Wednesday, January 20, 2016

No Audio Audient: The Freshman

Welcome to 2016! And welcome to my new monthly blog series, No Audio Audient.

As you recall from this post, I'm challenging myself more than I ever have with my 2016 series, tackling a personal bugaboo, silent movies. Oh, I've seen a couple dozen of them, so they are not entirely anathema to me. But a couple dozen is still not very many, given that I'm closing in on 4,500 movies total. Time to get another dozen on there.

The good news is that many of them will be short, making their viewing that much easier. And then there will be those like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, which will be 197 minutes. Maybe I'll work my way up to that one.

But we'll start somewhere in between with the 76-minute The Freshman, a Harold Lloyd vehicle that was not necessarily on my radar until it came up for discussion recently in my Flickchart discussion group on Facebook.

To be slightly more accurate, the discussion about this movie has yet to occur, but will this Wednesday -- Wednesday already being here in Australia, but not due for a few more hours in the U.S. The Freshman was chosen as this month's "group rank," which basically means we watch something most of us haven't seen and subject it to the normal process of adding it to Flickchart, but we vote on each of its matchups as a group. That's possible because we have a group chart that has been assembled entirely by majority votes on such duels, conducted through Facebook polls. Yep, this group gets pretty granular and is extremely active. I figure I get 50 or 60 notifications from this group a day.

Anyway, I decided to watch The Freshman first -- instead of the previously advertised choice of Sherlock Jr. -- in order to potentially participate in this group ranking. (I say "potentially" because I'll be asleep during many of the duels anyway.)

But it makes a symbolic starting point otherwise because I'm a bit of a freshman when it comes to silent films. I've seen my share -- more than your average person, less than you average cinephile. But I'm still timid about it, still greeting the whole experience with a bit of trepidation. Not unlike the high school senior who was the big man on campus, only to find himself busted down to role of pipsqueak again once he gets to college.

Lloyd's Harold Lamb goes into the experience with considerably more zeal. Attending Tate University seems to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. In fact, he's so excited to go that he's been preparing himself by watching a movie called College Hero, and has even perfected the little dance that the movie's main character uses when he introduces himself to people. It's a little bit of rapid, fancy footwork that immediately precedes his introductory bow. Of course, the fact that people will probably laugh at this sooner than they'll be charmed by it is an indication of how green Harold actually is.

When Harold gets to Tate, some of his attempts to take people by storm end up falling flat on their face, but as Harold is such an optimist and so naive, he mistakes much of their negative attention for positive. He instinctively goes to a line from the movie to get him out of an embarrassing jam, telling people to call him "Speedy," but the nickname takes hold in a way Harold again confuses -- he thinks people love him, when in fact, it's more like they love him in the role of "campus boob" (to quote one character). Harold's other main notion when coming to Tate is that he wants to join their football team, even though he has a notable lack of athletic abilities. He's granted membership on the team as a tackle dummy and water boy, though the coach tells him he's a proper substitute because optimistic Harold is so darn difficult to disappoint.

Harold also has a girl he likes he met on the train to school (Jobyna Ralston), who doesn't have the heart to tell him what people really think of him. Of course, this all points toward a moment of redemption in The Big Game.

This is a sweet movie, and it does indeed showcase some of what made Lloyd the third name you'd mention after the big two in silent comedy (Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton). Lloyd's fitness with the little dance he does is a perfect introduction to his abilities, which also come across in the tackle dummy scenes and a dance scene where he's trying to keep his hastily stitched together tuxedo from coming apart at the seams. It's all pretty charming.

The fact that I don't have a lot more to say about it does worry me a little bit. I don't want to give extra credence to a narrative that has already gathered too much steam with me, that silent movies represent a fairly simple version of storytelling that don't invite you to plumb their depths very deeply. However, it's certainly true that a silent comedy, especially one lacking any particularly memorable set pieces, can be easy to assess mostly at face value. I don't suspect that will be how most of the movies in this series end up striking me.

I will say that one of my fears about silent movies has already been satisfactorily answered. I've gone on record saying that part of the reason I've shied away from them is that their running time can leave me in a place of uncertainty as to how to categorize them, namely whether I can consider a 35-minute movie to compare to other features I've seen on an apples-to-apples basis. At 76 minutes, there's no doubt that a film like The Freshman qualifies as a feature by any standard.

So next month will indeed be when I watch Sherlock Jr. -- barring another rank of a silent movie in the Flickchart group, of course. (That's a joke, as this is the first such movie we've ranked.)

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