Saturday, January 9, 2016

Film Review: The Freshman

"The Freshman"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Harold Lloyd scores a touchdown with his silent, college themed, comedy "The Freshman" (1925).

"The Freshman", with the exception of "Safety Last" (1923), might be the most popular comedy Harold Lloyd ever appeared in. When the American Film Institute (AFI) comprised a list of the 100 greatest American movie comedies of all-time, this Harold Lloyd comedy made the list. Unfortunately, when a list was made of the 100 greatest movies, the comedy classic didn't make the cut.

Harold Lloyd often played a very American character in his comedies. He accepted and aspired to achieve the "American Dream". Mr. Lloyd had a "go-getter" attitude. He believed if he worked hard, nothing could hold him back. All he had to do was believe in himself.

The character was referred to as "glasses". Mr. Lloyd wanted the character to be an every man. Someone audiences could instantly relate to and someone female audiences in particular could accept in a romance.

This was in contrast to the characters other silent comedians played such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon. Mr. Chaplin played a tramp, who was an outcast in society. Mr. Keaton struggled for acceptance. Mr. Langdon played a man-child, that hadn't quite matured yet. Mr. Lloyd on the other hand could have been your next door neighbor.

The challenge for Harold Lloyd was to come up with stories which would properly serve purpose for the "glasses" character. In "The Freshman" Mr. Lloyd had found a good backdrop. Comedians have often had fun with the college setting. Most silent comedians told stories which dealt with acceptance. In college every freshman feels like an outcast. A lot of that is because the older students make them feel that way but also because the students are unsure of themselves and want to make a good impression. Every student quickly learns of a hierarchy of power and different "clicks" to fit into. This opens the door for a lot of comedic possibilities.

"The Freshman" also serves as a timely comedy. During the 1920s statics show college enrollment doubled when compared to the previous decade. College sports were at the height of their popularity, especially football.

In "The Freshman" Mr. Lloyd plays Harold Lamb. A young man eagerly waiting to attended college. All he knows of college life is what he reads in books and sees in movies. He accepts everything he sees and reads at face value. In order to fit in, Harold has devised a plan. He will imitate a character he saw in a movie. That should make him make a splash at college. Harold even dreams of being voted the most popular student of the year.

The opening introduction of the character is supposed to make the audience sympathize with Harold. He is supposed to be a nice, kind, well-meaning young man though a bit naive, which makes the audience wonder, will Harold be able to fit in?

College isn't exactly what Harold had planned as the audience suspected. His fellow students aren't as willing to accept him as Harold would like. A character credited as "The College Cad" (Brooks Benedict) repeatedly makes fun of Harold behind his back and places Harold in embarrassing situations. One involves tricking Harold into giving a speech before the entire school, because "all freshman are required to do it". In reality the school was waiting to hear from the dean of the university.

However Harold remains unaware of what is going on behind his back and believes he may be a popularity rival to Chet Trask (James Anderson), the most popular student in school and captain of the football team. To further solidify his popularity Harold wants to join the football team as well.

No Harold Lloyd comedy would be complete without a romantic sub-plot. This time around Harold likes Peggy (Jobyna Ralston). Peggy works with her mother at the Hotel Tate, where Harold is staying.

Most silent comedies, including those with Mr. Lloyd, would usually sacrifice plot for gags. The comedies were mostly comprised of comedy sequences strung together by a very thin plot. "Safety Last" would be an example. "The Freshman" however is different. The movie actually has a decent story and the humor grows from the plot. Jokes do not come out of left field and distract us from the main plot of the movie but help advance the plot.

Oddly enough, the weak link in the plot is the romance. Most of Harold Lloyd's comedies were really romantic-comedies. They were simple stories of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. This time around Harold gets the girl at the beginning. The movie is not concerned with their romance. There is not much for the Peggy character to do as a result. Though by the end of the movie the character provides Harold with a much needed pep talk, and is another example of an old cliche, behind every good man is a good woman. A woman inspires a man.

Usually what would happen in a movie like this, the comedian plays a shy, timid young man who dreams of becoming popular. Secretly he has a crush on the most popular girl in school, who doesn't notice him and is dating the captain of the football team. In order to prove himself the comedian would join the football and prove himself at the end of the movie during a big game sequence and score a winning touchdown. All at once, proving he his a "man" and getting the girl.

"The Freshman" is not entirely interested in telling that story, though it does hit on most of those plot points. What makes "The Freshman" really stand out among other Harold Lloyd comedies are the number of really good comedy sequences. One involves Harold trying out for the football team and having great difficulty tackling a dummy during practice. Another good sequence has Harold at a fancy school dance while his tuxedo slowly comes apart at the seams.

The quality of "The Freshman" shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Mr. Lloyd's comedies. The movie was co-directed by Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer, two of Mr. Lloyd's trusted writers. Together Mr. Taylor and Mr. Newmeyer co-directed five Harold Lloyd comedies including "Safety Last" and "Girl Shy" (1924).

Among the writers, besides Sam Taylor, they included Harold Lloyd regulars such as Ted Wilde, who co-wrote "The Kid Brother" (1927) and directed "Speedy" (1928), for which Mr. Wilde's directing received an Academy Award nomination. Another writer was Tim Whelan, who worked on "Girl Shy" and "Hot Water" (1924).

Because these men worked with Mr. Lloyd in the past they knew what was expected of them. They saw the "glasses" character as Mr. Lloyd did and understood where the humor should come from in relation to the character and plot advancement.

I'm not sure though if I would refer to "The Freshman" as Harold Lloyd's best comedy but it is one of his funniest and one of his better structured movies. It is able to find a better balance between gags and plot than most of Harold Lloyd's other comedies. If only there was a way to balance the romance aspect of the movie better.