'The Freshman' Is Remarkably, if Silently, Contemporary

The grand-daddy of college comedies, The Freshman makes a compelling case for the relevance of silent film.

The Freshman

Director: Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Brooks Benedict, James Anderson, Hazel Keener, Joseph Harrington, Pat Harmon
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1925
Release date: 2014-03-25

Long before Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, Real Genius, Legally Blonde, and Pitch Perfect mined college life for laughs, The FreshmanHarold Lloyd’s 1925 hit about well-meaning but clueless Harold Lamb’s first semester at Tate University—established the principal features of the genre.

After modeling a persona based on a favorite movie and several books, Lamb sets off for Tate, where his naïve preparation immediately opens him to ridicule. The popular set keeps him around just to make fun of him and exploit his largesse, unbeknownst to Lamb, and his disastrous tryout for the football team leaves him assuming he’s made the squad when in fact he’s just the water boy.

He finds his only champion in sweet, hard-working Peggy, who urges him to be himself. Lamb finally gets into a game in the film’s climactic sequence, and improbably leads the team to victory in the closing seconds.

This is still familiar territory 90 years later, thanks to the influence of The Freshman, one of the most popular films of 1925, a year which also saw the release The Gold Rush and Stella Dallas. In a 2013 Criterion exclusive conversation between film historian and Lloyd enthusiast Kevin Brownlow and Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, Brownlow calls it “the greatest year for silent film”.

More often than not, the college film is about anything but class and homework—and that anything but is often sport. An intertitle describes Tate University as “a large football stadium with a college attached”, and Harold arrives with a tennis racket in one hand, and golf clubs and a fencing foil on his back.

By the early '20s college football had become a national obsession, thanks in large part to its popularization via radio, and was already an essential part of California culture. In his visual essay included among the release’s supplemental materials, John Bengtson explains how the climactic game sequence was shot in three of four recently constructed California stadiums—the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, and U.C. Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium (along with other facts about location shooting as well as deleted scenes.)

There are no classroom scenes. The audience never learns what Lamb is studying. The dean, meanwhile, is a pompous nincompoop. Amidst all this, The Freshman valorizes self-awareness and self-discovery. The film thus captures the tortured national outlook on higher education. In America, perennially suspicious of the intellectual, but enamored of individuality, college is about developing character, joining the right crowd, sublimating any ulterior motives on the way to becoming a recognizable, contributing member of educated society—all cloaked in the pursuit of forging an individual self.

It’s still a popular combination. Brownlow observes that the motion picture industry produced just 12 college films from 1921 to 1925, but 60 from 1925 to 1928. The perennial innocent underdog, and an iteration of Lloyd’s “glasses character”, whose thick spectacles, clean-shaven face, and everyday clothing make him surprisingly contemporary. Lamb is instantly familiar as a type.

In his original essay that appears in the edition’s printed booklet, “Speedy Saves the Day! A Harold Lamb Adventure!”, critic Stephen Winer stresses the uniqueness of Lloyd’s glasses character in comparison to other silent-era comic actors’ personas and to stars of the talkies such as W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.

Neither an outsider like Chaplin’s Tramp, nor consigned to navigating the fringes like Buster Keaton’s and Harry Langdon’s characters, Lloyd’s trademark protagonist “has more in common with the then popular rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger.” For Lamb (and Lloyd), social success is not only acceptable, but is also worthy of actively pursuing.

Criterion does its usual thorough job packaging The Freshman. Brownlow and Correll put the film in historical and generic context, while also giving a rich description of Lloyd, whom both of them knew. The package includes several of Lloyd’s earlier short films, and you can see how silent comedy evolved from gag-based plots to narrative-driven features.

The famous scene from The Freshman in which Lamb navigates the Fall Frolic dance in a suit prone to coming unraveled is a brilliant sequence on its own and would have worked well as a short. In the context of the feature, however, it reinforces Lamb’s good-natured tenacity and resourcefulness and leads smoothly into his epiphany of exactly how he’s viewed by his peers at Tate.

Also among the extras are a 1963 tribute to Lloyd with Jack Lemmon, Steve Allen, and director Delmer Daves, and Lloyd’s What’s My Line appearance from 1953. Both establish Lloyd’s popularity and influence on comedy as Hollywood transitioned from its Golden Age to the post-studio era. They also show just how much had changed. Not even 30 years after The Freshman premiered, sound, wide-screen, color, and television had radically changed the entertainment landscape.

Brownlow and Correll make a strong claim for the power of silent film to connect with audiences of today without mediation. They observe that even Lloyd himself edited his work in his later years to diminish what he saw as its excess sentimentalism (cutting, for example, the key scene in The Freshman where Lamb breaks down into tears in front of Peggy at the Fall Frolic). The two historians make no apologies for what they consider an art form that can stand on its own. Criterion’s Blu-Ray/DVD combination presentation of The Freshman, digitally transferred from a 1998 restoration and accompanied by a new orchestral score by Carl Davis, makes a compelling case for their argument.

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