I am aware that SAFETY LAST! is widely considered Harold Lloyd's signature work, which of course is not without reason. However, other than its magnificent finale at the building, much of SAFETY LAST! arguably seems rather standard; funny and well-done by all means, but much more concerned with gags than character. THE FRESHMAN, on the other hand, equips Lloyd's character with more depth; and manages to be no less funny than SAFETY LAST! for that reason. In fact, to me, THE FRESHMAN is probably the most consistently funny film Harold Lloyd ever did. Released in 1925, Lloyd was well-established as a comedian of feature-length films by this point, and enjoyed something so rare in Hollywood as full creative freedom.
Harold is The Freshman: he has just arrived at college with the dream of becoming the most popular boy in school. Having recently watched a light college-movie (those were becoming popular even before Lloyd made THE FRESHMAN), the ever-optimistic Harold is convinced that the surest way to gain popularity is to behave exactly as the performers in the college-movie he'd just seen; he is unaware that movies (and fiction in general) usually provide an exaggerated depiction of the real world. Most of the other students ridicule Harold's rather banal "tip-toe"-greeting amongst themselves, though they at first pretend to be impressed with him, just to make him into an even bigger joke. The exception is Jobyna Ralston's sympathetic character Peggy, who finds Harold cute, and Harold is quite attracted to her as well.
The funniest part of the film I consider to be the one at the party, which has Harold's well-meaning, aging tailor failing to repair the young man's suit just before a school dance is to begin. Though the tailor finally succeeds, he does not fully trust his own skills, and insists on walking along with Harold in case something should happen to tear up while the boy is dancing. Needless to say, this is just what happens. Everything tears up; the laughs and humor which follow are much enhanced due to Harold's facial expressions, during his near-fanatic attempts to maintain his dignity while the tailor, hiding behind curtains and the like, tries to repair the suit in a hurry. Some moments had me in stitches. The eventual finale to this hilarious sequence is, however, a bit unexpected. Having lost his temper when a villainous boy tries to steal his sweetheart, Harold is finally made aware of how most of the students around view him. At first, our hero seems to shrug it off; "I knew it all the time." It does not last long, however, before he bursts out in tears, burying his face in the lap of Jobyna. The laughter is forgotten by now and we are instead faced with almost overwhelming sentimentality.
When Lloyd decided to introduce THE FRESHMAN to new audiences in the 1950s, he insisted on leaving out the part with him crying in Jobyna's lap, fearing it would appear too sentimental to modern audiences. Although I never understood the apparent aversion to "sentimentality" among audiences of recent decades (in fact, sometimes I feel we could need some more sentimentality these days), I can to an extent see Lloyd's viewpoint here; the moments with Lloyd crying make us sympathize with him, but seem to have been devised with exactly that in mind. Unlike, in my opinion, the pathos Chaplin offers in THE KID and CITY LIGHTS, films which benefited from scenes with strong pathos, the story and atmosphere of THE FRESHMAN could have done just as well with a more suggestive, downplayed approach. At least on first sight, that is. On the other hand, in contrast to Chaplin's Tramp, Harold much more resembles a real human being; thus he also seems to inhabit a (somewhat) less exaggerated comic universe than the Tramp, and one could argue it is only reasonable that he should also perform emotional outbursts akin to something of a real person, in such a stressful situation.
In any case, the upcoming football sequence made me laugh almost as heartily as the one at the party and also captivated me completely, which should say something since I barely know the basic rules in football; and it also contains quite a lot of tension, since the game gives Harold his final opportunity to prove his worth among the narrow-minded other students at his college... THE FRESHMAN remains both funny and sweet; perhaps not as stunning as Lloyd's later THE KID BROTHER, but arguably his funniest, and with decent opportunity for Lloyd to establish a character we care about as audiences, in between and during all the gags. (This review was revised and updated in 2015.)
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