Buster Keaton and the Hard Work of Failure

Extra-curricular college activities. Image: Chicago Tribune

Have you ever worked really hard at something, only to see it fail?

We (as in, yours truly) have racked up loads of spectacular failures. Some were easy, while others required herculean effort.

That’s why we admire Buster Keaton‘s character in College (1927). Keaton plays a bookish college freshman who tries to join a college sports team – any sports team – to impress the girl he loves (Anne Cornwall). However, his lack of athletic ability makes this a near-impossible quest.

As the film opens, Keaton receives an academic award at his high school graduation, and he gives a little speech. “The student who wastes his time on athletics rather than study shows only ignorance,” he says. “Future generations depend upon brains and not upon jumping the discus or hurdling the javelin.”

Keaton quickly realizes his speech has alienated every sportsman in the vicinity, including Cornwall. Not only that, his reputation as an academic snob beats him to college, and he is welcomed with scorn by his fellow students. They refer to him as “The Crown Prince” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy”.

Nevertheless, Keaton is desperate to impress Cornwall, and he embarks on a mission to become an Athlete. His efforts prove unsuccessful.

In addition to this, Keaton must find employment to pay for his education. This proves futile as well, because he’s terrified of being seen by one of his wealthy classmates, i.e. Cornwall, which leads to a variety of fireable offences.

(Note: In one scene, Keaton appears in blackface to get a job as a waiter. When his co-workers uncover his deception, they run him out of the restaurant – and rightly so.)

To all the world, Keaton’s character appears to be a washout.

Exhibit “A”: The high jump. Image: Dope Fun

The joke’s on us, of course, because Keaton performs outstanding feats while he “fails” at sports. (See Exhibit “A”, above.)

This is what his sporting missteps look like: amusing, unexpected, delightful. But also: clever, precise, choreographed.

In one scene, he tries hurdling. He topples the hurdles as he lunges over them, but he never gets tripped up or tangled. He maintains his graceful gait. (He knocks over all hurdles, except the last, which he pushes over by hand. One might as well make it a complete set.)

In another scene, his spiteful classmates ambush him with a blanket and use it to toss him up and down in the air. Keaton bounces nearly two stories high on this blanket, and he never stumbles or loses balance. For a hapless lad caught in a prank, he’s got symmetry.

Keaton finally finds his niche as the coxswain of the school rowing team. Much to the chagrin of his teammates, this discovery is made on the day of the Big Championship Race.

But Keaton Saves The Day. When the rudder breaks off during the race, Keaton attaches it to himself, then climbs onto the end of the boat. Without rocking or tipping the vessel, he turns himself into a rudder and uses his legs to steer the craft.

We knew he had it in him all along.

Keaton is bullied by a rival. Image: Dr. Macro

It can’t be overstated that Keaton’s character fails at everything: romance, sports, employment, friendship. Even his grades suffer.

But he never gives up.

Nor does he shirk from doing the Right Thing. When Cornwall becomes locked in her dorm room by her jealous boyfriend (Harold Goodwin), Keaton rushes to her rescue. In doing so, he uses his newly-acquired track and field skills: sprinting, hurdling, high jumping and, finally, pole vaulting through her window.

His character does not allow failure to define him. As difficult as it is, Keaton accepts setbacks and immediately pursues other strategies. He is the very definition of resilience.

While College is not Buster Keaton’s most admired film, its themes of perseverance resonate with all of us – whether we be athletes or no.

This is part of THE BUSTER KEATON BLOGATHON hosted by Silent-ology.

College: starring Buster Keaton, Anne Cornwall, Flora Bramley. Directed by James W. Horne (& Buster Keaton). Written by Carl Harbaugh & Bryan Foy. Joseph M. Schenck Productions, B&W, 1927, 66 mins.

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40 comments

  1. Great piece! I saw College recently and found it to be much more enjoyable than I expected (more so than Spite Marriage, I might suggest?). I think the stories about the circumstances of its production maybe take away from the finished article.

    There is a willing suspension of disbelief required, though, for someone supposedly hopeless at sport he does look a lot like a middleweight boxer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Buster Keaton was one of a kind, wasn’t he? Roger Ebert has a great essay about Buster, how he’s not generally regarded as an action hero because he was in comedies and wore a pork pie hat. But, as you pointed out, he never flinched at the physical stuff.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A great account, Ruth. I really must do a proper catchup on Keaton at some point — I meant to organize a Keatonathon for Pam and me at Christmas but, like the vaguely speculated Agathachristieathon, it never quite happened.

    Okay, okay. For the sake of her fans that should have been “Dameagathachristiathon” . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While COLLEGE was not be as inventive as some of Buster’s other movies (e.g., SHERLOCK JUNIOR), it still includes a number of inspired sight gags.Overall, I enjoy Buster more than Chaplin and think his career needs greater attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In a way or anoher, We all identify with Buster’s character in this film. I’m very unathletic and saw myself in many moments as the nerd. Of course, it’s more than funny that Buster is so skilled at physical comedy that he must use his skills to fail beautifully in all sports. College is a great film, and your review was wonderful.
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It might not be his most admired, but it sure is fun. I know it is sometimes unfairly compared to Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman,” but Buster always brings his won magic. And besides, how can you NOT root for him? Loved your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice article SilverScreenings! I saw this one for the first time in the midst of a pretty huge Buster movie marathon (the exclusive guest list including me, myself and I) 😉 and have to admit I sorta didn’t give it the fairest of fair shakes. But you brought up a lot of good points and have made me rethink it… Thanks for that! Will be watching it again soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a thoughtful, gracefully written piece! COLLEGE is the one Buster feature that doesn’t get much attention (well, that and THREE AGES) so it’s good to see a more thorough analysis of it. Buster’s heroes could overcome obstacles and prove their bravery just as much as, say, Harold Lloyd’s!

    Thank you so much for being a part of the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Lea. “College” isn’t as well known as it should be…and while it’s not as spectacular as “The General”, Buster is every bit as charming and funny.

      Thank you for organizing this blogathon! I’m reading the entries now and really enjoying them.

      Liked by 1 person

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