Nearly every major 1920s comedian couldn’t resist putting their own spins on certain characters and comedy situations. Everyone from Stan Laurel to Buster Keaton showed up as inept boxers, white-clad street cleaners, and waiters in busy cafes–and sooner or later, most of them went to college. In 1925 it was Harold Lloyd’s turn, and the result was one of his biggest moneymakers: The Freshman!
It’s not only the supreme example of a Jazz Age college comedy, but it’s one of my favorite feel-good films. Lloyd’s work is pretty darn feel-good in general, but I find myself returning to The Freshman time and time again. There’s something about it that anyone can relate to.
Lloyd plays Harold Lamb, a young man bound for the university whose head is filled with eager dreams of becoming the most popular man on campus. Because “1920s,” that would entail winning people over with a jig/handshake combo and becoming a football star–or so Harold believes, based on his viewings of a movie called The College Hero (his mother says, “he saw it six times yesterday”). By the way, I get a kick out of how there’s absolutely nothing in this film about classes or studying of any kind.
Harold arrives at college fondly assuming he will be a College Hero in no time. Naturally, instead of becoming a star football player he ends up being a living tackle dummy, and instead of becoming popular he ends up becoming the secret laughingstock of the college. Fortunately Harold has a secret weapon–the love of Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), “the kind of girl your mother must have been.” Peggy alone understands Harold and defends him, and it’s Peggy who encourages Harold to “Stop pretending…be yourself!” which gives him the strength to make a big comeback at the Football Game of the Year. The ending is predictable, but it’s the journey there that makes it work.
While Lloyd is always given recognition as the “Third Genius” of silent comedy, his work isn’t discussed nearly as often as Keaton’s and Chaplin’s (and Langdon’s–don’t forget Harry!). Lloyd’s fans tend to be considerably quieter than those of the other two clowns (that is, three clowns–Harry!). Uplifting films like The Freshman remind us why Lloyd’s place in the comedy ranking is absolutely set in stone.
Like in all of Lloyd’s features, the production values practically glow and the laughs are spaced just right. A special shout out to those endearing, witty title cards (my fave: “Tate University–a large football stadium with a college attached”). And then there’s Harold Lamb. We laugh at Harold’s naivete–but do we really laugh that hard? Who among us couldn’t identify with dreaming of being “popular,” or rather, of being admired by everyone around you? Isn’t that always the deepest, most fundamental desire behind every ambitious goal?
In the scene where Harold realizes the whole college is laughing at him (and at a party where he’s the host, no less), we identify with his shock and crushing sorrow. The scene mirrors the very opposite of our deepest desires: being humiliated and outcast. Harold lives through it for us.
And it’s Peggy who gives Harold the push he needs. She’s thoughtful, clear-eyed, and knows how to address the heart of a problem. Lloyd and Ralston worked together beautifully, and their characters’ romance feels refreshingly real. The scene where Harold kisses her for the first time and they both laugh from the giddy joy of it has a permanent spot on my “Top 10 Best Romantic Silent Scenes” list.
Harold’s decision to beat the odds and end up a hero is what ultimately makes this such a feel-good film for me. Once his mind is set, he’s alive with fiery determination. He simply does not give up, no matter what. He proves himself to be the man that Peggy knew he was all along.
Today, film heroes are usually allowed to triumph, but the triumph is often somewhat deflated since we usually have to sit through scene after slow-dragging scene of self-doubt, introspection, angst, and other assorted miseries (which are usually more miserable for us than the hero). I find darkness in art fascinating (Lord of the Flies is one of my favorite books), but there’s a line between being realistic and/or gritty and just being a drag. Lloyd’s work is so timeless not only because his “glasses” character was so determined, but because his work is infused with inspiring optimism. “Glasses” was the ideal hero of the peppy Jazz Age generation, and he’s a real tonic for we viewers of the fashionably jaded 21st century.
I’m tickled pink to contribute this post to the feel-good blogathon of the season: the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social hosted by Movies Silently! We classic film bloggers are all sharing the movies that never fail to perk us up when we are down–and a few ice cream recipes, too! Thanks for stopping by, and have fun checking out the other great posts. Don’t forget to leave comments, because after all, we bloggers love comments like we love ice cream. Only more. 😀