THE FRESHMAN was very popular in its time and has since come to be regarded as the quintessential Harold Lloyd vehicle, mostly because it has been more widely available than his other efforts throughout the years. Interestingly enough, the movie's two classic set pieces are enacted on
the real proving grounds of BMOC-aspiration, circa 1925: the dance floor and the football field; we never see a classroom in the entire film.
Harold Lamb (Lloyd) prepares for his first day of college by rehearsing a routine he is certain will win him instant recognition and popularity: a silly little scissor-legged jig accompanied by a tag phrase, "I'm just a regular fellow. Step right up and call me Speedy." The boy is so guilelessly
enthusiastic about starting school that his parents fear he will be humiliated or bullied when he gets there. On the train to Tate College, he meets Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), who works in a hotel near campus. Tate upperclassmen peg the young man as the ideal patsy and submit him to a series of
practical jokes. Believing he has achieved instantaneous acceptance, the unwitting freshman treats everyone to ice cream. Financially depleted, he takes a room in an inexpensive boarding house run by Peggy's mother.
When Harold reports for the first day of football tryouts, he is recruited by the head coach (Pat Harmon) as a human tackling dummy. Impressed by the young man's spunk, the coach appoints him water boy, but Harold thinks he's made the second team. Peggy, who learns the truth, doesn't have the
heart to tell her ecstatic friend that he's the laughing stock of the school.
Harold decides to host Tate's annual "fall frolic," but his custom-made tux is not quite ready-to-wear when the night of the big dance arrives, and the progressive disintegration of his suit leads to an embarrassing series of mishaps on the dance floor. Afterwards, Harold punches the college cad
(Brooks Benedict) for making unwelcome advances toward Peggy. The masher retaliates by telling Harold the truth: he is the campus boob. Peggy tries to lift the spirits of the shattered boy.
The day of the big game arrives. Bench-warmer Harold watches his team fall behind 3-0. With only 10 minutes left to play, he begs to be sent in and his desperate coach, who's out of substitute players, reluctantly complies. Somehow, despite his athletic incompetence, Harold manages to score the
winning touchdown and become the school hero. After the game, the freshman's joy is made complete when he receives a love note from Peggy.
An intertitle describes Tate College as "a large football stadium with a college attached." To Harold Lamb, the Edmund Hillary of social climbers, it represents not an opportune place to complete his formal education but a magic kingdom where a schnook can become a sheik if he tries hard enough.
If Harold Lamb is slightly less sympathetic than other incarnations of the Lloyd stock character, it's because his motivations are somewhat more impeachable than usual and the obstacles he must face somewhat less harrowing. Customarily, the Lloyd character risks his life to win a place in the
adult world; here, he hazards a few football bruises to please a gang of puerile undergraduates.
Indeed, it is not Harold but Peggy, played by the darling Ralston, who earns the major portion of our affection. Always on the sidelines, working for wages while her collegiate contemporaries play, Peggy recognizes the shallowness of Harold's aspirations from the first. Longing to save this "lamb"
from the social slaughter he so willingly invites, yet loving and admiring him nonetheless, Peggy, beyond any other heroine in the Lloyd canon, wins our love and admiration. So sympathetic is she ("the kind of girl your mother must have been," speculates an intertitle), viewers might wish THE
FRESHMAN's rather abrupt ending had been extended to include a scene in which football hero Harold publicly rejects the flighty campus belle (and all she stands for) in favor of Peggy, the wise and compassionate young townie.
If Harold Lamb is not quite the full-blown role model exemplified by several other of Lloyd's Harolds and Speedys, he is never less than likable, and THE FRESHMAN is rarely less than wonderfully entertaining and involving. A generation later, in his final screen appearance, Lloyd appeared in a
sequel of sorts, written and directed by Preston Sturges. The new film began with footage of THE FRESHMAN's climactic big-game sequence. After Sturges completed THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK in 1947, RKO shelved it, recut it, and released it three years later as MAD WEDNESDAY. (Violence.)
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