Welcome to Criterion Month! If you are coming into this blog and theme month cold let me give you a quick refresher. For the next thirty-one days, Sean, Colin, and myself will review 31 films in the prestigious Criterion Collection. This is to coincide with Barnes and Noble’s 50% off Criterion sale that happens every July. As a former B&N employee, I can tell you this is a big deal within the film nerd community. Choosing to discuss our selections in chronological order, I present you with this year’s oldest film, the 1925 silent comedy classic The Freshman. Ready, set, FOOTBALL!
Who is Harold Lloyd? I’ve known the name and face for years but not the man. My dad introduced me to Lloyd’s biggest rival, Charlie Chaplin, at a young age and I can tell you all about his lovable Tramp character. I was introduced to Buster “The Great Stone Face” Keaton in college, specifically his death-defying stunts in The General (1926). Also, he was in a very funny Twilight Zone in the early sixties playing a time-traveling janitor. Not to mention he’s constantly noted as an inspiration to Jackie Chan.
What about Harold Lloyd? I knew he was famous for hanging from a clock. Colin reviewed that film last year. I also knew the Futurama character that’s an homage to him, Harold Zoid. Yet I had no grasp of his persona or shtick, appeal, anything. Even after watching one of his best film’s (today’s film) I’m still confused as to what’s made him an icon for so many years. Let’s hit the books.
The Freshman is a film about Harold Lamb (Lloyd), a peppy but naive young man who lives with his parents. A huge fan of the movie “The College Hero” Harold has been saving up money selling washing machines so that he can go to college and play football like his hero in the movie. He’s even adopted the same name as the film’s title character “Speedy” and the character’s trademark jig. A jig that Harold does every time he introduces himself to someone. No one ever gets it and Harold always looks foolish after doing it. It’s a solid recurring joke.
If you’re wondering what college was like in the 1920s I can tell you that from watching this film I learned that 90% of going to college is playing football. The college might as well be a football stadium with school hanging from it like a parasitic twin. Harold never goes to class, we never learn what he studies, he just wants to be a football star. If you assumed Harold looks too old to be a college football you’re right, he was 32 when the film was made.
I’ll take a break from football to tell you what else happens in Harold’s college experience. He falls for a girl Peggy (Jobyna Ralston) that he meets on a train in a very sweet sequence where they bond over a crossword puzzle, embarrasses himself by giving a bad speech to his student body upon arrival, and goes to the “Fall Frolic” in clothes that split and rip apart as he dances. The scenes are all funny but something’s missing.
Back to football, Harold spends most of his time misinterpreting his role on the team (he’s the water boy) and the sport in general. It is funny that he wants to play football despite having no knowledge or aptitude for the game. Like Rudy. Of course, this naivety does eventually play in his favor in the “Big Game” when Harold finds himself on the field after a slew of injuries and accidentally finds ways to get ahead. Such ways include loosening the strings of the pigskin and then bobbing the ball in different directions like a yo-yo. As a comedy fan it’s worth a good chuckle as a football fan it’s perhaps the worst portrayal of football on screen in film history. There doesn’t seem to be any rules or logic to how the game is played. Which is weird considering most of the film is about football.
Earlier I used the words “something’s missing”. What I meant by that is though I find Harold charming and the comedy solid enough it never felt special. Chaplin’s the Tramp character was a loner on the fringe of society, always finding himself in bad situations that ended in over-the-top slapstick. Keaton was a deadpan master of stunts clinging to his dignity no matter what was thrown at him. Lloyd is just kind of nice guy who’s kind of dumb. He feels like the impression anyone would do if they were playing charades and got the prompt “Silent Film Star”. Even his persona was simply known as ‘Glasses Guy”.
I like Lloyd but there isn’t enough to make him stand out from his contemporaries for me. I wonder if part of it is because he didn’t direct his own films like Chaplin and Keaton. There wasn’t as clear a vision. He was a pleasant guy with lovable foibles but not much more. That sums up the film as well.