Thursday, September 17, 2009
“The Freshman” (1925) sends an eager Harold Lloyd to college. Harold’s main goal is to fit in and be popular. His biggest handicap is himself and his sweet, heartbreaking desire to be liked.
We meet Harold first in his room at home, practicing college cheerleading yells and preening in his freshman beanie and sweater before a mirror. There is a movie poster for a film called “The College Hero”, the actor of which Harold idolizes. Apparently there is no freshman orientation at his school, because most of Harold’s knowledge about being a college student comes from his favorite movie and a boy’s book, “Jack Merivale at College.” The college annual has a photo of the football captain, who is the Most Popular Man on campus, and Harold wants to emulate his new hero so that he can be a hero himself.
He learns a snappy little jig from the movie he has seen, which the hero does just before he extends his hand to shake upon meeting new people. It’s hysterical, and Harold’s poor father bemoans to his mother, “They’ll either break his heart or his neck.” There is thinly veiled poignancy in this sarcasm, because both turn out to be true.
Harold is off to Tate University (not the same name used for the college in “Good News” -1947, discussed here, which was Tait.)
Harold’s utterly without guile enthusiasm for all things collegiate lead him into mishaps with the dean, making a fool of himself when he finds himself accidentally on stage for a student assembly, and nearly getting killed being the tackle dummy for football practice. Harold starts off on the wrong foot and stays there, but in his idealism for being a college man, he has no idea that everything has gone wrong. The in-crowd hazes him mercilessly without his knowing it, and makes him jump through hoops just to see if he will. Harold mistakenly believes he is the most popular man on campus.
The only genuine element of Harold’s college success lies in Peggy, played by Jobyna Ralston, a co-ed he met on the train. She is, as the title card tells us, “the kind of girl your mother must have been,” in short, true blue and sweet. Peggy is a poor but honest lass who will work her way through school at the Hotel Tate as a check room girl and maid. The scene on the train is cute, when he helps her do a crossword puzzle, the clue for one word which requires them to think of suitable endearments that will fit the number of blocks, like “sweetheart” and “darling”, and the elderly couple behind them suspect they are lovers.
Harold repeats his how-do-you-do jig every time he meets someone new, and for a repetitious gag, it really gets funnier each time we see it. At a school dance, where Harold thinks he is the admiration of all, Harold defends Peggy’s honor when a masher tries to take liberties. When Harold slugs the brute, the resentful fellow lets the cat out of the bag that nobody really likes Harold, that he has been made a fool, and everyone is laughing at him. Harold discovers this is true, and the agonized facial expression depicting his realization is moving. Lloyd was not just a fantastic physical clown and athlete, he could really act.
His pain and embarrassment are acute, and we see Peggy’s heart breaking to see it. Wordlessly (yeah, I know it’s a silent movie anyway), she holds her arms out to him, and he cries in her lap. So sweet and sad, you want to shove your arms through the TV and hold him yourself. Well, all right. Maybe it’s just me.
She encourages Harold to just be himself, not to try to be kind of the campus hero for friends who are false. How much he takes in we don’t know because he still wants to be football hero.
The climax of the film takes place at the Big Game. There is footage here used from an actual stadium packed to the gills. According to the IMDb site, the football scenes were shot at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California between the first and second quarters of the East-West game of 1924-25. Members of the University of Southern California football team played both teams. The entire film, incidentally, was shot in sequence, which of course was unusual.
The football game of course goes wrong for dear old Tate, and when Harold the water boy at last gets to play in the final moments, he messes up in some very funny faux pas, but his pluck and his refusal to quit actually puts him in a spot where he can save the day. He does.
Now everyone on campus, all the in-crowd, all the bullies, even the crusty old football coach are imitating Harold’s how-do-you-do jig. But all Harold can think of as they ride him out of the stadium on their shoulders is his best girl.
There’s not a lot of studying or class time at dear old Tate or Tait, however you spell it. Maybe that’s why everyone from June Allyson, Peter Lawford, and Harold Lloyd went there.
Here is an interesting clip from YouTube analyzing how the famous jig was shot by means of undercranking to make it look a little faster and a lot sillier: