The review is in conjunction with The Big League Blogathon: A Celebration of Baseball in Film, which is being hosted by Forgotten Films. After you check out this review, I encourage you to keep up with the other contributions throughout the blogathon over at Forgotten Films.
It’s no secret that Buster Keaton was an avid baseball fan, so much so that Keaton was known to take a ‘baseball break’ at a moments notice if there was a stall in a film’s production. Considering his love of baseball as well as his physical abilities as an entertainer, it’s surprising that Keaton never made a film strictly about the sport he loved so dearly – though baseball has shown up in a small handful of his movies.
In 1928’s The Cameraman, there’s a scene where Keaton pantomimes a handful of signature baseball movements in Yankees Stadium. Much later in his career, 1935 to be exact, Keaton made a 19 minute short film titled One Run Elmer, where he plays a gas station owner who tries to win over a girl by beating his rival in a game of baseball. The only other Buster Keaton film that features baseball in some capacity came a year before The Cameraman, 1927’s College.
Directed by James W. Horne and Buster Keaton, College is about a young man named Ronald (Keaton), who during his high school graduation is recognized as being the “most brilliant scholar” in his graduating class. While accepting his award, Ronald gives a speech titled “The Curse of the Athlete,” which chastises athletics for being drastically inferior to a good education. The speech is as humorous as it is purposefully ignorant, with Ronald asking uninformed questions such as “What have Ty Ruth and Babe Dempsey done for science?!,” all the while his suit is noticeably shrinking after earlier being caught in a rainstorm and then spending time next to a heater.
Ronald’s speech is clearly the catalyst for the film’s plot, in that he seems to be using it as a platform to belittle athletes while making himself look better in front of the girl he likes, Mary (Anne Cornwall). However, Ronald’s plan backfires, as his speech comes off as arrogant and misinformed, something of which causes Mary to declare that she would rather spend her time with an athlete over a “weak-knee’d, teachers’ pet.” Ouch.
Devastated by her reaction, Ronald only sees one way of winning back Mary’s heart, and that’s by following her to college and trying out for some of the school’s sports teams. Specifically, the track and field team and, of course, the baseball team. Unsurprisingly, however, Ronald is not all too successful in his endeavors, leading to a number of scenes that unfortunately do not quite live up to Keaton’s better work. Regardless, it’s still enjoyable watching Ronald position himself to play third base while wearing full catcher’s gear or seeing him throw a javelin with all of his might, only for it to travel no more than 5 feet.
Some of the stronger comedic moments come from Ronald working as a soda jerk, wherein he attempts to display some fancy bartending flair with disastrously messy results. One of the most impressive stunts in College comes later on when Ronald, who is now working as a waiter, does a backwards somersault while holding a cup of coffee upright the entire way. Unfortunately, as impressive as this moment is, it comes at the expense of some unfavorable blackface, which Ronald uses to hide his identity from Mary who is dining at the same restaurant.
While I don’t find College to be up to par with Keaton’s best movies, it’s still a fairly delightful watch. Furthermore, it’s always enjoyable watching Buster Keaton work. Keaton’s cat-like curiosity and deadpan demeanor is a huge part of what makes him such a incredible screen presence, and it’s all on full-display here in College. Additionally, I get a real kick out of Keaton playing a nerdy character without any athletic ability when, in all actuality, he’s about as athletic a man as it gets.
College is certainly questionable as an entry into baseball film history; however, Buster Keaton’s love for the sport makes covering such a film for such a blogathon seem completely reasonable. You can check out the film, which runs just a hair over an hour, via the YouTube video below, and again, I encourage you to check out the other entries in The Big Leagues Blogathon.