keaton short COPS (1922)
Books vs. Sports. Nerds vs. Jocks. It's a tale as old as the abbicus. After delivering the valedictorian speech at his high school graduation, Buster Keaton gets berated by the girl he loves for not caring enough about sports. He vows to go to College and win her heart by winning at track and field. The central dynamic of brawn vs. bowtie had already been codified by Harold Lloyd in THE FRESHMAN in 1925, and it reverberates through movie history in everything from the Marx Brothers' HORSE FEATHERS to REVENGE OF THE NERDS. Today the ascendancy of "nerd culture" has complicated this dynamic and turned an ancient dichotomy into a prism of warring adolescent allegiances and subcultural rivalries. But in 1927 the sides were clear. The meatheads were the enemy, and comedy was the best weapon to use against them.
The majority of COLLEGE is structured around Keaton trying and failing at a wide variety of athletic endeavors. Baseballs whizz between his legs, shotputs throw him, and he knocks over every single hurdle on a racetrack with bumbling precision. It's ironic for a Buster Keaton movie to root so much of its comedy in physical incompetency, because of all the great silent comedians, Keaton was the one who most elevated comedy not just to an art, but to a sport. His slapstick is rigorous, demanding, and athletic. He executes gags with the grace and precision of an acrobat and commits to a bit with the determined intensity of a soldier. And the Great Stone Face does it all without ever breaking a sweat or showing a single crack in his deadpan facade.
A sad but necessary WARNING: this movie contains black face. In one scene Keaton paints himself up and gets a job in a "colored" kitchen. It's pretty shockingly offensive and there really is no excuse or defense for it. It's in there, it happened, it's a historical reality, so be prepared. The scene has little bearing on the rest of the film and hopefully a modern viewer can condemn the racism without writing off the rest of the comedic artistry of the great Buster Keaton. Be warned!