Sure, we've seen many sports movies with an underdog determined to prove his worth and earn people's respect, going the distance, failing with grace or winning the big game and some heart in the process ... but "The Freshman" IS the original from the roaring twenties, codifying many tropes that hours of 80s sitcoms have engraved in our minds.
You wouldn't believe it but there were college jocks who made it in the football team (probably the "Carpe Diem" ghost whisperers from "Dead Poets Society"), there were even nerds, jokers, pranksters, mean deans, and coaches at the verge of a breakdown. In fact, what you've got in "The Freshman" is the whole college sociology with the popularity pyramid still prevailing today, minus the cheerleaders and justice warriors.
While not as accessible as today (an argument for the film's modern relevance) college has always been a pivotal moment in the life of a few privileged ones, that chronological point of convergence between the athletic and hormonal peak and the most advantageous freedom and responsibilities ratio. There's only one point in college: to have fun, otherwise, why would the Tate college be described as a big stadium with a college attached to it? (a great quote by the way).
And in these idly studious days, popularity played exactly the same role as wealth or power and naturally, the first page of the yearbook was dedicated to the football captain, the most popular figure, the one who always gets the prettiest girl at the prom, as if even in an intellectually driven micro-society, the law of the strongest (and most attractive one) applied. The majority would be relegated to fraternities, football games and Toga parties ("Shout!").
Harold Lamb is as marginal and dorky as any "Animal House" alumni except that he doesn't know it and believes he's the most popular student. His desperation is moved by a sort of Darwinian impulse that only makes sense to those who went to colleges or campuses and couldn't accept to be labeled as nobodies (God forbid!). "Thankfully" for Lamb, his chances of getting unnoticed instantly vanish when the college cad (Brookes Benedict) makes him the butt of many jokes before throwing him on a stage in front of the whole school.
In this critical situation, Lamb can only think of mimicking his movie idol the College Hero with his trademark handshake jig. Automatically nicknamed 'Speedy' like his impersonation, Lamb takes the laughs and applauses as signs of approvals while being a literal lamb sacrificed at the altar of the college dogma, as much in need of a charismatic chief than a village idiot. And there is something sadly ironic that a comedian would play a character who wishes to be loved by being funny but ends up being mocked and despised.
If I dared to psychoanalyze Lamb, I would say he's the reflection of a comedian's existential nightmare: being a clown in the pathetic sense. Just like Chaplin who questioned the notion of comedy by playing someone who couldn't be funny 'on request' in "The Circus", Lloyd gives a sensitive performance as a man you both laugh with and at him, his joy is our satisfaction, his sadness our guilt.
There is bitter sweetness in "The Freshman", with his wide-eyed, optimism and adorkable charm, Lloyd turns out to be the most joyful 'sad clown' figure, the happier he is, the sadder we are. And as if he feared the material would be too mean-spirited, he sugarcoats the story with a blissful romance with the cherubic landlady's daughter Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), the only girl who genuinely likes him, the way he is.
And I was glad that the hilarious Frat Follic sequence (with the tuxedo going to pieces) didn't inflict us the predictable scene where Peggy catches Harold with his pants down... and some girl. That bit would have deprived the film from that powerful moment where he finally understands what's going on... only half the truth actually, but it's enough to devastate him... and awaken in my memory the message a girl left in the back of my class picture at the end of the schoolyear: "it's not about leaving a mark, but what mark you're leaving".
Of course, "The Freshman" didn't have such a downer ending and provided a memorable and heart-pounding climactic football game working like geek escapism at its finest. The final sight with Lloyd making his wet dream a 'wet' reality was as satisfying as "Rocky" or "Rudy" and made me reconsider what I said about Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" being the seminal Sports film. "The Freshman" deserves the same title if we believe in the spirit of sports more than the aesthetics, the way it allows us to rise above our condition in a more fictionalized way ... for cheers... and for laughs.
Laugh-wise, the film provides unforgettably creative visual gags and even the intertitles are part of the fun instead of being just verbal vehicles, but there's something nuanced and mature in the film as if you could tell Lloyd wanted a good story rather than a ha-ha picture, he succeeded in both and his film (unlike "Safety Last!") made the AFI's Top 100 List. It's one thing to be about a goofball but embracing the whole goofiness would have killed the heart of the story.
Speaking of the heart, in an early 1953 episode of TV game show "What's My Line", available on Youtube, panelist Dorothy Killgalen told mystery guest Harold Lloyd that she cried at "The Freshman" as a little girl because of the way his fictional alter-ego was mistreated. This seemingly benign and cute confession had picked my curiosity.
Obviously "The Freshman" was more than a slapstick comedy about a nerd playing football, it carried a genuine poignancy that I needed to discover. I just didn't expect it would be of such a Chaplinian level!
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