In preparation for his arrival at Tate University, Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) has seen “The College Hero” six times, carefully rehearsing the jig and catchphrase of its protagonist. From this and other sources, he has built up an ideal of campus life, and plans to become “the Most Popular Man in College”. When he arrives, his naivety is immediately perceived and exploited by the upperclassmen. Only Peggy (Jobyna Ralston) perceives his real qualities.
For most of The Freshman’s duration, a complex relationship is sustained between on-screen laughter and our own. We laugh at Harold at the same time as his tormentors, and our laughter is often occasioned by the same incidents, but we are in no danger of thinking ourselves parties to their cruelty, a dynamic often exploited by comedies of social embarrassment which would be unbearable if it was applied to this character. This is not only because we care more, but also because we see his calamities in the context of his ambition and inventiveness, as when he retrieves the football from the ambit of a guard-dog, or when, a little later, he attempts to prepare a softer landing for himself in anticipation of another tackle. The comedy of Lloyd’s “glass-character”1 occurs in the interaction between the tenacity of his character, the idealism of his expectations, and the escalating hazards and indignities of his circumstances, in reaction to which, as Lisa Trahair describes it, “aspects of his personality push him toward extreme kinds of behavior from which comedy emerges”.2 Without knowing his character, his derisive college audience cannot share in our warmer laughter.
Not sharing Harold’s view of the place introduced as “a large football stadium with a college attached”, we also laugh at the disruption he causes. The film’s most purely anarchic sequence is the Fall Frolic dance scene, in which the climactic humiliation is preceded by a large number of near-misses in which the joke is more Harold’s frantic stream of physical evasions than the embarrassment he (mostly) avoids. The set-up is echoed in the magician’s coat scene in Movie Crazy (Clyde Bruckman, 1932), but its spirit more closely resembles the uproarious taxicab scene in The Milky Way (Leo McCarey, 1936).
Harold’s awkward exit from the dance floor is quickly rendered emotionally irrelevant by his defence of Peggy from the College Cad (Brooks Benedict), who reveals the truth to him. Lloyd’s performance of Harold’s breakdown is unnervingly detailed, showing each stage of his recognition and its emotional impact. The film that we have been watching up until this point effectively ends when a gust of wind symbolically blows Harold’s cutting of his “Tattler” appearance from the wall of his boarding-house room. After such a portrayal of mortification, some viewers are taken aback by Peggy’s exhortation to “Get out and make them like you for what you really are and what you can do!”, which in response to such cruelty could seem almost like a counsel of moral compromise, but as the opening title-card has established, Harold’s imagination is bounded by this social world. Discussing this film, Andrew Sarris called Lloyd “a sociological icon”3, and the victory of Harold Lamb is the most local and conditional of all those won by his protagonists; even the most rural of the others have broader horizons. Peggy, more experienced and poorer than Harold, is the moral centre of the film, and clearly values the approval of these people even less than we do, but she knows that Harold could never be happy if he rejected this culture without a fight.
In the famous football game sequence that follows, Harold is no longer motivated by the desire for acceptance, but the need to restore his self-respect, and justify Peggy’s faith in him. Its immediate motor is his anger at the discovery that the Football Coach (Pat Harmon) expected no more of him than anyone else. Once on the field, he is more obstructively funny than ever, seeming almost to stumble into victory, infuriating his team-mates before saving the match. At the end of the film, the admiration, now won, is trivial, and Peggy’s note to him absorbs his attention.
Although lacking one of Lloyd’s characteristic deceptively-framed opening shots, The Freshman includes several jokes with film form. The helium balloons let slip into the air that briefly confuse Harold on the football field, could only confuse him in a black-and-white world of unstandardized speed. Among other examples, the crossword scene, in which an older woman overhears Harold and Peggy without being able to detect their tone of voice, or the moment when Harold’s father can hear the words Harold is shouting upstairs without recognising his voice, are sound jokes that could only work in a silent film.
Though he seldom took a directorial credit, Lloyd was a personal filmmaker, and his recurrent theme of self-discovery – the rich man gaining character, the shy man gaining courage – may be said to have had an autobiographical resonance. Lloyd had begun as an actor, and spent a long apprenticeship as an uninspired, derivative physical comedian, finding his voice only when he hit on a persona, the “glass-character”, which would enable him to play what would now be called situation comedy. Acting, in two senses, is what the character is about; its brash iterations learn how to behave, its shy iterations learn how to take action.
The Freshman (1925 United States 76 minutes)
Prod Co: Harold Lloyd Corporation/Pathé Exchange Dir: Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer Scr: Sam Taylor, John Grey, Ted Wilde, Tim Whelan Phot: Walter Lundin Ed: Allen McNeil Art Dir: Lell K. Vedder
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Brooks Benedict, James Anderson, Hazel Keener, Joseph Harrington, Pat Harmon
- Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1968), p. 460. ↩
- Lisa Trahair, The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick (Albany: State University of New York,) p. 134. ↩
- Andrew Sarris, “Harold Lloyd: A Rediscovery” American Film 2.10 (September 1977): p. 32. ↩