by Jay Seaver
Harold Lloyd's films have, of late, languished in undeserved obscurity. Though his movies were every bit as funny and successful at the box office as the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lloyd remains a distant third in terms of audience awareness, assuming the average modern filmmaker knows about silent comedians at all. America left the silents behind very quickly at the end of the 1920s, with only a few of the silent stars really thriving after the transition. Harold Lloyd wasn't one of them, although movie lovers would, for a time, remember him fondly. This 1925 film in particular was a favorite; good and popular enough that in the mid-1940s another cinema great, Preston Sturges, would lure Lloyd out of retirement to do a sequel.In the film, young Harold Lamb (Lloyd) goes off to college, head full of mistaken impressions from the movies of what campus life would be like. His ignorance makes him a target for a campus troublemaker (Brooks Benedict), who seizes on the incoming freshman's naiveté to embarrass and impoverish him. The school's football star (James Anderson) and coach (Pat Harmon) also exploit Harold's desire to be popular by giving him the impression that he's a member of the school's football team, when in fact he is at best a waterboy and at worst a tackling dummy. About the only person not taking advantage of young Harold is Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), the pretty daughter of his landlady who also works in the coat-check of a local hotel.
"Well, shake my hand and call me Speedy!"
Perhaps part of the reason why Lloyd's films aren't remembered quite so well or fondly as Chaplin's or Keaton's is that they are not "pure" silent movies; the intertitles are used not only for scene-setting exposition, but also for dialog that is necessary to tell the story or a joke in its own right. Even when the jokes are funny, telling them that way is a bit awkward. For example, early in the movie, there's a scene of Harold practicing his college cheers, a sort of "rah-rah-rah-sis-boom-bah!" chant. We see Harold jumping around in his bedroom, then we see the nonsense syllables spelled out on screen. Next we cut to a shot of Harold's father fiddling with his short wave radio (an earlier title card had described him as one of the biggest radio liars in the state) and looking up, surprised; then the screen blanks to show "Good heavens, I'm picking up China!" as his lips move. It's still a funny joke, even if the context of what being a "radio liar" means has been somewhat lost in the ensuing decades, but the elements that make it work have to be presented separately, in a sequence, whereas in a sound film, you could present them as a unit, hearing Harold's yelling as you see his father fiddling with the radio. Similarly, a conversation on the train to college where Harold and Peggy chatter away though they just met, and are mistaken for young lovers, feels a little choppy to those used to the miracle of synchronized audio.
One of the things that does work, very well, is the romance between Harold and Peggy. By the time The Freshman was made, Lloyd and Ralston had already done a few movies together, so their chemistry was as practiced as it was natural, but it's deserving of a place of honor among the great screen pairings. It's believable in part because they fall in like before they fall in love, with Peggy's big heart recognizing a match in Harold's, and Harold perhaps being the only student at the college to see her as an equal, even if she is a townie. It's kind of an obligatory romance, but it is filled with more real affection - heck, a lot of today's comedies and sports movies don't even to manage even one shot as good as the one where Harold is startled at seeing the girl from the train in his mirror when he moves into Peggy's mother's boarding house.
All of that, though, is less important than the comedy, which flies fast and furious and constant throughout the entire movie, building up to two hilarious set pieces: In the first, Harold is hosting the school's "Fall Frolic", but his narcoleptic tailor has only had time to baste the tuxedo together before the dance. So, the tailor comes along to make on-the-spot repairs, hiding under tables and behind curtains while every possible seam and stitch comes apart. At one point when Harold appears to be sitting at a table, talking with a girl, he's actually contorted so that his legs are sticking out directly behind him so that his pant legs can be repaired. The football game is even more over-the-top crazy, as Harold's team plays an opponent so rough that they are eventually forced to let Harold play because everyone else is injured. Once he does get into the game, of course, the slapstick and comic mayhem only increases, and everyone will find out why he's called "Speedy".
If certain elements seem familiar, it's because this has become a tried-and-true formula. Lloyd's granddaughter sued the makers of The Waterboy for copyright infringement, but lost the case, a judge ruling that the similarities were too general - although I must admit, my ears perked up when I read the word "waterboy" in the titles. (One of the reasons Lloyd's films aren't as widely disseminated as other silents is that Lloyd retained copyright and his family never allowed them to enter the public domain; however, he and his estate took good care of the negatives, which is why when they are exhibited, they look very good) Still, The Freshman has probably served as a prototype for many college sports movies in the eighty years since this was originally released.And it still holds up. Harold's nerdy-but-resourceful freshman, Jobyna's lovely local girl, and sharp production from the Harold Lloyd Company's regular stable created a comedy that has often been emulated, but rarely surpassed.
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originally posted: 07/05/05 00:07:30