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When it comes down to it, the marvel of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman is its simplicity. The movie has only five or six scenes, but two of them are among the best sequences ever filmed for a silent comedy. Harold Lloyd's character Harold Lamb is less stylized but far more of an identification figure for most audience members than Chaplin's Tramp or Keaton's stoic hero; he was perfect for audiences looking for general entertainment rather than artistic pantomime or cinematic perfection. A perfectly ordinary, handsome young fellow, Lloyd's hero is distinguished only by his glasses, which suggest vulnerability. The rest of his popularity seems to have been a matter of simply fitting in with the mood of the era. As commentators Richard Correll and Kevin Brownlow explain, Lloyd epitomized the eager-beaver, aim for success ethic of the Roaring Twenties, when the opportunities for a young man to get ahead seemed unlimited. All he needed was a positive attitude.
College-crazy Harold Lamb (Lloyd) is so excited about attending Tate that he rather blindly stumbles in, affecting an exaggerated behavior to make friends: he does a silly dance as part of a handshake routine: "Step right up and call me Speedy!" Harold very much wants to become a Big Man On Campus and is too dense to realize that the upperclassmen secretly laugh at his antics. Hat-check girl Peggy (Jobyna Ralston) sees through Harold's insecurity and tries to get him to simply be himself, but our gung-ho frosh remains blind to reality. He's a miserable failure in his football tryouts, but the stern coach (Pat Harmon) hasn't the heart to reject him. Harold becomes a water boy but believes that he's on the team as a replacement player. Harold's escalating humiliation peaks at a school dance in which his newly tailored tuxedo begins to self-destruct on the dance floor. Jobyna finally tells Harold the truth, which only makes him more determined to succeed. When the coach runs out of replacement players at "the big game", only Harold is available to go on the field. He has all the school spirit anyone could ask for... but few if any football skills.
A perfectly realized silent comedy that for laughs is the equal of anything by Keaton or Chaplin, The Freshman was an even bigger success than the same year's The Gold Rush, and kick-started a vogue for rah-rah college comedies that lasted until WW2. Although Lloyd aimed to entertain and not preach, The Freshman is a true barometer of 1920s attitudes. Harold Lamb's ambition is not to learn great truths or to help people or improve the world, but to elevate his status by becoming a college celebrity. This ignoble quest is acceptable because Harold is innocent and likeable; we naturally side with him against the cynics and smart-alecks at Tate College. He's so guileless that he thinks it's a great honor to volunteer as a tackle dummy, when the team's stuffed dummy breaks down. The key scene occurs when Jobyna finally pops the balloon of Harold's delusions: he breaks down and cries. But rather than crawl away, the disaster only redoubles his need to succeed. When our hero demands that the coach put him into the game, he's no longer a silly dope.
Lloyd doesn't ask for audience pity, and neither does he expect audiences to marvel at his command of cinematic language. His stories remain at the personal level, and his extended comic sequences build on simple but brilliant ideas. One humiliation in our collective nightmares is having one's clothes disappear in a public place. Harold's tailor suffers dizzy spells and hands over a new tuxedo that's apparently ready to fall apart. As soon as he dances, sleeves slide away and buttons pull free as if only basted together. Lloyd builds on this gag so well that audiences go nuts -- it's the final straw in a college career consisting exclusively of crushing embarrassments. The scene is so good that Lloyd reworked it for his Movie Crazy, substituting a breakaway suit with a coat belonging to a magician.
Audiences also go equally nuts for the big climactic football game, filmed on a lavish scale at three separate California stadiums. The slapstick gags are fanciful but never impossible, so there's quite a bit of suspense as Harold takes charge of the team in the last seconds of a close game. We're told that audiences reacted to the upbeat conclusion as they would a real football game, with their beloved underdog transforming into a gridiron hero.
Lloyd lived his life the way his character would. He invested his millions well and felt no pain when movie stardom left him behind. He instead built a beautiful Hollywood estate, doted on his family and found satisfaction in the pursuit of hobbies like sports and photography. He was encouraging to those interested in film; I knew students that attended screenings at Lloyd's home in the late '60s. Better yet, he didn't turn his back on his film library, and preserved everything he could of his career.
One minor but fun surprise -- early in the picture a heavy-set student is seen standing up in the school auditorium. It's none other than Grady Sutton in one of his first film appearances, looking young and cherubic. Sutton would become an indispensible comic foil in later comedies for W.C. Fields, etc.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray + DVD of The Freshman is a marvelous presentation, with the 1925 feature looking practically brand-new. Lloyd took the preservation of his films very seriously, and the quality seen here is phenomenal. A new Carl Davis score is presented in full stereo, uncompressed.
Disc producer Karen Stetler has generated or located a number of great items for Lloyd's most popular release. The commentary contains input by Lloyd's archivist Richard Correll, historian Richard Bann and popular critic Leonard Maltin. Three fully restored short comedy subjects from 1919 and 1920 (see below) star Bebe Daniels and Lloyd's future wife Mildred Davis.
Locations expert John Bengtson shows us where practically every angle of the movie was filmed; I never realized that the buildings around the Coliseum down at USC had served as settings for so many silent pictures. A star tribute and question-answer session filmed in 1963 at USC is included, as well as Lloyd's particularly endearing appearance on What's My Line? back in 1953. The liner notes in the insert booklet are by Stephen Winer. All of the Blu-ray extras are duplicated on two DVDs included in the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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