“The Freshman” (1925)
by A.J. Hakari
Charlie Chaplin had the market cornered on compassion and sentiment. Buster Keaton executed borderline-superhuman feats with deadpan detachment. They were masters of their craft for a reason, but of all the silent era comics I’ve seen to date, the one closest aligned with the common man is Harold Lloyd. Even though his films freely embrace the fantastic (look no further than the legendary clock sequence from Safety Last!), Lloyd’s characters are never removed too far from reality to get behind. 1925’s The Freshman is a prime example of Lloyd playing an average schmoe to great effect, landing in various comedic scrapes while pursuing an honest goal with which it’s impossible not to identify.
Lloyd steps into the shoes and letterman sweater of Harold Lamb, a young greenhorn pleased as punch to be finally attending college. Books and movie shows have visions of varsity glory dancing through his head, but this wouldn’t be a comedy if he didn’t have a rude awakening first. Almost immediately, the campus bullies single out Harold and string him along, making him think his naive stabs at winning friends and influencing people are working after all. But as Harold stumbles through football practice and hosting parties, he catches the eye of pretty Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), whose affection is all the motivation he needs to work hard for the respect he desperately craves.
I’m always puzzled by people who claim that they simply can’t get into silent films, no way, no how. Are that many modern viewers so taken aback by pictures of the past that they can never hope to understand what’s going on? Classics are classics because they embody themes that time can’t erode, which is why The Freshman was a greater pleasure to watch than the last five displays of emotionally-stunted frat boy antics that pass for modern Hollywood comedy. It’s a familiar plot — guy who wants to be popular does everything he can to become so — but it’s also fortunate enough to have a lot of heart and a lot of laughs on its side.
You can really relate to Harold’s plight, not because he just wants everyone to like him but because you do like him as he soldiers on. He’s not a jerk who abandons his values just to gain social standing (did you hear that, Diary of a Wimpy Kid?); he’s a nice kid who stretches himself a little thin in the name of making friends. This, in turn, feeds right into the comedy, where Harold’s efforts to be part of the crowd frequently clash with his indomitable dorkiness. There’s an extended sequence in which (courtesy of a half-finished suit) Harold literally comes apart at the seams during a campus bash, and the requisite Big Game that serves as our climax is a terrific pratfall-palooza. But through it all, we’re never laughing at Harold but rather rooting for him to win the game, get the girl, and learn that being liked for your true self is always the better option.
I don’t know what kept me from boning up on Lloyd’s filmography for so long, but I’ll gladly take whatever punishment I must as penance. I’m not as enamored with or enriched by The Freshman the same way I am in the case of something like City Lights or Sherlock Jr., but I still love it and laughed just the same. Besides, where are you going to get a more accurate depiction of college on film than a movie where no one ever goes to class?