In one of his last great silent comedies, College* (1927), Buster Keaton pokes rather pointed fun at the American worship of sports. Like Chaplin but with a much wider range of variations, Keaton was the eternal outsider trying to get in, having to compensate for his small stature and lack of social skills with acute resourcefulness and extraordinary guts. And he always wins - but in College it is a Pyrrhic victory, as the closing shots reveal.
On winning an "honor medal" at his high school graduation ceremony, Ronald (Keaton) gives an uproarious speech (via title cards, of course) against the "Curse of Athletics":
The secret of getting a medal like mine is - books not sports. The student who wastes his time on athletics rather than study shows only ignorance. Future generations depend upon brains and not upon jumping the discus or hurdling the javelin. What have Ty Ruth or Babe Dempsey done for Science? Where would I be without my books?
Needless to say, Ronald delivers his speech before an increasingly hostile audience - while struggling to keep his cheap suit from disintegrating. The last line is something of an appeal, as Ronald covers his crotch with a book when his flies come undone. By the time his speech is over the auditorium is empty - but a popular girl who happens to like him throws down a gauntlet that Ronald - unwisely one feels - picks up: "Your speech was ridiculous. Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak-knee'd teachers' pet. When you change your mind about athletics, then I'll change my mind about you."
Having no formal education, Keaton may himself have regarded college as a waste of time and college students as privileged parasites. But he saw the rich comedic potential of playing a college type enough to use it once again in his last great film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). As portrayed in the later film, college students are naive and completely unprepared for life in the real world.
That Ronald is too poor to afford college is perhaps more than a comedic ploy. It does not, of course, deter him from working his way through school - with disappointing results - as a soda jerk and as a "colored" waiter. Ronald loses both jobs rather than expose his identity (and the shame of having to work) to The Girl. Working in blackface may leave Keaton open to charges of racism today, but when some of his blackface rubs off in one of his patented pratfalls and his true "racial identity" is exposed, it is the black kitchen crew that comes after him - with meat cleavers! In pursuit of more than just cheap laughs, Keaton gives us a glimpse in this scene of the ugly face of Jim Crow.
Nothing, apparently, can stop Ronald from winning The Girl's heart - and social acceptance - by proving that he can excel at athletics. Despite the fact that, as his own stunts proved time and again, Keaton possessed considerable athletic abilities, all that Ronald can prove in College are his inabilities. In a prolonged and often painful scene, Ronald tries out for various track and field events and only manages to succeed at nearly breaking his own neck. One after another, he finds that he cannot run, cannot jump, cannot hurdle, hurl or vault. And the gags that he pulls off, some of them requiring precise balance and timing, soon become more pathetic than funny. Ronald's obvious disregard for his own safety makes his struggle to not fail take on an almost tragic quality. For if this scene of physical failure means anything, it is that trying to measure up to everyone else's standards is foolhardy, and that expecting it of everyone is cruel and terribly wrong. What gives the scene added punch is the presence - unseen by Ronald - of The Girl, who watches with mounting alarm and pity as Ronald risks life and limb to find his inner athlete.
By now the film has introduced us to the college dean - a diminutive (like Ronald) pinch-faced old man who at first welcomes Ronald for his academic achievements. But when Ronald's grades begin to suffer due to his experiments in sports (during which Ronald nearly takes the dean's head off with a misdirected discus), the dean calls him to his office where the following exchange takes place:
Dean: You have been a miserable failure in all your studies and I know the reason why.
Ronald: I took up athletics because the girl I love thinks I'm a weakling. I love her and would do anything to please her.
Dean: I understand, my boy. The same thing happened to me but I was stubborn. That's why I'm a bachelor.
Later we watch the dean, alone, gazing sorrowfully at an old photograph of a woman, presumably the girl who thought he was a "weakling". Whether the dean is meant to be pitied for being "stubborn" is questionable, particularly in light of the film's last few shots.
But College is, after all, a comedy, and by the last reel Buster wins the race and The Girl in his beautifully unorthodox way, discovering practical applications for his track and field experience as he rescues The Girl from the clutches of his adversary (who, significantly, had been expelled for his poor grades). Buster dashes at great speed, hurdles hedges, pole vaults into The Girl's dormitory room throws plates instead of discuses and nearly skewers the bad guy with a lamp pole as he tries to escape. Caught alone with Ronald in her room, The Girl announces to the Dean that they are paying the official penalty for such misconduct by getting married.
Happy ending, right? Then why does Keaton close the film with a montage that could hardly be mistaken for marital bliss? Neatly chronicling the rest of Ronald's life with The Girl, the montage dissolves from the church to a hectic household with three kids, to a quiet old age, finally to a shot of two graves, side by side and overgrown with weeds. In nearly all of his films (Go West being the hilarious exception) Keaton gets the girl. Only in College, near the end of his creative career as America's greatest silent clown, does Keaton show us what getting the girl ultimately means.
*It would be interesting to program Keaton's film with Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925). Lloyd's irrepressibly preppie image is a revealing contrast to Keaton's working student in College.