' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Freshman (1925)

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Freshman (1925)

Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman”, released in 1925, was set during the ascendancy of both Silent Film and College Football, two staples of the culture that he both embraces and cautions against, demonstrated in his famous Glasses Character – here named Harold Lamb – setting off to fictional Tate College as an, ahem, Freshman trying to mimic the air and moves of a silent film character called The College Hero only to earn the mockery of his peers and then try to make up for it by becoming a star on the gridiron. In that way, Lloyd is preaching the age-old necessity of Being Your Own Man, which might well end up tied to athletic heroism rather than intellectual or emotional pursuits, though it’s clear Lloyd is on the joke. After all, an intertitle indicates that Tate itself is a building merely attached to the football stadium, getting the non-verbal drop on the memorable Groucho Marx gag seven years later in “Horse Feathers” about tearing down the college to fund the football stadium.

In that way, “The Freshman” presages a thousand campus comedies to come, where academics are entirely beside the point, spurning any mention of Harold’s studies and never – not once – showing him in class, while the school President just hangs around to be the butt of a few jokes. No, school is a popularity contest, one made difficult for Harold, whose over-eager friendliness is preyed upon by everyone, save for Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), the pretty girl he meets aboard the train on the way to Tate and who winds up living in the very home where he rents a room. Pure of heart, unlike all these Tate elites, Peggy sees straight through Harold’s attempts to achieve popularity, sort of a spin on the ancient trope of taking off someone’s glasses to see the real them except that, in this case, as The Glasses Character, those glasses embody who Harold is, an earnest fella striding onto the football field still wearing them.

If Harold’s earnestness makes him a laughingstock amongst his classmates and teammates, Lloyd delicately balances it so that we still have space to laugh along with him. When the character is tasked with hosting the fall gala, most of the humor stems from his suit, put together at the last moment by a tailor prone to dizzy spells, a device which saps some class commentary, more the fault of the garment-maker than cheap garment. Nevertheless, watching him try to negotiate a room full of people in the hopes that no one will notice his suit is a couple seconds away from falling to pieces is an objective blast, ace physical comedy that is not only nimbly performed but a nimble evocation of the lengths to which he will go to fit in. Just as good is the scene where he first encounters Peggy in the train’s dining car, leaning over his shoulder trying to ferret out the same clue she’s trying to decipher for a crossword puzzle, growing closer to her and closer to her yet thinking so hard he remains oblivious to her presence, before she senses him and looks overs, causing him to panic and flee, ramming straight into the waiter, presaging, in a way, his phony football career; Harold Lamb doesn’t know it but he’s a force.

If much of the football humor is derived from what are quite clearly concussions, Harold winding up at the bottom of a massive pile-up in the big game culminating the film that leaves him senseless and lining up for the wrong team, it’s not simply that it’s of another time (when on-field deaths would have been more worrisome than concussions) but how comically brisk Lloyd’s staging of that pile-up is. Indeed, the winning touchdown in which he soars downfield, evading defender after defender, so many defenders that there must be, like, 47 of them, like how Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant descend more steps then the staircase contains in “Notorious”, is as thrilling as any modern ground-level gridiron insanity, that hand-cranked camera making it feel as if Harold’s body and brain are suddenly singing in I’ll-Never-Be-Stopped harmony.

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