THE FRESHMAN – Blu-ray review

Harold Lamb only cares about one thing: being the most popular man at Tate University (described in a title card as “a large football stadium with a college attached” and looking an awful lot like USC). He practices school cheers in his bedroom, tries to buy affection on campus with a trail of ice cream cones, and even keeps a picture of the man voted last year’s most popular student on his wall as a constant source of inspiration, if not ambiguously creepy obsession.

You might not identify with Harold’s singular ambition or even find his desperate desire to impress particularly laudable. But you don’t need to share a hankering for roadrunner in order to respect Wile E. Coyote’s monomaniacal pursuit of his speedy dinner; you simply have to believe that he really wants it. And when superstar silent comedian Harold Lloyd plays the lead role in a movie, you’re gonna believe whatever he wants you to believe. Believe me.

Audiences certainly believed as “The Freshman” (1925) became one of the top-grossing comedies of the silent film era, powered by Lloyd’s seemingly inexhaustible pluck. When told by a fellow student that he has to join the football team if he wants to unseat the big man on campus, Harold doesn’t let his complete lack of athletic ability deter him from his goal (note: Harold Lamb may not have been an athlete, but Harold Lloyd certainly was, a key to the enduring appeal of his daredevil films.) When offered the opportunity to join the team as the new tackling dummy, he gamely absorbs the abuse of the entire team, happily stumbling home as a mass of bruises later that evening. He’s made the team (or so he thinks) and he’s that much closer to basking in the universal admiration of his peers.

As required by the laws of the time, boy must meet girl, and so Harold meet-cutes with Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, introduced as “the kind of girl your mother must have been”) on the train to college; their exchange of endearments (“Darling!” “Sweetheart!”) while trying to solve a crossword clue might be nauseating if that darned Lloyd wasn’t so darned believable. True-Heart Peggy is Harold’s only real ally and the sole voice of reason when all of the other students openly mock him right at what he mistakenly believes is the pinnacle of his social success.

This scene initially plays out like a moment of clarity. Peggy admonishes Harold to be true to himself and not worry about what the others think, but instead of listening, the single-minded hero invests all his dreams in the upcoming big football game. Unaware that he is merely the water boy, he stubbornly clings to the delusion that he will win the day and therefore the love of the whole student body. Because it’s Harold Lloyd, because he believes and makes you believe, he turns out to be right.

The football game is the signature set piece in “The Freshman” and you’ve probably at least seen clips of it before. Though the scripted action bears so resemblance to reality, some of the footage benefits from a documentary sensibility earned by shooting at several of the major (and then relatively new) college stadiums in California, including at USC and Berkeley. The main action of the climactic game was hastily shot at halftime during a real 1924 game between Berkeley and Stanford which explains how they were able to “afford” a packed stadium of rowdy boosters.

Lloyd tumbling his way into miraculous receptions and scampering up and down the field (not always with the football in tow) is a heck of a spectacle and it’s easy to understand why it retains its considerable charm today. There’s an abrupt shift in this sequence that has always bugged me a bit, however. Once Harold wheedles his way into the game (largely thanks to a string of injuries to the real players) we thrill as we watch the clearly overmatched young man endure by merit of sheer chutzpah. He’s knocked over, stomped on, and spun every which way, but he never gives up no matter the obviously long odds. But on the winning play, he suddenly transforms into a superhero, shucking massive tacklers left and right and just bulldozing his way into the endzone. He employs none of the unique ingenuity he had shown in surviving college life to this point or in scaling that uncooperative building in “Safety Last!” (1923), just brute strength. It seems like an inelegant solution from a very elegant filmmaker. It’s nothing close to a fatal flaw in a very fine movie, but it’s part of the reason I don’t like “The Freshman” quite as much as Lloyd’s best work.

But my goodness did Harold Lloyd have an amazing on-screen persona with his signature Glasses character (you see, he wears glasses…) At the time he was as beloved as Chaplin’s Tramp. Glasses is nowhere near as well known today except among silent comedy aficionados, but that’s just one of the strange contingencies of film history. Nearly ninety years later, the character and the performer are as appealing as ever, and I don’t really need to explain why, only to point you to movies like “The Freshman” and “Safety Last!” so you can see the obvious for yourself.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution… from the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 1998 restoration negative. The UCLA restoration, supervised by preservation officer Robert Gitt and funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, utilized footage from both the foreign release version, entitled “College Days,” and the domestic release version. Footage from the original camera negative of the foreign version, which was shot by a second camera, from a slightly different angle, makes up about 60 percent of the UCLA restoration; it was used because it was sharper and more sparkling than the equivalent footage available from the domestic version, which survived only through duplicate elements of overall lesser quality.”

I offer that just in case there’s a purist out there who insists on “domestic release footage only” because then you’ll be disappointed. Otherwise, you’ll be thrilled by the quality of this high-def transfer of the restored source. It looks so vibrant and has such sharp image detail, it’s difficult to believe it’s almost ninety years old. Some scenes are tinted, most standard black-and-white and they all look strong with only the occasional evidence of damage to the print. Lloyd was a wealthy man who was able to preserve much of his footage, though I don’t know if the foreign release was from any of his archives. Whatever the case, this looks just as good as Criterion’s impressive release of “Safety Last!” last year.

This is a dual-format release that includes two DVDs (one with the film, one with extras) and one Blu-ray (with film and extras). The DVD transfer has not been reviewed here.

The linear PCM 2.0 audio track does a fine job of presenting the new score composed and conducted by Carl Davis. It looks like the original intertitles are included, and they are in English, of course.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by director and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, film historian Richard Bann, and film critic Leonard Maltin. This commentary was recorded in 2005 and was included on the SD version of the film that was part of New Line’s “Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection” boxed set. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.

We also get three short Harold Lloyd films, all described as “recently restored.” “An Eastern Westerner” (1920, 28 min.) and “High and Dizzy” (1920, 27 min.) were both part of that New Line set (though not both on the same disc). “The Marathon” (1919, 14 min.) was not on that set, and I think it’s the best of the lot. Lloyd is one of many suitors for the hand of the lovely Bebe Daniels and whacky hijinks ensue. “An Eastern Westerner” sees a lazy young Harold sent West by his father where he duels with gamblers and then outwits a army of oafish Klansmen. “High and Dizzy” tries to milk comedy out of a sleepwalking Mildred Davis (later Lloyd’s wife) but holds back the thrills until the very end. “Marathon” comes with a new piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau; the other two shorts with new scores by Carl Davis.

“Harold Lloyd’s ‘Funny Side of Life’” was a 1966 TV special in which he presented a screening of “The Freshman.” This feature doesn’t include the movie (you already get that elsewhere) but does include Lloyd’s on-camera introduction of the movie as well as a lengthy clip reel from other Lloyd films that was part of the special. 29 minutes total running time.

The “Delta Kappa Alpha Tribute” provides footage of an awards show conducted by the professional cinema fraternity at USC that honored Lloyd and Mary Pickford on Jan 6, 1963. This feature (29 min.) begins with Lloyd being introduced by Gloria Swanson and then segues into Lloyd on stage with Steve Allen, Jack Lemmon and director Delmer Daves.

Criterion has also included an excerpt from an episode of “What’s My Line?” (Apr 26, 1953, 6 min.) in which Lloyd was the mystery guest. He was still instantly recognized by the audience and quickly identified by the panel.

Aside from the short films, my favorite feature on this packed disc is a lengthy conversation (2013, 40 min.) between Oscar-winning scholar Kevin Brownlow and director/archivist Richard Correll. Brownlow tells a fantastic story about meeting the very gracious and generous Lloyd in 1962. We also get plenty of detailed information, including the fact that Lloyd really did not want to go the obvious route of losing his trousers in one of the film’s major gags, but had no choice but to bow to audience pressure after a preview screening.

“Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus” (16 min.) is a visual essay by author John Bengston which covers in great detail the Los Angeles-area (and other) locations used in “The Freshman.”

The slim 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Stephen Winer.

Film Value:
“The Freshman” was one of the biggest comedy hits of all-time, and Harold Lloyd one of the most popular stars in cinema history. Criterion’s release features a great high-def transfer and an impressive collection of extras, including several other short films showcasing the star’s talents. Strongly recommended.