AFED #25: The Freshman (US, 1925); Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!
Harold Lloyd!
Black or white, he's that guy,
A pair of glasses and a smile

It's impossible for me to think of Harold Lloyd without recalling the theme tune to Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy, a tv series of excerpts from his films that seemed to be a fixture of school holidays and early evening slots during the eighties.

Even now I can't help but raise a smile when I hear it; like the character Lloyd played in his best known work it was simple, unaffected and infectiously likeable. Ironically that series, produced by Time-Life Films, is much derided by purists as a clumsy cut-and-paste job that played the clips at the wrong speed. Yet it was probably my introduction to silent comedy; consequently I think I knew of Lloyd before Charlie Chaplin and certainly before Buster Keaton.

Critically speaking Lloyd is probably destined to remain in the shadows of Chaplin and Keaton, although in the 1920's he was actually a higher earner than either. His clean-cut, happy go lucky persona was already in place at the start of the decade, refined over the course of the dozens of shorts he'd produced with Hal Roach. The iconic glasses were actually a prop added to lend the character vulnerability; they didn't even have lenses since these would have glared in the studio lights.

Of all Lloyd's work The Freshman is perhaps his most popular, only seriously rivalled by Safety Last! In it he plays Harold 'Speedy' Lamb, a naive young man who, after years of saving, fulfills his dream of going to college.

Far from being driven by a desire to learn, Speedy's principal motivation is to become popular. In fact not only is it never explained what Speedy is studying, this rather significant facet of campus life is entirely ignored! Rather the film taps into the mystique of college, which for most average Americans was something completely unobtainable and the province of the elite classes.

Hence it's the more hedonistic aspects which provide the film's backdrop as Speedy tries to ingratiate himself with his fellow students. He does so, but only as an unwitting figure of ridicule. After making an idiot of himself in an initiation event, Speedy tries out for the football team with predictably disastrous consequences.

It takes another calamity when Speedy hosts a dance before Peggy, his love interest and fellow student, finally makes our hero aware how little the others think of him. Fortunately redemption comes when he's given the opportunity to come on as a replacement in the big football game and scores the winning touchdown. Popularity finally arrives, but for Speedy the real prize is winning Peggy's heart. **Sigh**

In reality, as was the norm for comedies of this period, the plot is really just a framing device for a series of set pieces. These are carefully set up so that the viewer (or audience) has a fair idea of what's coming some time before it happens. When, for example, Speedy heads to the dance in a tuxedo the tailor has only had time to loosely stitch, we fully anticipate it's going to fall apart. Physical comedy is largely based on fulfilling such expectations and surprise gags are used only sparingly.

Like his comedy peers, Lloyd was the dominant creative force behind his work regardless of whose name appeared on the director's credit. Devising slapstick was a serious business and his production company employed a team of writers to come up with visual gags in the same way that tv series do today.

Basic pratfalls are the film's meat and drink and at times it's quite remarkable the lengths Lloyd, who performed all his own stunts, is prepared to go to. When the football team's practice dummy falls apart, Speedy gladly steps in and the team line up to flatten him with repeated tackles. Given some of these were actual college football players at the University of Southern California (where parts of the film were shot) you can see he was prepared to suffer for his art.

And yet what really makes the film charming is Speedy's enduring optimism and affability. Even when subjected to humiliation he never fails to greet people without a little dance of his feet, so that by the end even the hardened cynic of a football coach is emulating him.

In the real world we'd think he was mentally deficient, but Lloyd's screen persona is an idealisation of what's best in human nature. His isn't the maudlin sentimentality of Chaplin, nor Keaton's proto-existentialism of a sane man in a mad world. It's the belief that whatever life throws at you, you brush yourself off and keep on going.

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!


Popular posts from this blog

Fade out - 2013 in review

In Search of Vanessa Howard

The Satisfied Eye International Film Festival