Considered the third great comic actor of silent film, after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd was as eager as they to display his athletic, balletic prowess, and paid a higher price: he lost part of a finger while shooting a 1918 short. That didn’t deter Lloyd from trying death-defying stunts, most memorably his hanging from a giant clock hand 12 stories above the ground in 1923’s Safety Last! So of course he was game for a football movie in the first decade that the sport seized the American spirit with college rivalries and that sensational innovation the forward pass.
New at Tate University, and so desperate to be popular that he practices college cheers until he’s hoarse, the skinny, bespectacled Harold outlasts the derision of the coach and the meatier undergraduates to get a spot on the football team: as tackle dummy. Demonstrating the masochism at the sport’s heart he likes being tackled Harold is kept around as water boy, until the big game, which of course depletes the Tate roster until Harold has to be let in to score the winning touchdown, becoming an instant football hero and winning the love of a beautiful girl. (Really, did that piece of information merit a spoiler alert?) Directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor shot the final sequences in the Rose Bowl, with crowd reactions taken from a Berkeley-Stanford game. Twenty-two years later, Lloyd used that climactic sequences as the intro to a melancholy sequel, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, a.k.a. Mad Wednesday, written and directed by Preston Sturges. The Freshman is the rare silent film that provokes the same rapturous laughter today as when it was released 86 years ago.