The Freshman (1925) Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Harold Lloyd’s philosophy of life is a utopian fantasy, a very hopeful but unlikely one. The paroxysm of optimistic emotions that are firmly embedded in his work speak to us on ordinary, prosaic levels; indeed, his inspiring way of looking at everyday life is akin to the idealistic dreams of the average American in the roaring twenties. Nevertheless, the gregarious, expressively cultural and collective spirit of American society at a time of particular prosperity in the sweet beginnings of modernity are manifested in Lloyd’s persona with unparalleled precision. An instantaneous reflection that remains effective and popular thanks to precisely those “ordinary” properties of his cinematic vernacular. The feel-good vibes emanating from the slapstick imagery of The Freshman, Lloyd’s film that best exalts those sentiments described above, constitute an encompassing of the brilliance of his wit and audacity in manifesting his apologia for the new values of the American people emerging in the bonanza of the new metropolis.
Harold Lloyd is celebrated for the obvious, his style of comedy is thrilling, fast-paced and relentlessly rhythmic. However, aside from his remarkable meticulousness in crafting the comedic aspects of his films, Lloyd is also a perfectionist when it comes to developing his beloved characters plausibly. The most revered of all, the glasses character, is especially one of his most endearing creations. In The Freshman, this iconic character is at his best; not in grace or humor, but in upbeat energy. There is nothing more gratifying in Harold Lloyd’s career than to see his innocuous and uplifting character fighting for his dreams in spite of hardship and lack of competence. I have always believed that the motivational discourse in Lloyd’s films works like the greatest religious parables. Morally correct cinema that doesn’t abuse its sentimentality or vibrant bliss to seduce you, one falls unpersuasively in love with the buoyant spirit of Lloyd’s movies for unmistakably human reasons. The Freshman, for example, engages its audience affably because it evokes the primal and noblest of our adolescent dreams; many of which are still alive and colorful in our adulthood.
Harold “Speedy” Lamb, played by Lloyd, is excited about starting college, has clear goals and plans to reach them no matter what. His desires are implausible from the start, he is thin, somewhat awkward and clumsy but still wants with all his heart to be the most popular kid in school. He wants to be the best athlete on the football team, to be the center of attention, and the most outgoing of all. When the long-awaited first day of college arrives, everything in his imagination that he envisioned happening doesn’t happen, but rather the worst thing that could potentially happen, does happen. However, what he lacks in emotional intelligence and muscle mass, he has in his unconquerable and indefatigable courage. That gives him a chance to at least get closer to his goals. The cute Peggy, played by Jobyna Ralston, is the first girl Harold meets and he falls in love with her at first sight. Peggy likewise falls madly in love with him, yet both are too diffident to express it; although the purity of their faces and the immaculate allusiveness of the close-ups elucidate their passions without the need to display a clichéd and self-evident romance. Everyone at the campus surreptitiously mocks Harold, his naiveté too immense for him to realize it; his innocence translates that pervasive mockery as popularity.
As usual in his “character films,” Lloyd cuts back on the gags to devote more time to the drama. The Freshman is fabulously funny, of that there is no doubt, but the drama that becomes ubiquitous in the plot is more than perfect, and evidently much more layered and breezier than the comedy. Let’s just say that the drama in The Freshman is a sine qua non factor, without it the comedy simply couldn’t work. Whenever the narrative strategically gives assertive space to the gags, these cinematic and sensational minutes of shimmering slapstick humor have a dependent correspondence with the drama. In other words, it is the drama that anticipates the situational comedy, not the other way around. When we see our hero going through situations of extreme discomfort and being mercilessly derided, we don’t feel sorry for him because his robust and invincible spirit establishes him as a stoic man. We want to see him succeed as much as he wants to, but we also enjoy his recklessness and childish simplicity because in the end we know that in humiliation he finds his roaring motivation to fight for what he wants.
The Freshman has many values that endure. Principles that every great society should celebrate and preserve; what Lloyd teaches us is that indeed sometimes our ideals are just that, ideals and nothing more than improbable dreams, yet in the pursuit of these we achieve something far better than any fantasy, the solid foundation of an adventurous character. Lloyd’s favorite directors, Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, expand the aesthetic horizon of the common 1920’s textbook comedy style. The creativity of these two filmmakers lies in establishing multifaceted units of place, action and time; a scenario where comic hyperactivity looks both tasteful and epic. Resulting in one of the most beautiful silent comedies of all time. The Freshman is part sports movie, part romance, part drama, part slapstick and part college movie. Each of these homogeneously funny. Essential pure cinema.