It’s a wonder that we get to see nearly 100-year-old films fully restored in the most pristine condition possible. It’s one of the basic joys of being a Criterion collector. It’s also a wonder that most of these 100-year-old movies still resonate despite the enormous time gap whether they’re Chaplin’s masterpieces or a rediscovered gem like Paul Fejos’ Lonesome. And then there are the Harold Lloyd films whose gag-heavy features put the laughs and the heart at the forefront—films like The Freshman.
Specifically, The Freshman is a movie of American youth in the 1920s filtered through Lloyd’s inimitable Glass Character personality; a story that meant specific things in its time period but one that’s also able to reach across the decades and achieve a hilarious universality that I believe to be unrivaled among “The Big Three” silent comedy stars (Lloyd, Chaplin, and Keaton). The description for Criterion’s release of Safety Last! couldn’t say it any better: “Chaplin is the sweet innocent, Keaton the stoic outsider, but Lloyd—the modern guy striving for success—is us.” Simply put, Lloyd’s comedic presence is a cinematic breath of fresh air. His films are little pieces of celluloid jubilation that could make my worst day a little bit better. They’re magical.
The Freshman was Lloyd’s highest grossing and most popular film. It’s simple premise, described by Lloyd himself as “a boy had an obsession to be the most popular student in college and went about it in the wrong way,” is indicative of the types of silents Lloyd and his collaborators Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer produced. His plucky Glass Character is a prototypical American go-getter, someone who perpetually doubts himself but is always open to learning the profoundly simple but simply profound conviction that you must always believe in yourself. Just as he wanted to make it in the big city in Safety Last!, his innocently naïve character wants to make it in college as the most popular student. It’s hilarious in itself that the view of college in the film has absolutely nothing to do with academics. His earnestness despite being made fun of behind his back is what immediately latches us to the character, and Lloyd’s wonderfully sincere performance—which has perfectly wrought shades of both comedy and drama—is what solidifies the picture.
The Freshman, however, is not a thrill picture in the vein of Safety Last! despite both of their rousing final scenes. Instead of the entire story building upwards to a monumental conclusion, in The Freshman we’re given a fairly normal arc filled with sharply crafted gags that deftly build upon themselves to comprise the whole. Nowhere is this more evident than the film’s “Fall Frolic” scene, a scene that I find to be the best in the entire film—even more than the football denouement. Lloyd’s character is so hapless that we’re aching to give him help at the same time we’re aching for the comedy to gain momentum to its faultless conclusion with our protagonist as the punchline.
Despite everything told, The Freshman is not my favorite Harold Lloyd film. Its disparate parts seem to be found in more significant places in other Lloyd comedies. The budding romance with Jobyna Ralston’s forlorn cigar counter girl is well done here, but is executed better in The Kid Brother. Even though the plot of The Freshman is more even-keel than most, there’s nothing that could beat the wonderfully absurd Girl Shy, the ramped up thrills of Safety Last!, or thethen-big-budget zaniness of Speedy. However, the implementation of the gags in The Freshman is where it scores points for me. Though the climactic football scene can’t match the shear inventiveness of other Lloyd films, the fact that you don’t need to even know the rules of football to find it uproariously funny is testament to its genius alone.
As with their release of Safety Last!, Criterion has packed the release of The Freshman to the gills with supplements both old and new. It goes without saying they know how to do these old silent comedies right. First and foremost is the commentary featuring film critic Leonard Maltin, film historian Richard Bann, and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll. This jovial track, ported over from a previous non-Criterion release, is as exuberant as the film itself with each contributor chiming in on historical and cinematic context, personal anecdotes, and general appreciation to boot. The accounts by Correll in particular—himself a sort of human Harold Lloyd storybook—are some of the best given his once-removed relation to the bespectacled comedian. He pops up again in a conversation with film historian Kevin Brownlow, himself a treasure trove of silent-era tidbits and trivia. Out of the whole conversation, the anecdote about how Brownlow first met Lloyd is the best bit, and positively charming. The other new special feature is a visual essay by by Lloyd author John Bengtson, who showed up in the supplements of Safety Last! as well. The essay, on the film’s California locations, is a bit stale but is a fascinating look at the economic ways they shot and maneuvered around old Hollywood and elsewhere.
My favorite supplements are with Lloyd himself, be they the on-camera intro he gives for the clip-heavy Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life, the brief but cheeky appearance on What’s My Line?, or the great footage from a Delta Kappa Alpha tribute to Lloyd, with Steve Allen, Delmer Daves, and Jack Lemmon. It’s exhilarating just hearing the man himself, but to hear how gracious and erudite he is even in the smallest clips makes me appreciate his genius even more.
The icing on the cake are the three newly restored Lloyd shorts: The Marathon, An Eastern Westerner, and High and Dizzy. It is a habit Criterion has been doing for awhile with these old silent comedies, and one that I think is absolutely essential to round out the work of the stars themselves. An Eastern Westerner is my favorite if only because it shows the normally humble Lloyd starting out as a stuck up rich boy sent to the west by his family to straighten his Jazz-Age ways out. High and Dizzy, despite being phenomenal in its own right, should have been included on the Safety Last! release simply because of its obvious status as a thrill picture precursor.
Lloyd is my favorite out of “The Big Three” because of what that blurb from Safety Last! said. He’s us, he’s me, he’s someone who I can empathize with and enjoy more than the other two. This release of The Freshman continues what is shaping up to be a perfect tribute to and representation of the best comedic actor of the silent era. Harold Lloyd stands above the rest.