Any discussion of Buster Keaton’s College will eventually come around to the film’s final seconds, a montage for which it’s most strongly remembered and during which the story’s happily married protagonists bear children, grow old together, and ultimately share adjacent cemetery plots. Traditional notions suggest that this sequence represents a detour from the film’s preceding, slapsticky story of romantic competition, often coming under fire for being unnecessarily depressing. The sudden change in emphasis is indeed jarring, as humor often is, but this final touch—a logical extension of the portrayed series of life events (graduation, work, marriage, etc.) as they’re carried out to their eventual conclusion—stands with the greatest jokes of cinema, swiftly and completely pulling the rug out from under our feet. Perhaps it’s the unavoidable influence of this writer’s many recent brushes with mortality, but these eyes see it as, above all, a hopeful gesture; what could be more romantic than winning the heart of your beloved through determined perseverance, till death do you part?
It would appear that these audacious final images reinforce the “happily ever after” aspirations that most romantic comedies in the 85 years since hew so closely to but ultimately gloss over in the existential sense; this effective slap in the face underscores the great joke that is human mortality, and lends the preceding trials and victories of Ronald (Keaton) and his beloved Mary (Anne Cornwall) the heft of great art. From the perspective of 2013, it seems like Keaton’s most modern work, its narrative a near-perfect distillation of the classic template in which the slings and arrows of a number of small obstacles ultimately ensure the hero’s victory, but its often bracing humor—not only the aforementioned funereal conclusion, but an extended and relatively raunchy opening gag in which Keaton’s pants split, as well as a bold sequence involving black face—consistently brings to mind the spirit of a self-critical West. (To boot, there’s even a visual flourish involving an umbrella that might be the first example of what will likely forevermore be known as “bullet time.”) College lacks the epic reach of more renowned films like The General or even Go West, but it’s as perfectly constructed as any of Keaton’s masterworks.
Kino's 1080p transfer of College is gorgeously natural and free of the noise and edge enhancement that frequently affects films that undergo digital cleanup, with a healthy level of grain that feels organic and, for lack of a better word, true. One minor issue: a small band at the bottom of the frame, about three percent of the full picture's height, is moderately and continuously brighter than the rest of the image. Fortunately, this flaw is easy enough to ignore, especially with the nostalgia-inducing collection of mild scratches, brief visual fluctuations, and overall minor flaws that have built up over the years on what's otherwise a pristine 35mm copy of an already beautiful film. The late John Muri's accompaniment—a vintage organ arrangement recorded in 1992—is a keeper that only a troll would chastise for being in mono.
Quality reigns over quantity. Film historian Rob Farr (who also founded the Slapsticon silent-film festival in Arlington, Virginia) provides an audio commentary that's engaging, informative, and fun, with savory details about the bit actors and a revealing selection of quotes from critics at the time of the film's release. "Silent Echoes" is a visual essay by John Bengston on the film's locations, many of which are still standing. Most interesting, and arguably very depressing, is "The Scribe," an industrial safety video from 1966 and Keaton's last recorded performance. In it, the 67-year-old genius, ailing from lung cancer, plays a janitor who stumbles around a construction site attempting to enforce safe behavior, nearly killing himself and everyone else in the process.
Arguably the most underrated work of cinema's greatest director, Buster Keaton's College is swift, hilarious, hopeful, defiant, and ultimately life-affirming.