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At the beginning of Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece The Freshman, Lloyd, as young Harold Lamb (possibly the greatest name for a silent comedy character ever), is preparing to leave home for his first year at college. He is preparing not by studying or checking a syllabus or packing a trunk. No, he is preparing by looking in a mirror and imitating a fictional character in a (fictional) movie: The College Hero, starring “Lester Laurel.” He is dressed identically to the hero we see on the film’s poster on his door. “I’m just a regular fellow. Step right up and call me Speedy,” he says, copying the quote on the poster. This is followed by a little jig, presumably Laurel’s trademark. Over the course of The Freshman, it’s Harold’s attempts to become this character in his own life at college that will lead to comic catastrophe and then to ultimate triumph.
Lloyd understood well the powerful influence of popular culture. He had broken into movie comedy himself by imitating a fictional character: Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, whom Lloyd repurposed first as Willie Work and then as Lonesome Luke. But by 1925, these mild copies were well in his past. He had created what became known as the “Glasses Character,” after the horn-rimmed ones he wore. The Glasses Character was something new in film comedy: more realistic in look and manner than the other clowns of the period. He became hugely popular. Indeed, his fans, like Harold Lamb, wanted to look like their hero, causing a spike in the sale of horn-rimmed spectacles—cosplay before its time.
As Lloyd entered features, he took his perfected character and developed a structure that best exploited him. Many of the finest Glasses features follow a variant of the same plot: a young man leaves home in an attempt to enter and succeed in society at large. In Safety Last! (1923), he wants to succeed in the city. In Girl Shy (1924), he wants to succeed as a writer/lover. In the sound film Movie Crazy (1932), his dream is to become a movie star. And in The Freshman—directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor but, like all the films of his prime, creatively controlled by Lloyd—he wants to be the Big Man on Campus. In all of these films, by a combination of will and determination, he achieves his goal. This is not the typical plot of comedy. It actually has more in common with the then popular rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger. In short, this is the Great American Success Story, and Lloyd’s use of it makes him the most American of all the legendary Hollywood clowns.
The can-do spirit of this character not only makes him American, it makes him nearly unique in film comedy. The comedian’s natural role is that of the outsider—the one who doesn’t fit in. So it was with Lloyd’s contemporaries. Chaplin’s Tramp was, by his nature, the ultimate outsider. That stance served Chaplin’s comedy, but it also reflected his worldview. In Modern Times (1936), the Tramp begins as a fully integrated member of society: a literal cog in the machine. But this drives him mad, and society spits him out as if he were never there. Buster Keaton had a natural wariness of society. His character sensed that as easily as he could be blown into it, he could be blown out again. Harry Langdon was so alien a creature that he and society could only stare at each other in dazed incomprehension (to paraphrase Nietzsche: When Harry Langdon looks into the abyss, the abyss looks into Harry and says, “What the hell is that?!”). When the talkies arrived, such comedians as W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers developed an actively confrontational relationship with society. Only Lloyd perceives social success as not only achievable but desirable.
If The Freshman is the most perfect of the Harold Lloyd success stories, it may be in part because Lloyd had some very specific models to draw from. In the opening scene, after Harold practices his Speedy moves, he looks through three other references for the well-made college boy: a pamphlet on “Clever College Clothes,” a booklet on “How to Play Football,” and a book entitled Jack Merivale at College.
Anyone in Lloyd’s 1925 audience would have recognized the last as a reference to the hugely popular character Frank Merriwell. Merriwell was created by Gilbert Patten at the turn of the twentieth century. He initially appeared in scores of stories in the pulp magazine Tip Top Weekly, and later in books, comics, and, in the thirties, a radio show and film serial. Merriwell is the ultimate school hero. First at Fardale Academy and then at Yale, he succeeds spectacularly at every activity he attempts. He triumphs at every possible sport, pausing between games only to win fistfights and duels with various bullies and villains. His author describes him in terms Greek gods would recognize. Utterly decent and moral, he is also utterly modest, preferring, like Speedy, to think of himself as just an ordinary guy, even as all the other characters praise him rapturously. As a freshman in 1907’s Frank Merriwell at Yale (yes, in preparing this essay, I read—okay, skimmed—this book so that you don’t have to. You’re welcome), he excels in fisticuffs, swordplay, rowing, and baseball (football, Harold Lamb’s sport of choice, is apparently well covered in Frank’s other adventures). In short, by contemporary standards, he is absolutely insufferable.
One can easily imagine a contemporary comedian like Will Ferrell or Jack Black parodying this superman Merriwell character. But this was not Harold Lloyd’s way. Whether or not Lloyd himself took this archetype seriously, he recognized his audience’s appreciation of it and acknowledged its power. And so in The Freshman, the Harolds, Lloyd and Lamb, see the college hero as someone not to be mocked but to be emulated.
This is the vision Harold Lamb takes to college with him, and the comedy derives from the distance between his hopes and his ability to realize them. On his arrival, the Speedy speech and accompanying jig are mocked by the other students, egged on by the school bully, played by Brooks Benedict (none of the characters at the school are given names—Lloyd’s acknowledgment that this is a society of archetypes). His tryout for the football team is a disaster, and the coach decides to use him as a human tackling dummy—before, in misguided kindness, making him the water boy while letting him think he’s on the team. Harold’s attempt to be the life of the party at the Fall Frolic is decimated by an unfinished suit and a woozy tailor.
But throughout the film, Harold holds on to his dream, even as it drifts into self-delusion. Early on, he meets Peggy, played by the endearing Jobyna Ralston. Peggy cares for Harold but can’t bring herself to shatter his illusions. It is in the wake of the fiasco at the Fall Frolic that the truth finally comes out and Harold discovers that he is in fact the “college boob.” Devastated, he collapses in tears in Peggy’s lap. “Harold, you haven’t been true to yourself. You’ve been pretending to be what you thought they wanted you to be,” says Peggy. “Stop pretending, Harold—be yourself! Get out and make them like you for what you really are and can do!”
And so we come to the climactic football game. A tossed hat, some balloons, and an ill-timed train whistle are just a few of the comic obstacles Harold faces, but finally his determination breaks through and he plows his way to victory. Carried off the field by the cheering crowd, he is passed a note from Peggy saying she loves him. As the film ends, we see classmates and even the coach imitating Harold’s jig, this time in admiration.
It’s the irony of The Freshman that when Harold ceases trying to imitate Speedy, he actually becomes Speedy. It’s not simulated strength that wins the game, it’s Harold’s own will and tenacity. What more perfect vision of the American dream could there be? In a country where anyone can become president, Harold Lloyd says that any bespectacled lamb can become Frank Merriwell.
Of course, none of this would matter if The Freshman were not, first and foremost, a hilarious comedy. I sometimes think of Lloyd as the Swiss watchmaker of comedy. He and his gagmen would meticulously build classic sequence after classic sequence, with every detail perfectly placed for maximum impact. Scenes like the Fall Frolic and the football game can be pulled out of context and play just as effectively for an audience. But seeing them embedded in the film, we discover how tightly Lloyd marries his comedy to the arc of his character’s story, creating a perfect bond of laughter and recognition with his public.
Contemporary audiences certainly got it, making The Freshman his most financially successful silent film. It also kicked off something of a vogue for campus-based comedies. Even Buster Keaton, who usually followed no lead but his own, made a college comedy called, appropriately enough, College (1927).
Lloyd continued to make fine films, nodding to The Freshman by titling his last silent film Speedy (1928). Though the movie is not a sequel, Lloyd lets the audience know that the Glasses Character has moved up in the world by giving him that nickname from the start.
As it turned out, The Freshman would indeed have a sequel. In 1947, twenty-three years after Harold Lamb’s big game and nine years after Harold Lloyd’s last self-produced feature, Professor Beware (1938), the great Hollywood satirist Preston Sturges had an idea: What happened to that guy with the glasses after The Freshman ended? So he brought Lloyd out of retirement for The Sin of Harold Diddlebock—Diddlebock being as perfect a Sturges name as Lamb was a Lloyd one.
The film begins with the football game finale of The Freshman. Then, in a new scene, we follow Lamb into the locker room (Harold scarcely looking a day older than his 1925 self). A wealthy businessman offers the hero a job (which is the way Horatio Alger novels often ended). We see Harold, on his first day of work, bursting with ideas, being offered a chance to start at the bottom as a bookkeeper and work his way up. But Sturges had a more cynical worldview, and he turns Harold’s American dream on its head. In the end, he does succeed, but, in a manner typical of Sturges characters, his success is due to dumb luck and coincidence. After a brilliant start, the film goes off the tracks as Sturges attempts to create physical comedy scenes in the Lloyd manner, while foolishly rejecting Lloyd’s offers to help craft them. After the film’s failure, Lloyd retired from the movies for good.
Although today we might see Sturges’s viewpoint as more realistic than Lloyd’s, the ultimate irony is that Harold Lloyd lived the most extravagant version of the American dream that his characters might have conceived. Told by Mack Sennett at the dawn of his career that he would never make it as a comic, through his own grit and determination he became one of the great stars of his time. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he never lost control of his work, kept his money, and, when the time came, walked away from films without trauma.
Living on his spectacular estate, Greenacres, he spent the rest of his life happily pursuing his many hobbies, including painting, 3D photography, and dog breeding. And in the sixties, he created two theatrical compilations of his work: Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy and Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life, bringing his genius to a happy new generation (of which I was one).
It’s no surprise that the ending of Frank Merriwell at Yale is almost an exact foreshadowing of the end of The Freshman:
The sight of sturdy lads in blue, delirious with delight, hugging a dust-covered youth, lifting him to their shoulders, and bearing him away in triumph . . . It was a glorious finish!
“Never saw anything better!” declared Harry. “Frank, you’re a wonder!”
And so, we can add, was Harold Lloyd.
Stephen Winer was one of the original writers for Late Night with David Letterman. He has also written for comedians Robert Klein and Dick Van Dyke and the Disney Channel’s New Mickey Mouse Club.