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‘The Freshman’ Hits Criterion: A Short Take On Three Early Harold Lloyd Short Films

Written by on March 25, 2014 

Thanks to the work of Harold Lloyd Entertainment and Janus Films, Lloyd’s 1925 comedic masterpiece, The Freshman, is the latest film to join the Criterion Collection in a fantastic new Blu-Ray. The college-set, football-obsessed feature is one of Lloyd’s most consistent works, showing off both his skills as a master of elongated-gag set pieces as well as the character’s down-to-Earth pathos. As with the release of Safety Last!, Criterion have also included three recently restored shorts with new orchestral scores that demonstrate aspects of Lloyd’s comic forte from a slightly earlier period in his career.

The Marathon (1919)

Lloyd doesn’t appear until halfway through this one-reel short, but The Marathon contains a truly spectacular entrance: dragging the rope of a vengeful and powerful dog in a series of pratfalls, which is revealed to be no bigger than a chihuahua. The film’s main plot follows a number of suitors pining for the daughter of a wealthy man — more typical of the genteel comedy — but this Alfred Goulding-directed, Hal Roach-produced short immediately turns the gags from the textual to the visual. The fellow suitors each take on very different personalities (especially through the use of sight gags), while Lloyd himself remains the set piece. The titular marathon makes up its last third, but the centerpiece comic moment is easily the appearance of Lloyd’s twin brother as a cop, the two confronting each other in what he thinks is a mirror. Lloyd’s personality is always on the hinge of exploding, so it seems natural to find him leading the mob of marathoners chasing after him; his legs have always been his funniest character.

An Eastern Westerner (1919)

It’s easy to compare Lloyd to other silent comics, but the two-reel comedy An Eastern Westerner conjures memories of another daring actor of numerous stunts: Douglas Fairbanks. The swashbuckler of numerous epics through the 1910s and 1920s, Fairbanks also featured in scenes where he laudably fought hundreds of bad guys with the most witty of acrobatics. The final third of this Roach-produced short fits within the same context as the transplanted Lloyd helps a young girl rescue her poor father at the cost of inciting the town against him. In the sequences that follow, Lloyd takes on many of the same techniques and trickery that Fairbanks used when battling bad guys, be it jumping on top of the perfectly placed roof, using clever disguising, or exploiting the limited viewpoints of their attackers (Lloyd brings this last aspect into full parody with his simplistic but hilarious hiding spots). What separates Lloyd from Fairbanks, however, is the structure of these gags: Fairbanks escapes with grace and wit before moving onto the next obstacle, each becoming an individual set piece; in Lloyd, each clever trick only leads to the next fatal mistake (as well as a kick in the butt). While gags such as the ripping tuxedo in The Freshman are much more affable, it represents the same structure of a continuing gag which Lloyd employs in this marvelous sequence. He escapes without dignity, though he does get the girl.

High and Dizzy (1920)

The iconic image of Harold Lloyd hanging from the giant clock in Safety Last! was not the first big stunt the director attempted. Throughout the ’20s, Lloyd did a number of “thrill pictures,” as they were known. High and Dizzy was the second of Lloyd’s, along with Look Out Below and Never Weaken. But as an artist who cared about some bits of “realism,” the narrative of High and Dizzy slowly sets up the pieces to put Speedy in a high-risk situation. Lloyd is a doctor who does a number of imitations to deceive a rich father and his daughter, though his practice is quite popular (Lloyd began as a Chaplin imitator early in his career). Like Chaplin, Lloyd couldn’t help but smile at the girls he courted — but, while Chaplin had an honorable side, Lloyd’s courting is a little bit mischievous, as the girl has her own sense of misbehavior: uncontrollable sleepwalking. So, when Lloyd makes it over to the young girl’s house after binge-drinking his friend’s moonshine (the honorable saint this is not), he’s soon chasing his beau as she walks unaware along the high ledge. In using rear projection, the stunt feels seamlessly integrated, and Lloyd’s oblivious movements to chase the girl without realizing the danger below him are a true feat of physical comedy. His legs bend every which way, pushing the boundaries of what seems entirely possible without ever devolving into the absurd. Once he suddenly realizes the situation, his hair spikes in a ridiculous fashion. Lloyd often followed test screenings, so there’s no doubt he saw the effect this sequence had on its audience, certainly making Safety Last! a project to begin working on soon enough.

The Freshman is now available through The Criterion Collection.

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