Criterion // 1925 // 76 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 26th, 2014
A gleeful showcase for Lloyd's slapstick brilliance and incandescent charm.
"I'm just a regular fellow -- step right up and call me Speedy."
Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd, Safety Last) is terribly excited about going to college. He's got his whole plan mapped out: as soon as he arrives, he'll ingratiate himself with everyone on campus and become the most popular freshman around. Alas, Harold is a bit of a klutz, and nothing ever really seems to go the way he wants it to. We observe as he tries to win new friends, tries out for the football team, attempts to organize a school party and romances a sweet fellow student named Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, Wings). Will Harold ever overcome his clumsiness and achieve the popularity he so desperately desires?
Not long ago, I reviewed the Buster Keaton flick College for this very website. Watching Criterion's new Blu-ray release of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, I experienced a startling sense of deja vu. Despite the fact that the Keaton film actually cut a key sequence out of fear that people would feel it was ripping off The Freshman, the only substantial difference between the two is comedic technique. Both films are fairly slight, predictable college-themed comedies about awkward young men attempting to win the respect of their peers, but Keaton delivers his punchlines with deft understatement while Lloyd opts for larger-than-life broadness. While most movie buffs are inclined to declare either Keaton or Charlie Chaplin as the greatest silent comedy star of all time, every now and then someone will sigh loudly and declare, "I think you're all forgetting Harold Lloyd!" While I'm not quite convinced that Mr. Lloyd deserves quite as much recognition as Chaplin or Keaton, it's certainly easy enough to understand his appeal.
Anyone who has seen more than a handful of movies will see all of The Freshman's big gags coming a mile away. When a tailor warns Harold that his suit hasn't been particularly well-stitched and could easily fall apart, we immediately envision a scene in which pieces of our hero's suit start falling off. Sure enough, that very thing happens just a few minutes later. When Harold lands a spot on the football team as the waterboy and the coach declares the he'll never give the lad a chance to play, we start waiting for the desperate moment that will permit Harold to become an unlikely hero. Interestingly, this is the very first football film ever made, so Lloyd probably deserves some recognition for employing the "underdog saves the day" formula, which is still being used in sports movies to this day. To his credit, Lloyd brings a great deal of enthusiasm to every one of these run-of-the-mill plot strands, fully committing to whatever large degree of anguish/elation/determination each scene requires.
The Freshman was Lloyd's most popular film, and it's often held up as one of his best. It's fun, but this would be considered a relatively minor work if Chaplin or Keaton had delivered it (indeed, Keaton's College is hardly regarded as a masterpiece). Still, it seems a bit unfair to the man to keep comparing him to the all-time greats. Lloyd's certainly a talented, charismatic presence in his own right, and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments littered throughout the flick. The intertitles are particularly witty, offering lots of clever lines ("Tate University -- a large football stadium with a college attached") and even some visual innovation in an early scene filled with fast-changing fonts. Lloyd's knack for physical comedy is highlighted in a handful of well-crafted setpieces, and the whole thing moves at a remarkably fast clip. At 76 minutes, the film never even approaches overstaying its welcome.
The Freshman (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection offers a 1080p/Full Frame transfer that looks rather terrific considering the film's age. Scratches and flecks are kept to a minimum, detail is strong throughout and depth is relatively impressive. The good folks at Criterion deserve credit for another exceptional restoration. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track does a fine job of highlighting Carl Davis' robust score, which offers several instantly memorable themes (though one of them sounds like a barely-altered version of "The Washington Post March") and strong orchestration. That's the only audio the film offers, obviously, but it's consistently a pleasure to listen to.
Supplements are generous and compelling. Things kick off with an audio commentary featuring Harold Lloyd expert Richard Correll, film historian Richard Bann and the ubiquitous Leonard Maltin, who provide a good deal of insight into the film's creation and its place in cinema history. You also get a prologue Lloyd created for a re-release of the film, three additional Lloyd shorts ("The Marathon," "An Easterner Westerner" and "High and Dizzy") featuring original music by Davis and Gabriel Thibaudeau, a visual essay courtesy of silent film historian John Bengtson, a conversation on the film between Correll and historian Kevin Brownlow, a couple of worthwhile pieces of archival footage (one from a 1963 tribute to Lloyd, another from a television appearance Lloyd made in 1953), a booklet with an essay by Stephen Winer and a DVD copy. A typically terrific package of extras.
The Freshman may not be as inventive or hilarious as the best silent comedies, but it's certainly one of the most popular and significant flicks of its era. Criterion's Blu-ray release beautifully preserves the film, adds a terrific new score and puts the whole thing in context with loads of top-notch extras. A fine package.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Silent, Music)
* English (Intertitles)
Running Time: 76 Minutes
Release Year: 1925
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Visual Essay
* Short Films
* Archival Clips
* DVD Copy