April 13, 2010

The Freshman (1925)
Grade: 83/100

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Stars: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Pat Harmon

What it's about. Eager to please Harold Lloyd is a freshman at Tate College. He wants to be popular, but his excessive zeal instead makes him the campus laughingstock. This doesn't change when Lloyd tries out for the football team. Athletically inept, he is retained as a waterboy, but believes he is a substitute.

The much-mocked Lloyd is nonetheless the favorite of pretty Jobyna Ralston, the daughter of his landlord. Ralston retains her devotion for Lloyd, even after he is humiliated by campus jerk Brooks Benedict. Lloyd can't be kept down for long, and when Tate suffers a slew of injuries in the big game against rival Shit State, gruff coach Pat Harmon is forced to play our protagonist.

How others will see it. Along with Safety Last, The Freshman is the most famous and beloved of Lloyd's silent comedies. At 31, Lloyd was a bit too old for the role, but no one cared. His screen persona was the comical everyman destined for great deeds, complete with love interest Mildred Davis or Jobyna Ralston. His career was similar to that of Buster Keaton, but Lloyd was the more successful producer, which meant that he remained wealthy after the sound era took the steam out of his acting career.

The imdb.com user ratings are understandably high, but surprisingly, they drop slightly with the advancing age of the viewer. Females over 45 actually give the film only 5.6/10, presumably because Jobyna Ralston has no personality apart from her eternal love for Lloyd.

How I felt about it. Like most silent comedies, The Freshman is a series of gags strung together within a loose plot. But the gags are generally funny, and the plot is above average. The romance involving Ralston is pure formula, but she is nice to look at, even if her motivation (she admires his spunk) is questionable.

The two big scenes are the college dance, sponsored by Lloyd, and the climactic football game, filmed at the Rose Bowl. The dance skit involves tailor Joseph Harrington, who lurks in a back room to make regular repairs to Lloyd's makeshift suit. The ensuing complications are mostly entertaining, especially Lloyd's takeback of a ten dollar loan, no small sum during an era when gold traded at $20 an ounce. However, Harrington's alcohol-cured seizures are less credible. Lloyd is quite a hit with the college girls at the dance, which contradicts his alleged and unintended status as campus clown.

The football scenes require the belief that an unskilled and unathletic man unfamiliar with the playbook can become the hero of a first class college football team, solely due to his exceptional rah-rah, can-do spirit. While luck and the intervention of divine providence can work wonders, it still doesn't explain why Lloyd can outrun the opposing team. These scenes also prove that an endearing personality is insufficient to merit protagonist status. You must perform a great deed as well, such as climbing a skyscraper in Safety Last, or winning the game in last-minute heroics, as in The Freshman.