I'll just come clean: if it wasn't for the eye candy, College wouldn't be much of a picture. As an egghead turned wannabe athlete nerdily named Ronald, Buster spends most of the movie running, jumping, and flexing in short shorts and a tank top. And even though Buster is convincing as the doofus in a bow tie who can't tell Babe Ruth from Jack Demsey, as soon as he changes into his track outfit, it's like, c'mon. Keaton in his prime was one of most ridiculously physically fit performers of all time. Of course, it's always the case that physically adept performers play clumsy because they're the only ones who can perform those stunts safely. But still, as soon as you see Keaton in College, all the nerd cred goes out the window.
You're not fooling anyone, Buster. We saw Battling Butler. We know you could take that dude.
As for the plot, it's probably the thinnest of any Keaton feature, with the possible exception of Three Ages. Keaton plays Ronald, a bookworm on his way to his high school graduation ceremony where he gives a speech decrying the evils of athletics because, "What have Ty Ruth or Babe Dempsey done for Science?" Also in his graduating class are sweet Mary Haynes (Ann Cornwall) and meathead Jeff Brown (Harold Goodwin) whose introductory intertitle describes him as a "Star athlete, who believed so much in exercise that he made many a girl walk home." Mary and Jeff are going to Clayton College in the fall; they're also going steady. Buster (I refuse to call him Ronald) is, of course, in love with Mary and after convincing his mother he'll work his way through college, enrolls too. In the fall, Buster has one goal: becoming an athlete to win Mary's heart. And of course you already know where this is going and probably did three sentences back.
The basis premise of College (nerd becomes jock to win girl) seems as old as time but it was hot stuff in 1927. In fact, this picture treads pretty hard on the ground covered by Harold Lloyd's The Freshman two year earlier. Featuring bespectacled Lloyd in a spectacular football finale, The Freshman was one of the biggest box office hits of 1925. Keaton's previous picture, The General, now regarded as his undisputed masterpiece and one of the finest films ever made, was, depressingly, a big-budget commercial flop. Although all of Buster's features were ostensibly produced by Buster Keaton Productions, he was never much of a business man and the money side was handled by Keaton's longtime friend and producer Joe Schenck and a new studio manager, Harry Brand. Brand was a budget-slasher and figured Buster needed a shot in the arm. Keaton was third in popularity and box office behind Chaplin and Lloyd and had a habit of spending a lot of dough per film; he was reigned in, budgetarily and creatively. College wasn't scripted by Keaton regulars and directing duties were handed over to James Horne, another suggestion of Brand's. Buster's lack of business sense never did him any favors. He didn't much care about screen credits, having always composed most of his films' plots, gags, and directions. But already in 1927, a year before his move to MGM, Keaton's pictures were becoming less and less Keaton-esque.
In spite of these barriers, College is not completely charmless. Even though the plot is thinner than paper, it does offer a spectacular display of just how skilled a physical comedian Keaton was. While this is evident in all his films, it's perhaps most plainly visible in College precisely because there is nothing else to look at: Keaton's stunts are the entire picture. Buster tries out for every sport on the campus, failing miserably at each. He runs like a man with two broken legs. In real life, Buster Keaton was a prodigious baseball player and in one of the best sequences in the film, he has to pretend he doesn't even know not to stand on the third base bag. He commits an escalating series of errors that cause his teams manifold embarrassments, the best being when Buster finally manages to hit a pitch, a high fly-ball, with two men on base and the little fellow is so excited, he runs all the way home before the ball is caught, causing a triple play.
However, the bulk of the film takes place in the track and field stadium, where Buster tries each and every sport from long jump to hurdles, javelin and pole vault. Buster manages to spear the Dean's (Snitz Edwards) top hat with his javelin, land head first in the high jump's sand trap, and terrorize a group of athletes on the field with an unwieldy hammer throw. During the hurdles, he really tries hard but knocks every gates down, except the last. Proud of his performance, he turns around to see all the knocked-down hurdles and dejected, knocks down the last one too.
But Buster is our hero and although he may lose on the field, he's got to win the girl, right? Right. It seems Jeff really is a villain, having locked Mary in her room until she agrees to marry him (because that's a stellar engagement strategy). Hearing the news, Buster races across campus, leaping gracefully over hedges and across ponds, grabs a pole and launches himself into Mary's second story window. Inside, he pummels Jeff with the force of a true champion (reminiscent of Buster's fury in the climax of Battling Butler). Taking a fraternity paddle from the wall, he bats objects at Jeff and tackles him until he escapes out the window, exposing himself as the coward he is. Mary is awed and immediately attracted to Buster (he's an athlete now!!). They leave the dorm and immediately get married. I mean, actually immediately (Buster's still in his track uniform). The film ends on a weird, but awesomely pessimistic note, as the wedding fades into a shot of Buster and Mary contented in married life with three children, which then fades into the couple in side by side rocking chairs, in old age, and then fades into a shot of two headstones. THE END.