There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The Freshman, a 1925 silent comedy starring Harold Lloyd. The bespectacled comic plays Harold Lamb, a naïve young student who arrives at Tate University expecting college life to be like what he’s seen at the movies: full of school spirit and football heroics. Harold tries to win over his classmates by spending lavishly on snacks and parties, and he pitches woo to the pretty, kindly Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), described in a title card as, “The kind of girl your mother must have been.” All the while, mean-spirited upperclassmen turn the well-meaning newcomer into the butt of their pranks and jokes, including encouraging the football coach to let Harold join the team, so they can treat him as their tackling dummy, servant, and stooge. One of the first 50 films added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (way back in 1990), The Freshman has been an enduring influence on all the underdog sports stories and campus comedies where nerds and outcasts get to one-up the snobs and jocks.
Why watch now?
Because the 2019 Super Bowl is this weekend.
The NFL’s rise to prominence in American life — and perhaps, more importantly, American television — really began with the first Super Bowl in 1967. Football was a widely watched sport throughout the 20th century, but prior to the 1960s, the pro game generally took a back seat to Major League Baseball and college football. The college game inspired such fanaticism in the years between World War I and II that it became a popular subject for motion pictures, especially for the great screen comedians.
Lists of the all-time great football movies tend to skew modern, emphasizing the likes of Any Given Sunday, North Dallas Forty, and The Longest Yard. But a treasure trove of pigskin-centered cinema classics were released from the 1920s through the ‘40s, like Father Was a Fullback, The Big Game, Saturday’s Heroes, Good News, and Knute Rockne, All American. Similar to the early screen Westerns and gangster pictures, the football movies in the first half of the 1900s had common themes and formulas. They tended either to be stories about underestimated misfits getting a chance to shine or about star athletes overcoming worldly temptations and their own arrogance. Whether the heroes were studs or scrubs, what ultimately mattered was winning “the big game” — a goal with significance that was rarely challenged.
The Freshman nods to the nationwide college football craze with its opening title card, which reads, “Do you remember those boyhood days when going to College was greater than going to Congress — and you’d rather be Right Tackle than President?” When Harold makes his first appearance, he’s practicing his cheerleading “yells” (“Hi Ta Ticky… Bing! Bang!! Blooey!!!… T-A-T-E… ZIP! CHOP SUEY!!”), and imagining himself as the star of the movie The College Hero, Lester “Speedy” Laurel. Lloyd’s playing a likably upbeat doofus, buying in to the great promise of gridiron glory.
Who it’s for
Sports historians, comedy connoisseurs, and newcomers to silent films.
Lloyd is often compared to two other silent-era comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who all had a rare genius for constructing elaborate, physically taxing visual gags. The most famous image of Lloyd comes from his movie Safety Last, where he hangs precariously from a clock-face, several stories above the ground. The Freshman (co-directed by frequent Lloyd collaborators Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor) doesn’t get that dramatic, but it’s full of amusing bits of business, from the little jig Harold does whenever he meets new people (in imitation of The College Hero’s hero) to a long setpiece where his shoddily tailored suit keeps pulling apart during the school dance.
Lloyd’s silent films were even more notable for the snappy wit of their intertitles. The Freshman (credited to writers John Grey, Ted Wilde, Tim Whelan, and Taylor) features sharp hepcat dialogue, like when one of Harold’s bullies sizes him up as “the latest sport-model freshman with the old-fashioned trimmings.” Even funnier are the wry descriptions, like when the audience is told that Tate’s dean is so dignified that he never married, “for fear his wife would call him by his first name.”
That sarcastic edge extends to the way The Freshman treats Tate University, which is described as “a large football stadium with a college attached.” That kind of joke would still get a laugh of recognition today, given how football still looms large in American culture and academia. The uniforms and the style of play in The Freshman are different from today’s game, but the pageantry and mythology have barely changed over the past 96 years.
Where to see it
Like a lot of silent classics, The Freshman can be easily found on the Internet Archive and YouTube. For those who don’t mind spending a little money, a spiffy recent digital transfer (taken from a 1998 UCLA restoration) can be rented or purchased from iTunes or Amazon. That same version will soon also be part of the Criterion Collection’s subscription streaming site, which just this week announced a launch date: April 8th.