The Freshman: Big Clown on Campus

In the world of silent movies, typically there are a few familiar names that come up and stick from that era of filmmaking. For most, they are apt to think of Charlie Chaplin. That is understandable, considering his impact as one of the earliest worldwide film stars and the inventive comedy he presented with his signature character, the Tramp. For others, they may think of Buster Keaton. This is also understandable, considering his own somewhat cynical sense of humor and masterful deadpan presence. However, there is one star from this era that I feel should not be forgotten: Harold Lloyd. During the 1920s, Harold Lloyd was one of the most successful comedic stars on the silver screen. His work was characterized by its elaborate stunts, lengthy chase sequences, and his “Glasses” character archetype: a young go-getter seeking a better life and the chance to get the girl. However, his name slipped into obscurity, as his great work became eclipsed by the genius of Chaplin and Keaton in the public eye. Nowadays, though, there has been a renewed interest in Lloyd’s work, with the Criterion Collection re-releasing his movies on DVD and Blu-Ray. Among these films is The Freshman, a top-notch comedy that may have sparked the trend of college comedies.

Harold Lamb is a young man who is excited for the opportunity to go to college. With his spot at Tate University secured, Harold dreams of the chance to become the Big Man on Campus, beloved by all. However, he is a bit of a nerd, drawing his inspiration on how the Big Man should act thanks to novel and a film called “The College Hero”. This gets the attention of a upper-year cad and his cruel classmates, who decide to take advantage of Harold’s naivete while mocking him behind his back. However, there is one girl who can see the truth of him: Peggy,  a young woman working in her mother’s boardinghouse and at the local Hotel Tate. She sees the sincerity and charm in his nerdy demeanor, even as others deride him. However, his quest to become popular finds a real challenge when he seeks to join the college football team, believing that to be the key to becoming the Big Man on Campus. Will he has his winning moment at the big game, or will he find that the path to popularity is more treacherous than it looks?

Even for a film that was made back in 1925, The Freshman is still a delight to watch. The story moves along at a brisk pace, but does not lose sight of the characters or heart. The performers do a good job of communicating their feelings or emotions in each moment, while the intertitles cover whatever dialogue is necessary and occasionally get in an additional joke. Along with that, the film finds plenty of ways to mix its major comedic scenes into advancing the plot. For instance, one sequence later in the film has Harold hosting the Fall Frolic as part of his plan to become the Big Man on Campus. Unfortunately, his meager finances mean that he is stuck with a suit has been barely basted. The result is that Harold desperately attempts to keep the suit together as he mingles and mixes with the other students, even as each dance threatens to pop every stitch and button clean off. The sequence is a fun one with plenty of good gags, but it also works as a major moment of Harold facing the real cruelty of his students. Of course, that also goes into part of what works with Harold Lloyd’s films: their optimism and heart.

Chaplin and Keaton, though they were both geniuses from the silent era, had characters who were outsiders. They were figures that could examine the weaknesses in society, get knocked around as they attempted to navigate its choppy waters, then drift off into the sunset when they were through. Harold Lloyd’s characters, however, were not the same outcasts. They were everymen, young go-getters who sought to improve their lives. Sure, they may stick out with some eccentricities, such as the nerdy Harold Lamb and his basing cool behavior on stuff from books and movies. However, the characters at their core wanted to be liked or to have their share of success, a feeling I am sure is shared by many. He crafted these figures and, even as they would be put through the wringer in his delightful comedic sequences, they would keep up the fight until they achieved their dreams. That drive, mixed with the heart and charm that Lloyd had put into his performances, created a more relatable figure for his audiences. In short, he gave them an underdog they could root for. In a way, it is thus understandable how he could become such a huge success.

Though Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are the names most think of with silent film comedy, Harold Lloyd should not be so easily forgotten. As seen with The Freshman, his well-crafted gags and charming characters helped to make movies that can still be appreciated even today.

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