Take a naive innocent and drop him in a setting everyone but him knows is going to be trouble. It's the germ for many screen comedies; few have done more with it than this.
Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) arrives as a new student at Tate College, head full of Frank Merriwell notions of becoming Big Man On Campus. But his overeagerness to please marks him as an easy target of cynical scorn. Reduced to a live tackle dummy for the Tate football team, he doesn't know when to quit. Will he get his chance to show them he's better than they think?
"The Freshman" represents a fascinating inflection point in Lloyd's career. Established by now as the premier daredevil comic with his iconic turn in "Safety Last" two years before, Lloyd was now stretching himself as a real actor, banking on his charisma and ability to sell a scene while keeping his feet on the ground. While "The Freshman" has many gags, it is the character that pulls you in, to the point where you really care what happens after the pratfall dust settles.
The film does start slow, introducing Harold with his parents. There's some minor business about his practicing cheers and fooling Pa into thinking he raised China on his radio. Likewise, the first meeting on a train with demure Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, a Zooey Deschanel doppelgänger) has them absently trading romantic pet names while trying to solve a crossword puzzle. It's tame stuff.
But almost as soon as Harold steps off the train and makes his way to Tate College, the film picks up and never stops. We know right away he's in trouble when his affected greeting, complete with jig, catches the eye of the school bully (Brooks Benedict, wonderfully smug). By the time he somehow finds himself on stage in front of an auditorium of Tate students, being laughed at because he picked the wrong time to help a kitten, we are wincing with real discomfort. When will Harold discover the truth? What will he do when he does?
Lloyd and co-director Fred C. Newmeyer use the sentiment of that situation expertly by keeping it in their back pockets. Instead, we are encouraged to laugh along as Harold stumbles out of a taxi, trying to put on a brave face after a long day being pummeled by football players. It's guilty laughter, because his blind determination to succeed in the face of total rejection is something many of us recognize.
Doing a college comedy would seem natural for Lloyd, given how his trademark glasses gave him a collegiate air and his personification of self-made pluck. Watching him try out his debonair greeting on an unamused dean ("He was so dignified he never married out of fear his wife would call him by his first name") or walk through a wild party while his cheap suit becomes unstitched is so much fun, it's hard to realize he never did this sort of thing again.
The film keeps you laughing all the way through to the end, but the art of the film is how it works your emotions. His scenes with Ralston are textbook romantic subplotting. He snips the buttons off his shirt in hopes of keeping her around to sew them back on, his face sly and shy as he watches her work. Ralston has several wonderful moments, my favorite being when Benedict's character finally rounds on Harold to inform him he's a campus-wide joke. There's a one-shot of her just before he does, and her eyes are a perfect mirror for our own dread.
The film works well enough as just a collection of gags, with the tackling practice, the big dance, and Harold's nightmare introductory speech all getting their laughs. But after an hour, when we've had our fun, Lloyd and Newmeyer make sure to reward our concern with Harold's fate by giving him his long-overdue chance at the big football game. The gags are everywhere here, too, but now we also can really root for him, not just wince at his unknowing embarrassment. The result is one of the finest 15 minutes in movie history.
Don't be afraid of silent movies. Give "The Freshman" a try and you'll emerge not only happier and refreshed but a better person, too.
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