Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College (Kino Lorber, NR)

Both films espouse the triumphs of traditional “manhood.”

Following up the “well-known” and “earliest” pairing of Kino’s first Buster Keaton release (The General and Three Ages) is a pairing of thematic familiars, specifically Keaton’s often seen persona of entitled but well-meaning knucklehead. In both Steamboat Bill and College, Keaton plays a privileged and oblivious newcomer to a world completely unlike his own. While, in terms of class, the two settings differ quite a bit, both films espouse the triumphs of traditional “manhood”.

Steamboat places the practically aristocratic Keaton in the rugged and working class life of a river-boat crew member. College places Keaton’s book-smart high school valedictorian in the competitive and aggressive world of college sports. The many trials Keaton must pass center around achieving dominance or projecting a front of harshness. Of course, each story is also headed toward a romantic resolution. Will Buster win over the girl who watches him from afar and hopes to endorse his victory?

As the primped son of a steamer captain, Keaton is the antithesis of what he’s expected to be, pencil mustache and ukulele coming to special prominence. In time, he will also do the opposite of what’s expected of him. Instead of helping his father run his steamboat and catch up to the competition, Keaton sets his sight on wooing the daughter of his father’s greatest rival. With Keaton’s singular comedic style, he’s able to quell the tension and work both sides of the feud by stepping in and being his own, autonomous self, as unpredictable and accident-prone as that is.

These shenanigans culminate in a terrific cyclone sequence which contains Keaton’s most famous stunt—a large wall falling around Keaton, who narrowly escapes being crushed by standing under its window. A great gag of note is when slow motion is used to achieve the effect of Buster floating downward from an umbrella after being hurled into the air by a team of men with a safety net. There is a certain small-time feeling present in the beginning of the movie where Keaton relies mostly on sight gags and lighthearted vaudevillian routines rather than grand spectacles. The showmanship isn’t lacking in this, however. The cyclone and river-rescue scenes give the film just the right amount of destruction and hazard that bring a balance to the restrained, character-comedy that Keaton likes to employ between his big set-pieces.      

College is a lot less eventful than Steamboat, leading me to designate it the weaker of the two films, though still enjoyable. After graduating high school and denouncing sports in a speech to his class, Keaton finds himself practically ensnared in the fraternal, macho world of college athletes. The shrimpy Keaton has the obvious figure for some amusing visual juxtapositions, but his live performing career also makes Keaton-as-athlete not too inept. The story is written just fine and even contains some unexpected payoffs. But it doesn’t have the energy of Keaton’s best works. There just aren’t enough things to hurt himself with on a college football field.

Like the previous release, a variety of featurettes are offered. College has yet another creepily animated boy singing with Keaton about Alka-Seltzer. Both films come with commentaries—Steamboat’s featuring film historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel and College‘s given by film scholar Rob Moor. There are also several different options for the score; although, I often prefer the orchestral scores. French producer Serge Bromberg gives great introductions to both films, making significant mention the archival journeys of the prints and the process of their restoration.  

The matching of The General and Three Ages may have been superior to the matching of films here, but there are definitely more special features in the newer release. All in all, both of them have significant strengths, making them of no small merit, and worthy of a place in a collection. | Nic Champion

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