The Freshman (1925)

Directed by Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer
Written by Sam Taylor & Ted Wilde & John Grey & Tim Whelan

Harold Lloyd is the underappreciated, underseen silent comedy star. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lloyd helped pioneer the genre and form, but to this day his name run third behind the other two. I myself have never seen a Harold Lloyd film, which makes The Freshman the perfect starting point to “kickoff” this football marathon. I know far less about football compared to baseball, so my experiences with these films will likely be a bit different. For instance, I have no sense of the popularity of the sport of football at a time like 1925, when this film was produced. Not having a vast knowledge of the history of the game, most of what will come in this marathon will be personal experiences, and how I feel about the game that has likely surpassed baseball in terms of popularity in this day and age.

Harold (Harold Lloyd) is an enthusiastic young man who cannot wait to go off to college. Certainly at the time, college was not a well trodden path for most families. Off to Tate (College? University?), Harold hopes to be popular by mimicking a character in his favorite movie, and by joining the football team in hopes of becoming captain. While Harold thinks he is becoming popular, he is really becoming the laughing stock of campus. With the help of Peggy, whom he met on the train to school, Harold starts to realize that his true self should be enough to be popular, and that he is trying to hard to be someone he is not. Clumsy and nerdy or not, Harold hopes to help Tate beat their rival Union State in the big football game, if he can ever get off the bench and into the game.

Chaplin and Keaton each have their own unique style, and it works wonders. Chaplin plays the hapless Tramp character, while Keaton’s stone faced delivery sets him apart. So what makes Harold Lloyd unique. From first viewing, I would say his sincerity. Of the three, Lloyd is likely most adept at communicating a feeling. His acting style is so conversational, so natural that it feels as though he is a trained actor from today, avoiding the often boisterous and outlandish acting styles of the silent era in favor of an expression of reaction of sincerity. This was quite refreshing and makes me want to seek out more of his popular films.

I think the central storyline is well conceived as well. It’s something we’ve likely seen countless times: be yourself, but Lloyd’s sincerity and sense of humor make it a success in spite of this. Not fully understanding the history of the game, I found it interesting that even in 1925, being captain of the football team made you the most popular student on campus. The football scenes are exciting, if not a little disorienting (I’m not sure you can figure out the rules of the game by watching this). Played for laughs here, the brutal nature of the sport will likely be a common thread throughout this marathon. In 1925, when they hardly wore pads, it might seem funny to see a woozy and clearly concussed Harold “brave” his way through tackling practice. He’s applauded for his spirit and drive. Today it just looks dumb.

You certainly can’t fault the film for something like that, but it definitely shifts the perspective of the film. Seeing it in the lens of 1925, these moments are funny. Look at how the nerdy student gets beaten up! But in the lens of 2017, they hardly seem funny at all, more concerning and sad really. Endorsing the game of football is not what this film is about though, thankfully. Rather, Lloyd and the filmmaking team set out to make some funny scenes revolve around a heartwarming story about a nerdy kid being himself, and being accepted because of it. The very fact that Harold try to be someone he is not in order to be popular seems an ironic twist in 2017, when Harold Lloyd, for being himself, is not as popular as the cool kids Chaplin and Keaton. Perhaps one day the world will see him for who he truly is: a great comedian.

*** – Very Good

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