Buster Keaton/College

Well, my migraine-addled mission tonight was to watch a Buster Keaton film. I seem to get bad headaches and then watch silent films, and end up feeling sort of soothed by them, since they are easy on the eyes and ears. I didn't have to watch a particular film - Ebert simply had an entry in his book for Buster Keaton. I really like him, though, so instead of just skipping it, I decided to watch one of his films. I sort of just selected on at random that was streaming on Netflix, and I ended up watching College, directed by James W. Horne in 1927. It seems that according to IMDB, "In an interview with author Kevin Brownlow, Buster Keaton said that he directed almost all of this film and that credited co-director James W. Horne did virtually none of it. Keaton said that his business manager talked him into using Horne, but that Horne proved "absolutely worthless to me... I don't know why we had him."  Something interesting to consider.

For this, I'll write a tiny bit about the movie I watched, but I'll give more time to Keaton himself. Thus the famous picture of him from The General :)

College is about a really smart man named Ronald, who at his high school graduation, gives a stupid speech about how horrible athletes are. Everyone mocks him and leaves the ceremony. Mary, a beautiful girl that he likes, comes up to him and angrily tells him that if he changes his mind about sports, she might change her mind about him. Ronald goes to the same college as her, where he tries out a bunch of different sports, and fails at all of them. Of course, it has a happy ending, but it's a 66 minute public domain movie, so if you are interested (and not put off by one really tasteless, racist scene), check it out.

The film, although selected randomly, is a great example of the sort of characters that Keaton always played. Ebert writes about them in his essay, saying, "It's said that Chaplin wanted you to like him, but Keaton didn't care. I think he cared, but was too proud to ask. His films avoid the pathos and sentiment of the Chaplin pictures, and usually feature a jaunty young man who sees an objective and goes after it in the face of the most daunting obstacles. Buster survives tornadoes, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders and falls from great heights, and never pauses to take a bow: He has his eye on his goal. And his movies, seen as a group, are like a sustained act of optimism in the face of adversity; surprising how, without asking, he earns our admiration and tenderness" (Great Movies II, 94).

This is such a great description of his characters, and I noticed it in the film I watched tonight. Part of why I love Buster Keaton is because he is so perseverance. There is something charming and sad about how his characters try to fit in or succeed but always fail - but he does keep trying!  I had a lot of empathy for him in College. I'm horrible at all sports, and I told Anthony that this movie was like "watching my life." I was pretty much always that kid who would duck instead of catch a baseball, and would rather sit in the grass and daydream instead of kick a soccer ball. I think that some of Keaton's characters are so easy and nice to watch because we can all relate to them, a little bit. We all try to fit in, and fail at it, and I think that's why people like his characters so much.

Keaton was also an incredible stuntman. Ebert writes a lot about this, but I knew it before going into most of his movies that I've seen. It's pretty incredible to see people do stunts now, when it's much safer than in the 1920's. It's shocking and astounding to watch Keaton's movies and realize the amount of danger he was in and the talent that he had. Ebert has a pretty great example of a dangerous stunt Keaton did, and he writes, "Keaton is famous for a shot in "Steamboat Bill, Jr.," where he stands in front of a house during a cyclone, and a wall falls on top of him; he is saved because he happens to be exactly where the window is. There was scant clearance on either side, and you can see his shoulders tighten a little just as the wall lands. He refused to rehearse the stunt because, he explained, he trusted his set-up, so why waste a wall?" (Great Movies, 96). His attitude and stunts were a tiny bit insane, and I love that. You just have to appreciate a man like that, you know?

I really love Buster Keaton, and I think anyone who likes comedy, especially silent comedy, should check out all of his films. They're really great, most of them are just short and fun. I will admit that I have more of a fascination with silent films than most people I know (I told Anthony I sometimes just like to see....the 1920's, I guess, see the people, the styles, etc), but I think comedy is pretty accessible. At the end of his essay, Ebert sadly writes that at the end of Keaton's life, "He lived in the San Fernando Valley, raised chickens, and thought his work had been forgotten. Then came a 1962 retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, and a tribute at the 1965 Venice Film Festival. He was relieved to see that his films were not after all lost, but observed, no doubt with a stone face, "The applause is nice, but too late."(Great Movies II, 97)

Guys, don't let him or his films ever be forgotten about!

Ebert's Essay on Buster Keaton
Watch College at the Internet Archive
College, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The General are all streaming on Netflix and The General is on Hulu.  

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