The films of Harold Lloyd were the most financially successful of all the great silent clowns. Which, in itself, is no small feat. The most successful film of his career, 1925’s The Freshman, exemplifies the Lloyd brand of comedy and, like many films of that year, is a high point of the silent film artform. Cinematic masterpieces such as Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin were also released in ‘25, films that today factor in to any film student’s syllabus– but in 1925, it was The Freshman that most Americans would have identified with. And, in specific ways, The Freshman is also a masterpiece of cinema. And although I personally consider Lloyd’s ingenious Girl Shy to be his best work, The Freshman is certainly his most fully-rounded, robust, and character-driven film. It embodies the full spirit of America of the mid 1920s more than any of his contemporaries, and remains one of the most accessible of all silent film comedies.
The reason Harold Lloyd’s films clicked so well with American audiences of the 1920s is due to the fact that his onscreen hero, the “glasses character,” was the quintessential all American regular fellow. Keaton and Chaplin weren’t “regular fellows”– they were outsiders; abstract. Harold Lloyd, however, felt like a fella you were likely to meet on any Main Street in America: someone you felt comfortable having your daughter go out with on Friday nights. Audiences identified with that image moreso than Chaplin’s Little Tramp (a subversive foreigner) and Keaton’s Stoneface (a rebellious anti-hero). The irony, of course, is that here in the 21st century, we tend to identify more closely with the metaphysical undertones in the work of Chaplin and Keaton–the wholesome appeal that was Lloyd’s strength is now his weakness to modern sensibilities. The Freshman is, therefore, a product entirely of time and place–a time capsule of 1920s Americana.
By the mid 1920s, the American middle class had come to equate the American Dream with a college education. This culture, still very much a part of us, manifested itself in every conceivable form of media: from highly catchy, popular songs (“The Varsity Drag,” and “Collegiate,” to name but a few) to the movies with a series of college crazy movies– kick-started by this film. (Even Keaton would get in on the trend with his excellent 1927 comedy College.) And, as is the case with every such college film of the ‘20s, the college experience has absolutely nothing to do with academics. Rather, the two things that were of a much graver importance to the young student: popularity and sports. (Gosh. How little we’ve changed in 90 years…) Harold (aka “Speedy”) spends more time practicing fancy handshakes and buying ice cream for fellow classmates than focusing on his work, and his obsession with being popular quickly leads to him being dubbed the “class boob”–that is, the butt of every joke on campus. Only the pretty, working-girl Peggy (the radiant and delightful Jobyna Ralston, one of silent Hollywood’s most delightful personalities) loves Harold for who he is–sweet, shy, and earnest.
Harold, although smitten with Peggy, refuses to listen to her constant admonition to forget about the popular crowd, and at the advice of a so-called “friend”–who is in reality the class cad–decides that the only way to really be popular is to be on the football team. Sound advice. Except for the fact that Harold is … well … Harold. Wreaking havoc on the football field, he is quickly benched and assigned duty as the Water Boy. But Harold is still relentlessly optimistic, fancying himself still well on his way to ascending the social ladder. This all changes when, upon seeing the class cad make advances on Peggy, Harold knocks the boy flat on his keister. The boy retaliates by laughing at Harold, telling him exactly what everyone really thinks of him: the class boob; the biggest joke on campus.
Harold is absolutely destroyed at the news, resolving that the only way to prove himself to the entire school is to play in the upcoming big football match. There is a magnificent visual flourish here, one of the most poignant in all of silent film, as Peggy watches wistfully while Harold gets up his gumption to make his mark on the football team. Harold is nothing but bold determination. Peggy, knowing full well that the coach will never in a million years take him off the bench, starts to tell him “no.” But then, she thinks better of it, and holds her tongue and an iris slowly closes in around her mournful face. (Visual poetry such as that is what makes all great silent comedies so eternal. The emotion comes barreling at the viewer in its most organic form, connecting us to the characters in a visceral sense that is not easily explained, and not easily matched with sound film.)
The Freshman’s brisk, lively 90 minutes wrap up in a riotous climax that, while predictable, still elicits genuine intrigue. We know Harold is going to save the day, obviously, but we’ll be damned if we have any idea just how he’s going to pull it off. Lloyd’s extraordinary physicality (a talent matched only by Keaton) is on full display in the final act as Harold becomes the only hope to win the big game. By an act of pure will–and sheer luck–Harold’s dream is realized and he becomes the college hero. But by then, the popularity it brings him is not nearly as important to him as Peggy is. Lesson learned, the day is saved, and they all live happily ever after.
In revisiting The Freshman, newly released from Criterion on dual format Blu-ray and DVD, Lloyd’s careful, almost mathematical precision in pacing truly stands out. He takes his time here, doesn’t rush into anything, and with few exceptions almost every gag is calculated for the effect of driving forward either story or character. Lloyd demonstrates an economy here that is far superior to any of his other films: there are very few throwaways.
There exists considerable criticism on the tendency in silent comedy to really milk a gag for all it had. I take exception to this criticism, as it discards the very structure of silent film comedy which relies entirely on the visual. In Richard Schickel’s wonderful documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen makes an astute comparison between silent film comedy and sound comed: “It’s like checkers to do [comedy] silently: you can figure out the gags and painstakingly write them and execute them. But as soon as you have to speak, you’re plunged into a reality that’s much more complex and the demands become much different.” In this regard, Lloyd–even moreso than Chaplin and Keaton–was a master strategist. His gags often span the course of an entire scene often serve to advance story in at least some manner.
For example, halfway through The Freshman, Harold attends a college dance but thanks to his tailor’s fondness of whiskey, his tuxedo has only had time to be basted together. Harold would rather risk humiliation of a ripped tux than the humiliation of not attending a dance, and the tailor accompanies him with his trusty needle and thread…in case of any mishaps. And for 10 glorious minutes, there are nothing but mishaps. Sure, he’s milking the gag big time. But you know what? The gag works, it’s hilarious, we want the moment to last, and it has an end-result that advances both plot and character development.
This new Criterion release, which features a new score by the legendary Carl Davis, is simply lovely. Criterion’s extras are generous: the Leonard Maltin/Richard Bann/Richard Correll commentary may be almost 10 years old, but it is more or less unbeatable in the amount of backstory it provides, Historian Kevin Brownlow and archivist Richard Correll discuss the film at length in a filmed conversation, the premiere silent film locations expert, John Bengston, takes us on an exhaustive visual essay, and we also get newly restored version of three Lloyd shorts. The UCLA Film and Television Archive’s restoration looks startlingly young for being almost 90 years old– the print’s depth and richness belie its age; this print will probably be the standard for many years to come. The Freshman should be required viewing for anyone serious about film, as well as for those who might be interested in dipping their toes in the waters of silent film.