I felt as if I needed something a little more uplifting after my "Sweet Movie" review, so I decided to go with a comedy. About a year ago I had picked up a wonderful collection of Harold Lloyd films that I'm still working my way through. Lloyd ranks alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as one of the most popular and influential film comedians of the early film era. Although not as widely known, this is partially due to his own infrequent re-release of his movies, this does not mean his comedies are not on par with the other two more household names. Lloyd made nearly 200 comedy films, both silent and sound, between 1914 and 1947. Although Lloyd's films were not as commercially successful as Chaplin's on average, he was far more prolific, releasing twelve feature films in the 1920s while Chaplin released just three, and they made more money overall ($15.7 million to Chaplin's $10.5 million).
Each of these comedians had their own signature character that they are known for; Chaplin was the sentimental hobo, Keaton was "The Great Stone Face", and Lloyd had the "Glasses Character", the everyman; a resourceful, success-seeking go-getter who was perfectly in tune with 1920s era America. Even though their characters each had their specific and unique personalities, all three actors would find themselves partaking in amazing physical feats, made even more spectacular knowing stuntmen or body doubles were never used. The most iconic image of Lloyd's career comes from "Safety Last!" in which through a series of events his character finds himself scaling a building wall and eventually hanging from the hands of a clock high above the street. Although forced perspective was used in the filming, he was still high enough in the air to cause major injury or death. This feat becomes even more amazing when you learn that Lloyd only had three fingers on his right hand. The result of a serious injury in 1919 during the filming of "Haunted Spooks" when an accident with a prop bomb led to the loss of his thumb and index finger. This injury would be disguised on film, sometimes not that well, with the use of a special prosthetic glove.
"The Freshman" from 1925, is considered one of Harold Lloyd's most successful and enduring feature films. Lloyd plays a character named Harold Lamb, a very naive young man who has dreams of going off to college and becoming popular. He saves up his money and learns to imitate his favorite movie idol, "The College Hero", which includes a strange little jig he does before greeting anyone for the first time. This will be a recurring gag throughout the film. He boards a train to head off to Tate University and meets a girl named Peggy (played by Jobyna Ralston) who's described on the title cards as "what your mother was like when she was young". It's such an innocent and sweet little encounter. He is seated next to her at a table and begins to eavesdrop as she works on a crossword. Soon they are working on the puzzle together, a clue comes up which reads, "nickname you call your love." They begin to bounce possible answers back and forth, sweetheart, precious, dearest, while the little old ladies marvel at them and their love for each other. As fate (or the screenwriter) would have it, Peggy ends up being the daughter of Harold's new landlady, and becomes his love interest throughout the rest of the picture.
At college, he is quickly designated the "fool" and the entire college participates in an ongoing joke to make him think he's popular, when in fact he's the laughing stock of the whole campus. A series of set pieces follows. The first finds Harold caught on stage trying to rescue a kitten caught in the rafters, during what is supposed to be the opening remarks by the college dean. The stage becomes ramsacked and the kitten ends up under Harold's sweater. Next, Harold tries out for the college football team and it turns into disaster. Unable to kick a ball (It actually goes backwards, which was probably harder to do) or tackle a runner, he is used instead as a "live" tackling dummy. For hours on end, he is hit and crushed to the point he can bearly stand. At the end of the day's practice, he looks at the coach and, forcing a smile, says: "We had a great workout, didn't we coach?" The coach seems to recognize either something noble or just pity in the boy and gives him a spot on the team—but only as the water boy. And finally at the "Fall Frolic" dance, in which Harold continues to loses different parts of his suit due to a mishap with the tailor, and they both work on repairing the clothes faster than they are falling off. By the end of the dance, it is finally revealed to Harold just what everyone thinks of him. Deciding he'll show them all that he's not just a joke, Harold is determined to get into the next big football game.
Comes the day of the Big Game, and Harold rides the bench, as usual, cheering on his "team mates" against their archrival Union State. The Union State guys are big and mean. They tackle hard, and soon, one by one, the Tate players are carried off the field, too injured to continue. Ironically, Harold gets more excited with each injuree, since this is getting him closer to going in the game. With one minute to go and three points behind, the Tate coach has no choice but to send in his last replacement: Harold, the water boy. Most of what happens next would be hard to explained and better experienced, but Harold makes the most of it, haphazardly scoring the winning touchdown, which at last earns him the respect and popularity he was after. But he doesn't even want it any more. He's happiest with the fact that Peggy has just announced her love for him.
Many times you'll hear the expression, that just don't make them like that any more, but I feel it's very appropriate when you talk about film comedy. This is not to say that there aren't funny movies made today, but most of the comedy found in modern films are verbal in their nature. The problem with this is that verbal material can quickly become dated or have cultural borders to them. What's funny in this part of the country might not make sense to someone in another part of the country or on the other side of the world. These early silent comedies center around physical humor, and I don't just mean slapstick. There are physical feats going on that are just funny, no matter where you live or what time period you are from. Yes, the story is taking place in the 1920's, but it doesn't matter, the heart, soul and humor of the film is timeless. Besides from the humor, Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton seem to always develop sweet and loving romance elements into their films. This is far from the sexual innuendos found in modern comedies. If anything, these are the forefathers to the screwball comedies of the 1930's and romantic comedies that continue, although not as well, to this day. Most people shy away from black and white pictures, and even worse silent ones, but I guarantee that if you get a group of people together, even throw in a few kids, and watch this film you will all be wonderfully entertained!
A few final bits of information to note: In 1990, The Freshman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", being one of the first 50 films to receive such an honor. I should also add that this is one of the cleanest films from the 1920's that I've seen. What I mean by clean is the lack of scratches, dust, and overall deterioration of the film and image. Lloyd was an avid photographer, dabbling in many forms including early 3-D images, many of which are included in this set as extras. Because of this hobby, he knew that these earlier films were slowly disintegerating and he started to restore his own films as early as the 1950's. Giving us a beautiful, clean image from almost 100 years ago.