Wednesday, 12 February 2014

No school like old school… College (1927)/ The Electric House (1922) BFI with Costas Fotopoulos

It’s taken me a little while to make it to the BFI’s Buster Keaton season but I picked a good combination in his 1927 feature College supported by 1922’s The Electric House or, as the BFI’s booking office screen briefly had it, The Electric Horse

Both films felt fresh and if you’re looking for an un-guarded, un-contextualised, reflex-reaction to a 90-year old film, Buster can provide it: tonight we were grinning like it was 1927…

Buster is arguably the most timeless of all silent comics because, whilst he takes risks like Lloyd and has the grace of Chaplin, he underplays with such measured restraint: you want him to react and by talking everything in his stride he lets you in on the joke in a very genuine and naturalistic way. Against the artificiality of the films is balanced the real danger of the stunts – he broke his ankle in The Electric House –  yet he’s always true to himself and he doesn’t hide the seriousness in his work. This diligence and invention is still capable of surprising the most cynical of cinephiles and we were rewarded with many laugh-out-loud moments.

Ronald sways from left to right...
Directed by James W. Horne and Buster Keaton from a story by Bryan Foy and Carl Harbaugh, College tells the tale of the bookish Ronald (Buster) who follows his sweetheart, Mary (Anne Cornwall) to college in order to show her he’s as much an athlete as an aesthete.

He wins the school prize and gives a speech decrying the “Curse of the Athlete” as it makes fellows forget to learn as they concentrate on physicality. Unfortunately Ronald’s suit is shrinking before his audience’s eyes after he was soaked in a rain shower, and as the audience bays in disgust at his words, they laugh their heads off as he tries to hide his diminishing clothes. It’s a rip-roaring start and the pace hardly lets up through the rest of the film.

Mary is shocked and Jeff gets mad...
Mary tears a strip off Ronald for his narrow-mindedness and goes off with Jeff (Harold Goodwin) – one of the jocks. Worse still, they are both headed for Clayton College an expensive but un-academic institution that thrives on sports. Determined to win Mary back, Ronald changes course and heads off to Clayton with a bag packed with sporting gear he has no idea how to use.

Naturally Ronald begins to fit in like a square peg as we see him trying out for the baseball team and then the athletics squad making a wonderful mess of sprinting, shot put, hurdles and high jump. Mary admires his spirit but despairs of his co-ordination… she seems stuck with Jeff as Ronald is seen to be thrown by his own hammer and barely clears the pole let alone the vault.

The hammer throws the thrower
Meanwhile Ronald has a couple of unsuccessful jobs as a soda jerk who is too jerky and a black waiter… best to draw a veil over that.

We’re hoping for some kind of redemption for Ronald and he may find it through the Dean (Snitz Edwards). Initially delighted to find this academic high-achiever had chosen his sports-obsessed college the Dean is appalled at Ronald’s low marks but, when the young man confesses the reasons, a chord is struck for once the Dean had had to make the same decision and played safe… and sour.

He orders the coach to give him a chance as cox on the college rowing team because “he’s got brains”. The coach attempts to drug Ronald but he swaps his cup with the preferred coxswain and there’s no other option as Clayton’s eight face the most significant contest in their history.

Jeff steps over the line... as the crew take issue with their new cox
Meanwhile, Jeff has been expelled and locks Mary in her room knowing that if he’s found there she will also have her place terminated: he wants to force her into marriage.

No spoilers… Can Ronald redeem himself and save the girl? All plays out in a breathless final ten minutes which allows Keaton to finally show us how fast he can run, jump and think! And there’s a coda which is a surreal take on the usual ending… to be believed it has to be seen!

As my wife observed, just like Mary we admire Ronald’s heroic failure to ever give up – he just keeps on going and you’re rooting for him all the way, laughing with and not at: in Buster we trust.

There’s an academic start also to The Electric House as Buster lines up on graduation day to collect his degree in botany only to be given a colleague’s certificate in electronics.

He’s given the job of wiring up an advanced modern house by a family who depart on vacation leaving him with only a book on electronics to help.

On their return we fear the worst but, initially it seems like Buster has done a good job as he demonstrates a moving staircase which moves smoothly enough but perhaps a bit too fast as it launches the master of the house out of the landing window and into the swimming pool.

By and large Buster’s automations appear to work well, the mobile bath, the automated book selection in the library and the billiard table that re-sets itself. There is some trouble with the mini-railway that delivers the food to the dining table but that’s only because Buster accidentally re-lays the rails pointing towards the lady of the house… dinner is swerved!

But then the man who should have got the electronics degree turns up eager to revenge himself on the man who stole his honours degree… and things go a lot haywire.

The Electric House packs a lot of invention into its twenty minutes: all perfectly arranged by its director and star.

Costas Fotopoulos provided energetic accompaniment to both films that matched Buster’s every slip, trip and fall. Playing for comic effect must be a rare treat for the improvising musician and, as with all humour, the timing has to be spot on. It was.

For home viewing College is now available on Blu-ray in the US from Kino Lorber. The Electric House is available as part of the Buster Keaton The Complete Short Films collection, readily available from Movie Mail.

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