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A naive 18-year-old enrolls at the fictional Tate University, where he’s determined to become the most popular man on campus in this silent era comedy that was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Harold Lloyd, one of the most iconic comedians of the silent film era, takes the lead. Jobyna Ralston, who starred in seven films with Lloyd, plays his romantic interest.
Nearly 100 years old, The Freshman is a time capsule look at the innocence of the 1920s and the “reinvent yourself” idealism of college. It was also one of Harold Llyod’s most successful films and one of the top-grossing films of the year.
What makes The Freshman work so well is its simplicity. The plot is straightforward, Lloyd is endearing, and the humor is downright wholesome. Lloyd stars as Harold Lamb, an eager young man ready to set out for college. His parents, both aware of their son’s eccentric behavior, become especially concerned when he decides to emulate the star of his favorite movie, The College Hero. This includes adopting his nickname, Speedy, and doing a little tap dance every time he meets someone new.
Harold’s innocence ultimately makes him a hero worth rooting for. His little tap dance is too cute, and he tries to woo Peggy, a sweet girl he meets on the train to school (Jobyna Ralston), by helping her complete her crossword puzzle. When a woman mistakes them for a couple, he jolts to his feet, crashes into the dining cart, and runs away.
Once he arrives at Tate, the most popular man on campus sees Harold and decides he’s an easy target. Just as Harold thinks he’s becoming Mr. Hot Shot, it turns out he’s just the laughingstock.
The comedy is carried by Lloyd’s physical antics. While trying out for the football team, he’s tackled by every single player – a gag that could get old, but it gets funnier with every crush. At the “Fall Frolic,” Lloyd’s tailor joins him for the dance because his suit isn’t complete. As girls keep pulling him onto the dance floor, his suit keeps ripping and his tailor frantically tries to fix it, unbeknownst to Harold.
But no matter what kind of trouble he gets into, Peggy adores him and helps him out the best she can. Their relationship is the charm and heart of the film.
Adding to the humor are the title cards. Tate University is described as a “Large football stadium with a college attached.” Peggy’s card reads “The kind of girl your mother must have been.” The students “wait to be bored by the Dean’s speech.” In lieu of dialogue, the astute asides offer a satirical take on college life that still holds up. After all, how many major universities are still large football stadiums with colleges attached?
An endearing classic that your great (great) grandparents likely watched, The Freshman captures the silent era comedy with some of the best physical antics you’ll ever see.
You can watch this one with the kids, who will love Lloyd’s physical comedy and marvel at the idea of a movie with no talking.
The film was one of the only Harold Lloyd films to be shot in chronological order. Most were shot as Lloyd thought up comedic antics and based stories around them. The Freshman was shot in order to better establish Harold Lamb as a character.