Buster Goes to College

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To celebrate Buster Keaton’s centenary of starting his film career, Lea at Silentology is holding the third annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Click on the button above to see all the other participating posts.

I chose one of Buster’s less-popular films, College, which released 27 September 1927. For an added lift, I’ll also discuss how the film provides a look back at 1920s society and culture.

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Buster plays Ronald, the most brilliant scholar at his high school. On the day of graduation, he and his mother brave a rainstorm to get to the ceremony. We see a pricetag of $15 on Ronald’s suit, indicating he might be returning it afterwards and doesn’t come from a lot of money.

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By the graduation, Ronald gets a medal of honor and is asked to speak. His fellow students hate his speech, since he totally excoriates athletes and celebrates books and the life of the mind. They all laugh at him, and eventually get up and leave. During the speech, he also finds his suit shrinking and splitting.

At the end of the speech, only his doting mother is left in the audience.

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Ronald thought he couldn’t afford Clayton College, but changes his mind when he learns his crush Mary is going there. He’s determined to work his way through, and to join an athletics team so he might finally impress Mary. He first finds work as a soda jerk and then as a “colored waiter,” though neither of those jobs last very long.

He also tries out for the baseball team and the track and field team, but isn’t very successful at either. Mary’s heart starts to soften when she sees how hard he’s trying. She admires his determination, even if he isn’t a natural athlete. Her jock boyfriend Jeff derides Ronald, and tries to remind her of their relationship, but Mary retorts that he takes the seriousness of their couplehood too much for granted.

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Ronald is called into the dean’s office on account of his poor grades, after how proud the dean was to have such a brilliant scholar among his academic ranks. Ronald confesses he’s been trying to impress his crush, and the dean tells him he too had an unrequited love in youth, but he was stubborn and chose his books.

The dean hits upon a possible solution, and orders the rowing coach to make Ronald coxswain. The coach doesn’t want to accept Ronald onto the team, and tries to sabotage him. Before a big race, he slips a sleeping potion into Ronald’s drink, but Ronald winds up drinking from the wrong cup. The other coxswain is the one who gets roofied.

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During the race, Jeff springs a surprise visit on Mary and announces he’s been expelled. He wants to drag her down with him, and locks her door. The plan is for them to get caught alone together, so Mary will be expelled.

In spite of disasters all around, Ronald’s team wins the race. Afterwards, Mary manages to get a phonecall through to him, and he races to the rescue. All of a sudden, he’s transmogrified into a star athlete as he jumps over tall bushes, pole-vaults through the window, and fights with Jeff.

Mary is caught with Ronald in her room, and to avoid further scandal, they announce their engagement and run into a nearby church to be married.

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I love seeing the cost of living in old films. A $15 suit in 1927 would cost $279.13 today, which is on the low end. A designer suit can cost up to $5,000.

The name Mary in 1927 was like Jennifer in my generation. After slipping so far in popularity, it actually seems like an original choice today!

College culture was really hot. The college boy was a national icon, with men aspiring to be one and women aspiring to date one. The popular lure of college was indeed athletics and social life, not intellectual life. There’s an obvious parallel between this film and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though The Freshman has a lot more character and plot development.

Getting a job was so much easier. You could just walk in and get hired, no need for 3–5 years of entry-level experience or an advanced degree.

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How awesome was it that soda fountains used to be so commonplace! Even more awesome that many of them were in regular stores.

In 1927, it wasn’t illegal to advertise jobs specifically for a certain sex or race. Help wanted ads were divided by sex until 1968.

Blackface was a matter-of-fact, accepted part of the culture. When Buster blacked up for the short-lived waiter job, he wasn’t doing it to be offensive and racist. So many modern-day people who get bent out of shape over historical examples of blackface fail to look at the context and intent.

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Until a few decades ago, college authorities acted in loco parentis, in the place of parents. There were curfews, prying-eyed house mothers, and severe consequences for a woman caught with a man in her room. Even if they were only talking instead of making out or even close to one another, it was considered scandalous.

So many modern young women have no idea how much freedom they have, in spite of a continued sexual double standard. It’s commonplace now to have children outside of marriage, live with a boyfriend, marry after having several kids, and sleep with more than one guy ever. All those things had severe consequences in 1927. This wasn’t the era of casually hooking up with lots of partners. I’m laughably old-fashioned for not pursuing casual sex and feeling compromised by having slept with someone I didn’t marry!

1927: An actor carries Buster Keaton, in the role of Ronald, in the 1927 movie College.

This isn’t Buster’s strongest or most memorable film, but it’s a pleasant diversion.

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8 thoughts on “Buster Goes to College

  1. Pingback: The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon – Celebrating 100 Years of Buster! | Silent-ology

  2. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this on TCM unless I’m confusing it with another film about college and football.

    I also like to look at prices in old films. Over the weekend my wife and I were watching an old film–maybe the 1936 Fury by Fritz Lang–and in one diner scene a sign on the wall said “7 course dinner 50 cents”. Another sign said “Business man’s lunch 35 cents”. A dollar went far back then, but a dollar was also harder to come by.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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  3. Hi Carrie-Anne. That was a nice review of College. As you say, it’s not Buster’s best, but it is fun in parts, especially the parts where he fails then succeeds at athletic endeavors. Looking at prices in old movies, newspapers and magazines is always interesting. The general rule in American history is that they go up. Just about the only time they don’t is when we have depressions and get deflation. Deflation is harder on people than inflation.

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  4. Indeed one of the joys of older films is the window into another world. Context is all and you are so right about folks who get bent out of shape about that different world.

    My dad used to say that if you saw a group of women and shouted “Hey, Mary!”, at least half of them would turn around. My husband says the same thing about “Sara” today. Cycles in name popularity is interesting.

    College is a fun movie to watch. Buster’s athleticism on display is truly mind-boggling. Often in other films, his characterizations are so fully integrated that you take his abilities for granted. Of course, that very taking for granted is a great part of his art. The complete film artist.

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  5. Hi there, thanks for covering this film! While it’s more of a minor film in Buster’s case, it has a special place in my heart because it has the moment when I officially became a Buster fan. And it’s when Buster is in blackface, which is awkward, but the heart wants what the heart wants. 😀 It’s when the student complains about Buster putting his thumb in the soup and Buster sarcastically brings back something he can’t contaminate–a coconut. The sarcasm of it was just hilarious to me, and came as a complete surprise–I was waiting for the standard “blundering back with new soup and spilling it all over the customer” routine.

    I enjoyed your look at the ’20s “college culture”–I always get a kick out of those Jazz Age “college” films, I can’t remember the last time I saw one that had scenes involving studying of any kind. There’s a rumor that a Clara Bow film actually shows a college classroom, or so the legend goes. 😛 And I appreciate the commonsense approach to the non-PC elements of old films. I find that many such moments are awkward to watch, but overall pretty harmless if you examine the context and intentions.

    Thanks again for your contribution! Hope to see you next year.

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