Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lamb to the slaughter

(Note: This review is part of the First Annual Bronko Nagurski Memorial Football Flick Fest Blogathon, which is currently underway at The Floating Red Couch until September 3rd.)

Even those individuals who’ve never experienced the uninhibited pleasure in watching a Harold Lloyd comedy are familiar with the iconic photo pictured on the left…a still that’s taken from Safety Last! (1923), perhaps his best-known feature film. Last and several other features/shorts established Lloyd’s reputation as a “thrill” comedian—though the “high and dizzy” movies really made up only a small percentage of his total cinematic output. In the 1920s, Harold Lloyd symbolized the “go-getter” in American society; a “regular guy” who, through hard work, pluck and determination could grab hold of the American Dream and use it to satisfy his ends in becoming a success story in the mold of a Horatio Alger hero.

I became a huge Lloyd fan by the time I was twelve years old, fortunate that public television stations in West Virginia regularly showcased his films on Saturday mornings…and I was able to see nearly all of them, though delights like Girl Shy (1924) and The Kid Brother (1927) would not be enjoyed until later on in life. Brother remains my favorite of the comedian’s films, but if an individual who’d never watched any of Harold’s classic comedies were to ask me for a recommendation I’d suggest the 1925 comedy The Freshman without hesitation. The Freshman was Lloyd’s biggest box office success during the 1920s, and is, to my way of thinking, the embodiment of the comedian’s cinematic philosophy of hard-work-equals-success—a simple story of an eager young college student who craves little more than acceptance from his peers is a genuine audience pleaser…with the film’s climactic football game simply one of the best and most thrilling ever captured on celluloid.

Harold Lamb (Lloyd)—could there be any other appropriate moniker for an innocent about to be set loose in this collegiate pressure cooker of social acceptance?—is ecstatic about attending Tate (“a large football stadium with a college attached”) to the point where he’s seen The College Hero six times and has taken copious notes on the mannerisms and dialogue of the main character played by matinee idol “Lester Laurel.” He’s even learned Laurel’s trademark introductory jig and greeting—“I’m just a regular fellow…step right up and call me ‘Speedy’!” (a nickname Lloyd insisted upon using in real-life, even to the point of appropriating it as the title for his 1928 feature comedy)—but in demonstrating it to his father, Papa remarks to Mama in a title card: “I’m afraid, Ma, if Harold imitates that movie actor at college, they’ll either break his heart or break his neck!”

And as the picture progresses, it’s a case of the former—the green Harold no sooner has stepped off the train when a group of his fellow students, led by a loutish jerk (Brooks Benedict) identified as The College Cad, make him the target of their ribs and pranks: Harold unwittingly makes off with the chauffeured automobile of the college dean, and addresses the students at an assembly while embarrassingly trying to rescue a kitten who’s trapped in his sweater. Egged on by a group of students which includes BMOC Chet Trask (James Anderson), captain of the football team, Harold finds himself adopted by this clique to be their court jester, and in treating a few of his new friends to ice cream, he winds up buying dessert for every Tom, Dick and Harry that joins the procession to the malt shop. His devastated finances dictate that he seek lodgings in a boarding house room where he makes the acquaintance of a lovely girl named Peggy (Jobyna Ralston)—although the two had previously met during Harold’s trip by train.

Harold’s dairy treat philanthropy earns him a reputation on campus as “Speedy the Spender,” but our hero still hasn’t caught on that he’s pretty much Tate’s resident punchline. The Cad tells Harold that the only way he can hope to become as popular as Trask is to try out for Tate’s football team…so he eagerly arrives at practice, gung-ho and loaded for bear only to find himself pressed into service at being a tackling dummy by Tate’s coach (Pat Harmon). The practice sequence is filled with humorous physical gags (including a funny encounter with the team’s canine mascot as Harold tries to retrieve the practice ball), and though Harold certainly doesn’t lack for heart he just doesn’t have the stuff to make the cut. Trask suggests to the coach that he make Harold the team’s water boy and let him think he’s one of the substitutes in order not to crush his spirit, and the coach agrees. No one is more delighted to hear about this than Cad boy, who tells two of his friends of this development within earshot of Peggy—who rushes upstairs to tell Harold…but remains silent when she sees how jubilant he is at becoming a “member” of the squad.

In a desperate bid to achieve his dream of becoming the most popular frosh on campus, Harold agrees to host the college’s annual Fall Frolic, a raucous and gay affair that will require him to be nattily attired in his best bib-and-tucker—but the tailor (Joseph Harrington) in charge of his couture is falling behind in its preparation due to frequent dizzy spells. The haberdasher’s malady has kept him from fully completing Harold’s suit—the ensemble has been put together with a baste stitch, and Lamb is warned not to be too rough on the threads because they’re liable to fall apart. Sure enough, a series of misadventures at the Frolic necessitate the tailor having to make constant wardrobe adjustments…including a classic bit where Harold must stand in front of a curtain while the tailor repairs the suit from behind.

By the end of the night, our hero finds himself close to nakedness when his suit literally disintegrates in front of his classmates…and his attempt to retain his dignity by punching out the Cad (who was forcing his intentions upon the sweet, guileless Peggy) result in his Cadness revealing Harold’s status as the class laughingstock.

This is one of the most moving scenes in The Freshman—Harold is trying to put on his best “game face” by shrugging off the mockery and pretending it doesn’t matter; laughing hysterically, he then crumples and collapses in Peggy’s arms. She tells him that his problem lies with the notion that he’s not being true to himself—instead, he’s acting the way he thinks they want him to act. Lamb realizes the only way to reform his rep as the campus fool is to (knock wood) get the opportunity to play in the “big game” against the school’s rival, Union State.

The day of the game, Tate isn’t taking too much of a shellacking—it’s fourth quarter, and the score is 3-0, Union State—but as Peggy points out, “I’m afraid Union State is too heavy for our boys—they’ve knocked out almost the whole Tate team.” Seated on Tate’s bench are Harold and a player named Dave, the last substitute…and I love the subtlety here when Harold remarks via title card: “There’s only two of us left, Dave, old boy! We’ll get into this game yet!” Dave looks at Harold…

…then he glances at the water bucket…

…and then back at Harold—and you know the guy is thinking, “In your dreams, jig boy.”

For one brief moment during the game, Cap’n Chet motions to Harold—who thinks that he’s being put into the game…but Chet only wants “Speedy” to switch uniforms with a player who’s torn his jersey. With the last substitute in and hurt, Harold pleads with the coach to let him “suit up”—and that’s when he gets the late-breaking bulletin that he’s never actually been on the team; he’s just there to schlep water.

Harold, incensed at this revelation, demands to be put in the game—he’s come too far to continue being Tate’s poster boy for jackasses, and faced with no other substitutes the coach agrees to let him play. Just when it looks as if all is lost…

…Harold’s never-say-die spirit assists him in scoring the winning touchdown in the last few precious seconds of the game. Carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates and game spectators, Peggy slips him a note that reads: “I knew you could do it—I’m so proud of you and I love you.”

The Freshman marked a departure from Lloyd’s usual style of filmmaking, which was to shoot the comedy sequences first and then build a story around those set pieces. In fact, the film was originally filmed in that fashion—the football sequences were the first to go before the cameras—but owing to the character-driven nature of the comedy, Lloyd switched to shooting the feature in sequence. Freshman was a fulfillment of Lloyd’s long-standing interest in making a gridiron-themed film…though the comedian was 31 at the time he put it together and to be as charitable as possible he doesn’t completely get away with it (to his credit, he originally didn’t want to appear in the movie because of his age) but creates an acceptable veneer of believability provided you don’t examine it too closely.

I will say this, though—when Lloyd recreated the character for the early scenes in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (his 1947 collaboration with Preston Sturges, which satirically sends up Lloyd’s classic by presenting the “go-getter” as a stagnant office drone who’s gone nowhere in his business career) I could barely tell the difference between the two eras…or maybe I was just eager to want to be fooled. Leonard Maltin, in discussing Diddlebock for his chapter on Lloyd in his book Great Movie Comedians, rightly points out that part of the letdown from the Sturges picture is that everything that followed the borrowed Freshman footage simply couldn’t match the quality of Lloyd’s previous master work. In tribute to one of the great film comedies of all time, The Freshman was honored by being chosen for the 1990 National Film Registry of the Library of Congress…and its release to DVD in 2004 ensures that it will entertain classic movie buffs—and football fans—for many years to come.

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Matthew Coniam said...

Coincidentally, I've been watching loadsa Lloyd lately.
This was a superb analysis of what will always be my favourite of his films.

Jeff Overturf said...

A lot of folks like to lump Chapin, Keaton and Lloyd in one box. They were, each one in a league of their own.

Lloyds I feel was the best. Nice work.

The Floating Red Couch said...

Brava to Mr. Lamb for winning the big game, getting the girl, and becoming big man on campus. One of the most interesting parts of football is how quickly and how early in its history that we see it being viewed and considered to be a star maker and rallying point for people.

I have never had an exposure to Harold Lloyd except that Zoidberg's uncle was famous silent film comedian Harold Zoid (Futurama reference), but I resolve to get one of his on my Netflix soon.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Coincidentally, I've been watching loadsa Lloyd lately.

I read your post and loved it! I had a big grin on my face when you talked about how the films would be introduced with the theme song ("Hooray for Harold Lloyd!"), because that's the way they showed them on TV when I was a tad as well.