Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Freshman

I have commented on my love of silent movies in several past blog postings. The Freshman (1925) has
some historical significance as being the first movie on the subject of football. Despite its being a comedy, the cinematography provides some sense of what the game was like in its infancy. Early football was an in-the-trenches, brutal game. There were no glitzy 400 yard passing games; instead, it was all a grinding ground game done one yard at a time. Begun in the late 19th century at the Ivy League colleges as a way to train the manly future leaders of society in the hard knocks of Social Darwinism, football was another element in what Theodore Roosevelt called the “Strenuous Life.” Large wedge formations crashed into each other at running speed, resulting in a substantial amount of injuries. As president, Roosevelt successfully urged college teams to adopt some safety measures, such as wearing helmets. In our own century when even baseball players wear guards and pads to prevent injuries, it might be surprising that early football players took the field with not much more than an average farm hand would have worn. Among the many injured college players in the early days of football, was one future president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower. Like many in the future leadership class, Ike loved the grittiness and toughness of early football. It tested one’s toughness, which they believed also served as a measure of one’s moral character.

The Freshman is interesting in another sense. It critically portrays a young man who confuses life on the silver screen with reality. Harold “Speedy” Lamb (played by Harold Lloyd) is a young, na├»ve, and impressionable young man just about to set out for college. Looking for an idol, he finds one in the leading character of the film “College Hero,” which he has recently seen. Harold’s buffoonish efforts to gain popularity by acting like his screen idol make him the butt of jokes and pranks by what I can only refer to as the “cool” crowd. So lost in the gap between what is real and what he wants to believe, Harold even thinks he is part of the football team, when, in fact, he is the water boy. Only towards the end of the football game, the centerpiece of the movie, after multiple injuries have drained the bench and his coach refuses to put him, does Harold learn the truth. Still the injuries kept coming and Harold does get in the game. In the end he scores the winning play and gets the girl. Expressing my own agency as a viewer, I gave The Freshman an anti-Hollywood message. The film is conscious of the gap between big screen Hollywood fantasy and reality. It certainly must be one of the first movies to poke fun at viewers and how they shaped their world views around movies.

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