Overlooked Gems: The Freshman (1925)
It seems odd to be calling The Freshman an overlooked gem, considering its reputation as one of the most profitable films of the 1920s and being Harold’s Lloyd’s most successful film. But even later day fans of the “third genius” have only recently had the opportunity to see this comedy. Buried in the archives for almost 80 years, the film finally got a decent, but limited release when the Harold Lloyd collection was distributed by his estate. But the collection was only on shelves for a few years and is shockingly hard to find. Fortunately, Criterion Collection has acquired some of Lloyd’s greatest films, and after their beautiful re-issue of Safetly Last on DVD and Blu-ray, they have released The Freshman.
The Freshman is a story which would become familiar. New to the collegiate world, Lloyd’s character Speedy, tries desperately, but fails miserably, to fit into his new world. Awkward and overly eager, he is laughed at by fellow students and only finds friendship from a beauty he mets on the train going to college, played by Jobyna Ralston. When he finally realizes that the school’s biggest bully, played by perpetual movie jerk Brooks Benedict, has turned him into a laughing stock, he attempts to find his cool by trying out for football, but is far too small, and instead becomes the water boy. One only needs to have seen The Waterboy or Lucas to know how things end up. But The Freshman was the first film to establish the tropes of the sports movie, and is as joyfully exciting a victory as Daniel in Karate Kid or Rudy’s touchdown in Rudy.
But The Freshman is far more than just a great sports movie, and Lloyd was far more than “the third genius.” Although today we think first of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, in the 1920s, the most identifiable star of comedy to audiences for the first wave of movie actors was Harold Lloyd. He was the definition of the everyman, the symbol of the go-getting boy of the roaring 20s. While he didn’t direct his own films, his business sense as a producer made him one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood (financially he made more than both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton). But his abilities as a producer were not simply financially minded, but based on an understanding of his audience and theories of comedy. The efforts he made to create larger than life production sequences remain some of the greatest moments ever captured on screen, always balancing cinematic wonder and realism. Safety Last had the building climb and Speedy utilized New York City better than any movie in the 1920s. But the sequences shot at the Rose Bowl for The Freshman are historic not only for a comedy film, but filmmaking history at large.
He had an integrity and theory of how to produce comedies. He believed that even comedy should have pathos, but not to the point that they become saccharine or preachy. And Lloyd, even without many comics being aware, have had his theories applied more than any of his comic peers. Judd Apatow’s use of outrageous comedy with pathetic, sometimes unaware comic characters, from Steve Carrell in 40 Year Old Virgin to Will Ferrell in Anchorman, has its roots in the comedy of Harold Lloyd. And Adam Sandler’s team was criticized for failing to acknowledge borrowing The Freshman’s premise for The Waterboy, one of his biggest critical and financial successes; and whether aware or not, Sandler’s loser characters have more than a few similarities to Lloyd’s characters.
The Freshman was added to the National Film Registry in the second year of the list’s existence, but only now can the classic be seen as it should be…So before you watch sports movies with your kids, see the original
The Freshman is now available from Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray.