Joshua Reviews James W. Horne’s College [Blu-ray Review]


Over the past few years, companies have been releasing large box sets pertaining to single stars, eras or filmmakers as often as the public is willing to fork over the often large sums of money needed to purchase said box set. However, with Criterion taking much of the arthouse market for themselves (think how huge and widely discussed things like their Three Colors set was, or the still fawned over BBS box set) it has been rather tough for other names to make a splash in the big box market. That is, until Kino decided to dump something truly special on us.

Finishing off last year with a giant box set of the entire catalog of Buster Keaton films at their disposal on Blu-ray, the company has produced one of the most sought after box sets for cinephiles to date. With features and shorts alike, the set even came with box set only supplements, mainly a Blu-ray transfer of Keaton’s brilliant and underrated masterwork College.

Well, with the set firmly available for retail for a few months now, Kino has finally dropped that film as its own, stand alone release, for those unable to drop the pretty penny(ies) needed to purchase the full set, and it’s an absolute joy.

Easily one of Keaton’s more slight pictures, the roughly hour long feature depicts the tale of Ronald, a young student who tries his absolute best to win over the heart of the young Mary Haines. Trying to impress her through his prowess in various aspects of life (be it a public speaker or an athlete), the film becomes one of Keaton’s most physically demanding features, and also one of his most laugh inducing.

College’s star is Keaton’s physicality. Always one for a good pratfall, Keaton is on his A-game here, giving himself over entirely to the performance, and proving that while he may have been known for his stone face and often moving romances, very few silent stars had as potent a style performance wise as Keaton. Not only was he an avid athlete himself, but his comedic timing is thrillingly on point during the final act, which is comprised of athletic gag after athletic gag. Be it the perfectly timed look he gives to a pole-vaulter or the tipping over of one lonely, still-standing, hurdle after a run, Keaton’s timing and physicality prove that this is one of his most perfectly distilled comedic performances.

Visually, the film is solid. A typical silent Keaton comedy, the bits are given the perfect amount of breathing room, and they are often times set up with perfect rhythm and perfect breadth. There are a few troublesome bits, particularly one finding Keaton in black face as a waiter, but for the most part the film’s style is not the main focus here.

That said, there is a lot more to the film than a brilliant Keaton performance and solid bits. Sports fans and historians will find this release to be the best home video release of an oddly important feature film within that realm. One of the only remaining visual documents of various Olympic caliber athletes from the time period and even the all time MLB leader in career triples, Sam Crawford, the film is both a brilliant comedy and also a truly important sports history document.

Thankfully, this Kino port is chock full of supplements. Leading the way is a commentary that is as superb as they come. A little dry, the talk with film historian Rob Farr is really informative (hinting at, for example, the aforementioned importance to sports this film has) and adds yet another reason to toss this release in your Blu-ray player multiple times. A score from composer John Muri is moving and fitting for the film itself, and a visual essay on the film’s locations from author John Bengtson adds some great context to the film’s production. However, the star here is a secondary film, The Scribe, an industrial film that is seen as Keaton’s final film performance. Not much more than a curio for Keaton fans, the short is a fantastic addition to a release that may be one of last Blu-ray releases of a Buster Keaton film in quite some time.

Overall, while the film lacks moving romance of a film like Seven Chances or the overall aesthetic inventiveness as a film like The Navigator, College may be one of Keaton’s most intensely enjoyable. Featuring one of the icon’s greatest physical performance and some added historical interest for sports nuts, College should be a Blu-ray on the shelves of any and every Buster Keaton fan. With a superb transfer and some rather stunning supplements (especially given Kino’s scatterbrained output of extra features), this is a Blu-ray release that has been seemingly looked over by many this March.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.