Funneled through his persona of the hapless everyman, Harold Lloyd, more so than his contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, actively engaged with the shared anxieties and excitement over 1920s mores. Perhaps this is what made him the highest-grossing star of his time: So firmly entrenched in the era in which his films were made, Lloyd’s performances subsequently allowed the general movie-going audience to easily project themselves, along with their fears and affections, on Lloyd’s regular face-in-the-crowd role. In the best of these films, the “Glasses Character,” as he was known, overcame the angst caused by changing social times (with some exaggeration for comedy’s sake), and essentially became no different than the average viewer watching him. Call it informal escapism.
Two years after tackling urban living by hanging off the face of a clock in Safety Last!, Lloyd took to the gridiron with 1925’s The Freshman, capitalizing on America’s surge in college enrollment and burgeoning obsession with college football. Lloyd plays the meek and appropriately named Harold Lamb, who’s at once thrilled and afraid to be starting his first year at the fictional Tate University (“a football stadium with a college attached,” as one intertitle reads). To Lloyd, excitement and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, and one can’t exist without the other. Lamb’s idea of college isn’t based in reality, but on a film he saw featuring a performance by an average Joe much like himself; the eagerness Lamb feels over starting anew and escaping his overall conformity is built on replicating a fictitious character, which becomes a desperate attempt to mask a crippling panic fuelled by the same reasons that fuel his enthusiasm. Such is the extent Lloyd is willing to go in capturing the sheer normalness of his character: Lamb is so ordinary that he resorts to imitating a fake ordinary person he saw in a movie and literally taking the latter’s hyperbolic mannerisms.
Lloyd constructed gags like an architect, with the surroundings in his films manipulated to become the physical manifestation of his inner worries. As appearance and the maintaining of such is paramount to Lamb, the gags in The Freshman are sometimes hard to bear, as cutting through courteous behavior to expose even a hint of vulnerability is an inherent fear in individuals within large social groups; no one is exactly looking to be embarrassed in some way in front of strangers. Lamb’s commitment to keeping up the appearance of his “Speedy” persona at Tate goes to lengths that begin as amusing and end as being cringe-inducing, particularly in the scene where Lamb first introduces himself (on stage, no less) to his fellow student body and promises to buy everyone ice cream. Of course, the crowd grows bigger and bigger, but the point is undeniable: Lamb would rather go broke than look like a fool.
Lamb’s impression of college is far separated from reality, and he draws on a kind of romanticism that a fresh start might entail. This also slowly builds somewhat of a delusion in the character, but his convictions are so strong that his enthusiasm is more than palpable to other people, and perhaps this is the reason why they repeatedly keep various truths from him. Even the Fall Frolic sequence, a masterpiece of slow-burn comedy and a short film in itself, finds Lamb confronting head-on the real sentiments—that he’s the “college boob”—felt toward him without him fully realizing it.
The much-celebrated football finale finds Lamb achieving vindication, but Lloyd is careful not to cap the film with such a neatly wrapped denouement. With everyone celebrating Lamb’s game-winning touchdown, the characters essentially resort to affectionately imitating Lamb, complete with the jig he had assumed precedes every handshake. In essence, this has become the world Lamb thought it actually was, built on imitation to mask normalcy. Lloyd’s punchline is that Lamb actively disregards this turn of events, with the latter instead finding solace alone with a love letter. With characters now becoming what Lamb was in the beginning of the film, the man sees firsthand just how trivial his (and in turn the audience’s) anxieties were to begin with.
Criterion’s release of The Freshman comes to Blu-ray in a stunning 4K transfer, created from a 1998 restoration of the film’s negative. The image is startlingly clear, balanced, and clean; it’s almost implausible to believe the film originally came out in 1925. There are some color-tinting effects in the film, and the contrasting between these respective scenes is superb. The uncompressed stereo score by Carl Davis is also deeply textured.
The set’s commentary track, featuring Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, historian Richard Bann, and critic Leonard Maltin, is as enlightening in its revelations about the film as it is enjoyable for the enthusiasm of the personalities. Three newly restored Lloyd shorts are also included, but the finest features on the set are the conversation between Correll and historian Kevin Brownlow, in which both trade personal Lloyd stories, and John Bengtson’s video essay on The Freshman’s locations, in which the historian covers America’s newfound obsession with college football in the 1920s and the construction of various stadiums in California. Bengtson even touches on Buster Keaton’s 1927 film College, as both that film and The Freshman share filming sites. Also included: three divertingly entertaining extras of various archival footage featuring Lloyd and a booklet featuring a nostalgic essay by critic and comedy writer Stephen Winer.
The anxieties and excitement over starting anew is put in a cringe-inducing spotlight in Harold Lloyd’s mesmerizing The Freshman, now given a remarkable Criterion treatment with substantial extras to boot.