There are many great silent comedies worthy of a festival’s opening night, but Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman isn’t just funny, it’s foolproof. We all love to root for an underdog, and in this masterfully constructed feature Lloyd builds story and character hand-in-hand to a climax that has us cheering out loud.
Although he is remembered for his persona as an all-American go-getter, sporting horn-rimmed glasses and a straw hat, Lloyd played a variety of charactrs in his feature films of the 1920s, including a mama’s boy, a henpecked husband, and a bored millionaire. He always won over his audiences, but the eager, wide-eyed innocent trying to make the college football team he portrays in The Freshman is irresistible.
Yet, in real life, Lloyd still battles for respect among film historians and fans. Unlike his contemporaries Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he is rarely cited as an artist or an auteur—despite being just as responsible for his films as they were. The biggest difference is that he never took credit for writing and directing, as they did.
Lloyd labored over his feature films for months on end, constantly working to improve sequences and build a stronger plot structure for the gags. When that was done, he tested his films with theater audiences and then performed further surgery to make them as perfect as possible. Lloyd’s work paid off in the 1920s and continues to yield results whenever his films are shown to modern-day audiences. They are not just funny; they are guaranteed to be funny, because the ingredients for laughter haven’t really changed over the years, and Lloyd’s films are audience-proven.
Harold Lloyd’s determination to make his films as good as they could be stemmed from his Horatio Alger-type upbringing. A product of the Midwest who caught the acting bug as a youngster, he broke into the movies with the same kind of ambition and optimism he later portrayed in his comedies.
He started out as an extra, earning several dollars a day and doing his own makeup. He became friendly with another extra named Hal Roach, who inherited some money and decided to try his luck as a producer. Lloyd became his first star. The character they settled on was an ersatz version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp called Willie Work; then Lloyd modified his costume and became Lonesome Luke.
In Lloyd’s subsequent features, he carefully thought out his characterizations and worked with his writers so that the story and sight gags grew out of that character. This was what set Lloyd apart from other journeymen comics who relied on jokes alone. Lloyd’s character changed from film to film, but whatever the premise, he made sure that he never did anything that felt out of character in that particular story.
Lloyd eventually parted company with Hal Roach; he wanted ownership and control of his work. When he set up his own production company, Lloyd gathered a team of comedy specialists and technicians who were on salary year-round, even during lulls between pictures. He had plenty of help to make his films, but as he later remarked, “If anything went wrong and I didn’t like it, I had nobody to blame but myself. I had complete control over all my pictures.”
Lloyd never released more than two features a year and, after 1924, only one a year, so he was keenly aware of the challenge of making each film better than the last. Every time he and his team worked on an idea they tried to devise ways to take the same basic elements and make them funnier, more elaborate than ever before.
The chase is a good example. In Girl Shy (1924) Harold discovers that the girl he loves is about to marry a conniving bigamist, and he races to rescue her at the church, commandeering a streetcar at one point and switching from one vehicle to another in order to meet his frantic deadline. It’s a wonderful climax to this deliberately paced film, but the near-misses of his trolley with passing cars are a bit too regulated, too exact to be entirely convincing.
Lloyd vowed to improve on this chase in For Heaven’s Sake (1926), but this time it’s embellished with a variety of hilarious twists and turnabouts. It’s a crowd of pedestrians Harold is egging on, and, at one point turning a corner, the angry mob chases after someone who looks like Harold from the rear, leaving the real Harold behind! Undaunted, Harold hops into a taxi, which easily bypasses the runners; he tells the perplexed “double” to jump inside and, as he does, Harold takes his place and continues the chase!
Lloyd’s characters, and the spirit of his comedies, represented everything upbeat and affirmative about America in the 1920s. He was the meek inheriting the Earth, an ordinary boy-next-door who survived by his wits, won the girl. Everyone remembers Harold climbing the side of a building and hanging from a clock in Safety Last (1923), but it’s equally important to recall that the reason he’s ended up there is his desire to make good and impress his girl back home.
When sound came to Hollywood in the late 1920s, it caught Lloyd off guard, and he hastily remade much of his then-current production, Welcome Danger, to be able to release it as a talkie. But this slow, ponderous production was his first misstep in many years. When Lloyd returned to familiar ground for his next film, Feet First, critics and audiences welcomed it as a return to “old-fashioned” filmmaking from the silent era.
Thus Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times wrote of Lloyd’s 1932 Movie Crazy, “After the gangster films and those concerned with the more or less serious activities of gossip mongers and crooners, this offering came to those in the packed theater (last night) as a relief, for it made the spectators forget all about the trials and tribulations of the world outside.”
As the 1930s wore on, Lloyd’s brand of humor became scarce on movie screens and his films—which came in intervals of two years—were greeted in similar fashion every time. Of The Milky Way (1936), Frank S. Nugent wrote in the Times, “It’s good to have an old-time Harold Lloyd comedy back in town,” while the New Yorker critic said, “Without any of those mechanical stunts that you find in a Cantor picture or the Marx Brothers’ operettas, this Lloyd film manages to sustain a pleasantly soothing humor throughout. It’s a comedy of the untoward catastrophes that may befall one of the world’s innocents.”
There simply wasn’t much room for innocence in Depression-era America and, more and more, Lloyd harked back to a simpler time for moviegoers and critics who appreciated the tranquility of the 1920s.
After Professor Beware, a genial but lackluster film in 1938, Lloyd retired from the screen, without announcement or fanfare. He dabbled in producing at RKO but was generally inactive until the brilliant writer-director Preston Sturges coaxed him back to movies in 1946 with a vehicle tailor-made for him: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (ultimately released as Mad Wednesday).
The premise was irresistible: The new film opened with the climax of Lloyd’s classic football game from The Freshman, in which underdog bench-warmer Harold is called into action at the last minute and wins the game. The film then follows Harold’s progress as he ages to show (of all things) that the onetime All-American Hero is now a stoop-shouldered clerk whose life has been one long yawn. Fired from his job, Harold chances to meet a street straggler named Wormy, who, through drink and persuasion, changes Harold’s personality overnight. He decides to live it up for the first time in twenty years and goes on a mad spree during which he loses track of an entire day and awakens to find that he has somehow purchased a circus! The film even manages to include a brief sequence on a building ledge with Harold and a lion.
Unfortunately, Mad Wednesday never quite lives up to its premise. But then, even a genius like Preston Sturges had a tough act to follow: the finale of The Freshman. In some ways it marks the pinnacle of Harold Lloyd’s screen career—and that, in turn, represents the zenith of silent film comedy.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by Berklee Silent Film Orchestra
Berkeley Silent Film Orchestra composers: Vincent Isler, Esin Aydingoz, Bernard Duc, Victoria Ruggiero, Andres Gutierrez, Jeffrey Gaiser, and Vinicius Pippa
Berkeley Silent Film Orchestra players: Gabriela Sofia Gomez Estevez (flute/piccolo), Lindsey Stein (oboe/English horn), Stephanie Clark (clarinet/bass clarinet), Dan Pfeiffer (horn), Joey Epstein (trumpet), Ethan Santos (trombone/bass trombone), Kino Lee (keyboard), Eren Başbuğ (keyboard), Tania Mesa (violin), Nathaniel Taylor (cello), Michael Simon (bass), and Patrick Hanafin (percussion)
BSFO Artistic Director: Sheldon Mirowitz
BSFO Managing Director: Rob Hayes