Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Freshman (1925)

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer                         Writers: Sam Taylor & Ted Wilde
Film Score: Robert Israel (2002)                   Cinematography: Walter Lundin
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Brooks Benedict and Pat Harmon

While Harold Lloyd is often thought of as the third of the great silent comedians, that third step is a long way down. It’s easy to make the case that his popularity lifts him up to the exalted heights of Keaton and Chaplin, but that popularity was primarily a function of his prolific output. The step down, however, comes from the fact that his films were not the creative vision of a single genius, but the product of a talented team. Still, Lloyd was a talented actor and comedian, and as distant as he is from the top two, the step down from him to the murky pool containing number four is even greater. The Freshman is one of Lloyd’s best known comedies and was so influential that it even inspired Keaton to make College two years later. Where Chaplin had his tramp costume, and Keaton the flat hat, Lloyd’s distinctive bit of wardrobe was his black, horn-rimmed glasses. The had just begun to be popular with young people in the early twenties, but Lloyd’s use of them made them something of a fad at the time and forever cemented his screen personality. Rather than an eccentric character, he was the regular man on the street who started out weak and abused, but always ended strong by exerting the everyman strength that had been within him all along.

The opening credits are terrific, with Lloyd’s name and the title of the film on a college pendant fluttering in the wind, the stadium in the background. The film opens with a nice sight gag at the home of Lloyd, with his mother telling father how much he has saved for spending money to go to college. The total is an impressive four hundred and eighty five dollars . . . but he started out with four hundred and forty. Excited about going to college, Lloyd has been practicing yells and watching a film called “The College Hero” at the theater, and dressing and acting just like the star. Also on the way to the college town is Jobyna Ralston, but she is on her way back home to work as a maid in her mother’s boarding house. Seated next to her on the dining car in the train, Lloyd can’t stop from helping her with her crossword puzzle. When he arrives at the train station, Lloyd is tricked into stealing the Dean’s car and making a speech in his place. This is just one of a number of running gags in which the Dean is on the receiving end of Lloyd’s clumsiness. After offering to buy ice cream for the gang backstage, they invite half the student body and suddenly Lloyd is looking for cheap rooms after his savings account has been drained. At the boarding house he is reunited with Ralston, to the delight of both of them, and when she reads a joke article about Lloyd in the school newspaper, she doesn’t care, and cuts out his picture anyway.

The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the big football game. Knowing he is attempting to emulate the most popular man on campus, James Anderson, one of the boys who is trying to humiliate Lloyd, Brooks Benedict, tells him he must try out for the football team. This, of course, gives Lloyd the ability to perform a number of gags, none of them really genius, but the aggregate is impressive. Pat Harmon plays the tough-as-nails football coach who winds up being the butt of several gags, but eventually Lloyd is persuaded to be the team’s tackling dummy, with obvious results. Given equal time in the second half of the film, though, is the big Fall Frolic, where Lloyd’s tailor follows him around trying to keep his suit on him. Lloyd’s regular directors, Sam Taylor--who also co-wrote the screenplay--and Fred C. Newmeyer actually do a tremendous job, and some of their moving camera work is quite good for the time. While not the athlete that Keaton was, Lloyd does a nice job with the football game, and is solid in his physical comedy. The place that Lloyd probably excelled over Keaton was in terms of story. All of his films have really coherent story lines and this is one of the highlights of a Lloyd comedy. Along with the image of him hanging off the clock in Safety Last, the football scenes in The Freshman are the most iconic of his lengthy and popular career.

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