Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #15: The Freshman

US, 1925. Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor. Starring Harold Lloyd.

The quickest way to set my teeth a-gritting when discussing classic films with me is to dis Chaplin in order to elevate Keaton. Both were masters, indisputably great, leave it at that. Like one better than the other? Good on ya. Still, I’m immediately suspicious of someone who needs to rigorously assert their Keaton fandom, as if it were a badge of non-conformity against the big, bad popular favourite Charlot. If someone tells me they think Harold Lloyd is greater than either, I just dismiss them as crazy.

This not to say Lloyd is a poor silent screen comedian. On the contrary, he’s a very likable screen personality and his gags are always pure in conception and clear in execution. But I’m always surprised anew at how vague a screen personality Lloyd is. Everyone knows the glasses, but what else does Lloyd stand for? The “everyman” we’re meant to identify with, but not a striking screen persona.

The Freshman is a fine Lloyd comedy, usually reckoned to be his best, except by those who pretend to have seen Safety Last because they once saw a poster of Lloyd hanging off the clock above traffic. He plays a young man who goes off to college with a healthy savings account and an overwhelming desire to be the most popular guy at school. He blows most of his money on day one, buying ice cream for his new “friends”, and quickly earns a reputation as the school buffoon, thinking his is on the football team when he’s really just the waterboy.

My general problem with Lloyd’s films is that, as good and as cleanly designed as his gags are, the setups are glaringly obvious, the complications broadly telegraphed, and most gags usually work out exactly as you expect them to. Example: Lloyd holds a huge party to further his bid to be big man on campus, but his tailor does not complete his suit on time. At the party, the tailor says “I will ring a bell if your outfit splits”. We see a couple at a table with a bell. We think “the man will ring it and Lloyd will panic because he thinks his outfit has split”. This is exactly what transpires. Lloyd eventually notices the couple with the bell and think “I bet his outfit will split and the tailor will ring the bell and he will think it’s the couple and laugh it off.” And he does.

There are exceptions, but rarely do you get the wonderful sense of wonder and surprise that are the mark of the great physical comics: Chaplin, Keaton, Chan. There is a wonderful gag during the party sequence where Lloyd appears to be sitting at the table with a pretty young thing. In reality, his lower body is bent back through the curtain behind his chair, where the tailor is furiously working away on Lloyd’s pants. The tailor passes out, and we see Lloyd slowly sinking down in his seat. The effect is wonderfully funny and like a tonic amidst the conventional gags.

The party scene and climactic football game are the showpieces here and each works like a charm. As a primer in the mechanics of silent screen comedy, this is a terrific and likable film. Still, after years of trying, it's hard as ever for me to see Lloyd as deserving a place above the second tier of silent comics.

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