Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Freshman (Harold Lloyd Productions/Pathé, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On last night's TCM tribute to silent comedy Harold Lloyd was represented by The Freshman, a 1925 comedy that was one of Lloyd’s biggest hits — and one can see why; though Lloyd was 31 and therefore way too old to be playing a college freshman, he managed to project enough guileless innocence he made the concept work. The plot cast Lloyd as Harold Lamb (a name close to his own but also one which itself projects the innocent lovability of the character), who’s grown up in a household in which his father is a successful bookkeeper who’s taken up radio as a hobby. Dad spends virtually all his time at home with his headphones on (in 1925 most radios still played so faintly you needed headphones to be able to hear anything), and his grand obliviousness to everything going on around him when he has his headphones on seems all too au courant today! Harold has saved up nearly $500 to finance his college education, and when we first see him he’s practicing college cheers in front of the mirror in his room — and dad hears the noises his son is making and thinks they’re static on his radio. He goes off to Tate University, described in an introductory title as “a large football stadium — with a college attached” (yet another aspect of this movie that’s still funny because it’s all too true today of nominal “colleges” that are really in the sports business), wearing a knit sweater with a bit “T” on it that the other students ridicule behind his back for being dated. The big man on campus (Brooks Benedict) and the other students in his circle decide to ridicule Harold and exploit him — there’s a marvelous scene in which he offers to treat a few fellow students to ice cream and kids start pouring out of the dorms to follow him and take him up on it — and the only person who’s nice to him is Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, who replaced Mildred Davis as Lloyd’s on-screen leading lady when Davis quit films to marry Lloyd for real), who runs a cigar stand at a local store and who met him on the train taking him to college.

With his whole idea of college influenced by a movie he saw (over and over again) called The College Hero starring someone named “Lester Laurel” (whose last name would be used by another one of the greatest movie comedians of all time!), Harold tries to buy his way into the good graces of the campus in crowd by hosting the “Fall Frolic” dance. For this he commissions a new suit from the college tailor (played by Joseph Harrington as a typical oy vey Jewish stereotype), only the tailor suffers from dizzy spells and is merely able to baste the suit instead of actually doing the final sewing job on it before the Big Night. Warned not to over-exert himself in the suit lest it fall apart (and with the tailor there to do emergency repairs in case Harold starts having wardrobe malfunctions), Harold ignores the advice and the suit literally starts falling apart as he’s wearing it. Originally Lloyd wanted to avoid a big pants-dropping scene because he thought it would be undignified and too clichéd, so he shot the sequence losing just the suit jacket — only when the film previewed the sequence went over like a lead balloon and his gag men did a lot of I-told-you-so’s, so he went back, recruited all the extras again, and dropped the pants for a screamingly funny finish. The rest of the movie deals with Harold’s attempts to make his rep by joining the football team — at which he’s so incompetent the coach first uses him as a tackling dummy, then makes him the water boy, though he nominally puts him on the roster (his jersey bears the number “0”). This actually comes in handy during Tate’s big game against Union State, which forms the climax of the film, in which the Union State players manage to knock so many Tate squad members out of the game the coach has to put Harold in or forfeit the game — and of course after a few glitches (like catching a spectator’s hat, thinking it’s the football, and running with it to the end zone) Harold scores the winning touchdown and becomes an instant campus hero.

The Freshman is a marvelously funny film — it has two nominal directors, Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer, but Lloyd was clearly the auteur — and it benefits from Lloyd’s stiff-upper-lip attitude towards pathos. Though there aren’t any of the big “thrill” scenes people think of when they hear the name “Harold Lloyd” (I’ve seen an interview clip with Lloyd complaining that he only made six movies with big thrill sequences, but that’s all anybody remembered him for), the plot of The Freshman puts Lloyd through a series of traumas and tortures he handles with an almost masochistic determination. Silent-comedy criticism has often both praised and damned Charlie Chaplin for his use of pathos — ignoring that Lloyd and Buster Keaton also did pathos in their own ways, though far less glaringly and romantically than Chaplin did — and the grim determination with which Harold seeks to overcome the trials of college and earn his reputation makes The Freshman more than just a very funny film — though it is a very funny film. One oddity about The Freshman is that at no time are any of these alleged “students” ever actually shown studying or attending class — the only authority figure we see is the college dean, and he’s in the movie only as a target Harold can inadvertently insult — it’s common for Hollywood movies about college to de-emphasize academics but few of them have so totally ignored the “education” part of higher education as this one!