When I think of a lovable underdog, I think of Harold Lloyd.
Since the days of silent film, Lloyd pioneered the future of American comedy alongside the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Bespectacled in round, horn-rimmed glasses and topping his look with a crisp, straw boater, Harold Lloyd was poised to make and star in some of the greatest silent films.
1925’s The Freshman is one of Lloyd’s most beloved and enduring films. The IMDB description for this film is simple: “Nerdy college student will do anything to become popular on campus.” Interesting? Yes. Relatable? Oh, yes. Revolutionary? And how!
In an interview for Parade, Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, offers the following:
You know, they never wanted him to make it. They thought it was insane to make it. He said, “I’m going to make this movie.” They said, “Harold, number one, women don’t want to see football. Guys go to football games. Women stay at home. They’re not fans. They’re not going to go into a theater on a date to see a football game.” So Harold said, “Well, it’s about college and I want to make this.”
And so he did. Credited as being the first sports movie produced, Lloyd originally began production with the football scenes, filming at the Rose Bowl. However, he was not satisfied with the emotional tone for these final scenes, so he decided to start over and shoot the film in sequence.
He said that he had to see where the character was coming from before he shot the game because he needed to know how the character would act in the game, shares Suzanne. So they dumped all that footage and went back and started shooting the movie.
In response, Harold Lloyd stepped into the shoes of his character, Harold “Speedy” Lamb. (Yes, Harold often plays a Harold in his films, emphasizing a unique brand of honesty between character and self.) Lamb possesses a romanticized view of college life, and like Lloyd, is deeply influenced by film. In fact, when Lamb sees the fictitious film The College Hero, he adopts the name of the film’s protagonist, Speedy. Dreaming of emulating the film, Lamb aspires to become the campus hero through becoming a football star and adopting Speedy’s mannerisms—despite the fact that he knows nothing about football.
Once Lamb arrives at Tate College, he swiftly meets many stock characters that pair with college life. There’s a football coach, college belle, college hero, college cad, a rare instance of a college tailor, and even an angry dog (portrayed by Pete the Pup). Yes, that Petey of Our Gang fame.
And then there’s the girl of his dreams.
As Lamb devotes himself to this façade, he meets Peggy, who encounters him between metaphorical masks. Peggy is portrayed by Jobyna Ralston, who starred as Lloyd’s leading lady in several of his films. Throughout this particular film, Peggy observes Lamb from a distance, possessing a quiet sense of leadership, as he falls victim to false friendships. She supports Lamb when the going gets rough, believes in him when no one else does, and is an altogether separate and unscheduled victory for him.
This aspect of romance in the film adds a new appeal to what could easily have been coined a mere “football film.” The introduction of Peggy weaves in a new empathy for Lamb’s character. As the film progresses, one roots for Lamb to win Peggy’s love while he also works to find his niche on the football team. Yet, somehow, Lamb finds himself in a tricky pattern: any victory with Peggy fuels his victories on the college social scene, but it is the college social scene that drives him away from Peggy. Such is the case in reality: the more one disguises oneself, the more one disguises one’s most distinguishing attributes—for better or worse.
It’s the first movie made about football, and they thought he was totally nuts, muses Suzanne. And then, after it was released, everybody put out movies about football. There were three movies made with football in them. After The Freshman, they made eight in two years.
Lloyd was a comic genius ahead of his time. A king of physicality, his characters are some of the most relatable ones to exist in American cinema. Audience members can find pieces of themselves in each one of Lloyd’s manifestations. As we cheer Lloyd on, in a way, we cheer for ourselves as he progresses through familiar moments of longing, laughter, loss, and love. Suzanne reflects:
I think, emotionally to him, since he never went to college (he just got through high school), he loved doing this movie because it was a college experience for him. It was really a favorite of his.
When it comes to propelling oneself towards a lasting legacy in American cinema, step right up and call Lloyd “Speedy!”
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