Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Freshman - 1925

“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:


Unknown said...

I love that film, & your review was very well done (as always). The YouTube clip is quite interesting--as someone who has composed music for silent films, I know there's quite a bit to getting the fps right in restoration projects; also, I know from experience if you're playing a score you wrote for a film projected at 19 fps, you get quite a start when the film is run on a standard contemporary projector at 24 fps!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, John. Wow, I'd love to hear more about your experiences composing music for silent films. Have you done a post I can link to? You're always welcome to write a guest post here if you'd rather.

One of most lovely and gratifying aspects to the restoration of silent films is the modern scoring done on the restored prints. There's one particular film about this aspect of scoring I'd like to discuss some time, "Three Bad Men", which uses a kind of American folk song motif to score this early cowboy movie. Music is so powerful to evoke emotion, and silent films, of necessity, sometimes makes the best use of it.

Unknown said...

Hi Jacqueline:

We haven't done a post specifically about the process of scoring (Eberle & I did Nell Shipman's "Back to God's Country--1919--& "The Grub Stake"--also by Shipman, from '23; the latter is available on vol. 3 of the Idaho Film Collections Shipman box set. There's some discussion of our scores (as well as sound clips!) on the following three RFBanjo posts: here & here, & a bit here--mostly the soundclip.

Matthew Coniam said...

Lovely post. This is my number one favourite of all silent comedies.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

John, thanks so much for those links to your Nell Shipman posts, I would encourage everyone to hop over and have a look.

Matthew, thank you, and I'm glad we managed to hit upon your favorite. I love Harold Lloyd's work.

Laura said...

Love that Univ. of Southern California players played both football teams. :) Lloyd was a big supporter of USC -- the Cinema School has a Harold Lloyd Soundstage, among other things.

I've seen relatively little of Lloyd's work and have become more interested recently, especially as he shot so many things on location in California. Your post certainly adds to my interest!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Laura. I hope you can see more of Lloyd's work in future, he was truly a master. One of the best aspects of his films are, as you say, his location work. It is a fascinating look at everyday life going on behind the actors in the background that the later movies of the '30s don't really give us. The movies of the '30s were so much more polished, and "canned" in you will, that every bit of the presentation was controlled. In Harold Lloyd's street scenes, you have a whole different, raw, exciting world.

Laura said...

That is a fascinating point about "real life" in the background, Jacqueline. I will focus on that aspect as I watch more. I recently taped SAFETY LAST! which I've previously seen only in clips.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Oooh! "Safety Last"! Reviewed here: A swell movie.

Caftan Woman said...

"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."

It's not just you.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Ah, a rival for Harold's affections. Does he know what he does to us women?

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