Charlie Chaplin would’ve never cared about the score of the Yankees game. Buster Keaton would’ve never tried for the college football team. It seems absurd that a movie star could actually distinguish themselves by being ordinary, but that’s exactly what Harold Lloyd did. He donned a pair of glasses and transformed himself into an everyman, carving out a niche between Chaplin’s precocious Tramp and Keaton’s stoic clown.
It feels appropriate then that with “The Freshman” this “regular fellow” inadvertently invented the sports movie and the college movie. Lloyd plays an eager young freshman who decides to imitate a recent movie in an attempt to become the most popular guy in school. Along the way he endures some playful hazing, a cartoonishly stuffy Dean, and public humiliation and abuse at parties and at football practice. It’s “Animal House” Class of 1925.
That Dean is a good example of a gag and a character so corny it could only work in a silent film. He has a monocle and a top hat and is astonished that any lowly freshman would even dare speak to him. His character is a cliche and an overused trope, in which the student gets the better of the bitter Dean or faces his wrath. But “The Freshman” and Lloyd in particular are so high spirited and endearingly charming. When he unknowingly pats the Dean on the back, Lloyd looks like a bashful puppy dog. How can you not laugh, and more importantly, relate?
Three years later in 1928 Lloyd would make his final silent film, “Speedy,” in which he borrows his character’s nickname from “The Freshman.” Lloyd plays a boy who can’t hold down a job because of his obsession with baseball. He ends up filling in as a conductor on a trolley car owned by his girlfriend’s father and works to defend it from wealthy businessmen who want to cheat them out of it.
While “Speedy” features a handful of elaborate mad dashes through Manhattan in a taxi and on a horse-drawn carriage, as well as some clever acrobatics as Lloyd fights with a broken door on his cab, one of the film’s best sight gags involves Lloyd being an average guy. He’s at work at a soda shop unable to listen to the Yankees game, so he repeatedly phones a store to find out what the score is. At each update, he places a carefully selected pastry in a cabinet to illustrate to his coworkers the score. First inning, he puts two bagels on each shelf. 0-0. Then the White Sox score. A donut on the bottom shelf means 0-1. Then the Yankees make a three-run rally! Lloyd take a bite out of a twisted pretzel to make a “3.”
Harold Lloyd’s everyman allowed for the scene and the moment to upstage him. “Speedy” treats us to both a remarkable on-location look at a glittering Coney Island in all its glory, as well as a cameo from Babe Ruth in his prime. The montage on Coney Island is magical; he rides on a spinning platform and in a tumbling fun house, and it’s a joy to watch. And yet it’s a diversion not essential to the plot, and it’s not some elaborate slapstick ballet. Ruth too doesn’t have a great reason to be here, but Lloyd is ordinary and relatable enough that he can share the screen with another living legend in a way the Tramp never could.