For Buster Keaton, a perfectly pleasant comedy is a something of a letdown. But after the critical & financial drubbing he took on THE GENERAL/’26, a slide into Harold Lloyd territory (specifically THE FRESHMAN/’25) must have looked like a safe bet. Buster’s a bookish lad, off to college and hoping to win over his old high school crush from a thick college jock by trying out for every sport on campus. The film doesn’t come to life until the third reel when Buster starts failing at temp jobs (soda jerk, ‘colored’ waiter*) and all those college sports. Finally, Buster finds his place as coxswain, just when the girl needs his help. In a neat reversal you saw coming, he dashes to her rescue with an instant mastery of all the athletic skills he’d been screwing up. Basically, a series of set pieces, some prime Keaton, some running-on-empty, it adds up, along with SPITE MARRIAGE/’29, as the least interesting feature in Buster’s canon. Don’t worry, more genius was on the way with two masterpieces the following year, STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. and THE CAMERAMAN. (The current KINO edition comes with Keaton’s last short, THE SCRIBE/’66, a modest Canadian effort all about work safety. It’s no match for Keaton’s previous Canadian short, the magical RAILRODDER/’65, but it nicely matches up with this feature as another Harold Lloyd tribute with Buster getting in trouble on an industrial site like a classic Lloyd ‘thrill’ comedy.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: I - The much analyzed coda to this lightest of Keaton comedies takes a strange, bitter turn. In less than half a minute, and a handful of shots, we get the history of the married couple. And it’s no happily-ever-after; more like a tableau vivant via Strindberg.
II - Keaton fans always feel a pang watching an Olympic Team member pole vaulting for Buster. It’s the sole example of anyone stunting for Buster in the silent era. Usually, Keaton would stunt for others as well as himself. But watching the scene, the ‘sell’ isn’t the vault, but the landing roll thru the window. And that’s all Buster.
III - *Constant Readers will note that while Keaton plays a ‘colored’ waiter, we’ve posted no BLACKFACE ALERT. Why? Well, Keaton doesn’t use the traditional blackface mask & only does a touch of shuffling to confuse a customer. A neat bit of commentary, that. Plus, the presentation of the black kitchen/serving staff is all but free of the usual period stereotypes. No small thing.
DOUBLE-BILL: Keaton going all Harold Lloyd may have produced so-so results, but Lloyd going Keaton was another matter, producing what is arguably his greatest film, THE KID BROTHER/’27.