Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor) receives a dual-format upgrade, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.37:1. The new high-definition transfer, taken from a 4k restoration, is delivered in 1080p/24hz on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The first dual-layer DVD contains a standard-definition version of the same transfer, which hasn’t been window-boxed.
Similar to what was given to us in Criterion’s previous Lloyd release, Safety Last!, The Freshman gives us another jaw dropping transfer. Again, what most impresses me is just how sharp and clear this image is. There’s rarely a fuzzy moment in the film’s entirety, with most intricate details, from weaving in sweaters to stone work in the surrounding buildings, coming through crystal clear, showing off some rich textures. Edges are clean and perfectly defined without an instance of edge-enhancement or any other artifact. Film grain is visible but rendered naturally and noise is of no concern. Contrast looks decent, maybe boosted a bit, but the tonal shifts in the gray levels are seamlessly rendered, and shadow delineation is superb.
The thing that next most surprised me was just the end results in the restoration efforts. All things considered this looks miraculously clean. Wear and tear still exists unsurprisingly, but these blemishes are really minor when you get down to it. Fine scratches still exist, getting very heavy in a few short sequences, and bits of dirt and dust remain, along with a hair or two. Thin tram lines pop up as well. At its worst I think a few frames may be missing and mold stains become fairly prominent during the end football sequence, but the restoration effort has been quite amazing.
The DVD’s presentation also looks good, though just lacks that punch delivered by the crispness of the Blu-ray’s transfer. Noise is a little more noticeable but it’s not too bad. Since detail isn’t as strong some of the fine scratches noticeable in the high-definition version on the Blu-ray aren’t as noticeable here. Still, upscaled the DVD transfer comes off looking very good.
With both the impressive restoration work and sharp digital transfer it’s not readily apparent this film is almost 90-years old. It looks fabulous. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion delivers another loaded special edition after a fairly impressive roster of supplements on Safety Last!. The supplements start with an audio commentary featuring Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, film historian Richard Bann, and critic/historian Leonard Maltin, which has been ported over from the previous New Line DVD release. Like the track Maltin and Correll provided for Safety Last! I found this to be another generally underwhelming one. The two do offer some context to the film, explaining the importance of going to college at the time and they occasionally offer some interesting trivia, with Correll delivering some personal stories about Lloyd. A lot of the time we just get a reiteration or breakdown of a gag occurring on screen, though. What was actually fairly frustrating with the track was the frequency at which they cut each other off. I felt fairly sorry for Bann, who seems to get cut off a lot, primarily by Correll, just when it sounds like he might offer something that could possibly be interesting. Criterion at least ported the track over but I admittedly wasn’t too fond of it.
Thankfully the rest of the material is generally pretty good. Criterion next includes the opening to a 1966 theatrical program that I’m guessing would have played before the film during a theatrical rerelease, called Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life. The 30-minute clip starts with a brief introduction by Lloyd, who appears to be trying to contextualize it for younger audiences, explaining prohibition and the like. This is then followed by an extensive number of clips from Lloyd’s films, showing off some impressive stunt work. It then concludes with the narrator introducing The Freshman and then it cuts off where I would guess the film would start. Throughout the supplements you learn Lloyd was actually quite terrified of how newer audiences would see his films, and feared they would not understand some of the gags in the film, particularly any references to prohibition, which there are references to in The Freshman. Seeing one of the ways Lloyd tried to handle this is a nice addition, plus the feature has the added bonus of delivering some great clips from his films.
Criterion next includes three short films: The Marathon (1919, 14-minutes), An Eastern Westerner (1920, 27-minutes), and High and Dizzy (1920, 27-minutes). All three are presented in 1080i/60hz and have been spectacularly restored. All three transfers, though interlaced, look wonderful themselves, about of the same quality as the main feature. The Marathon receives a new score by Gabriel Thibaudeau while the other two receive scores by Carl Davis.
Surprisingly I didn’t care much for The Marathon, where, other than a beautifully constructed mirror gag, I didn’t find it particularly amusing and instead finding it legitimately cruel, particularly to a maid. The other two were more enjoyable, however, particularly An Eastern Westerner, which finds Lloyd as an unmotivated partier who is sent out west by his parents to his uncle’s ranch to work. He of course falls in love with Mildred Davis, who he must get away from an “evil” (as suggested by his mannerisms) baron played by Noah Young. I found this one had aged far more gracefully and had some terrific sight gags strewn about.
High and Dizzy’s story is a little harder to follow as it doesn’t have a clear course, though this is common with comedy shorts of the time as gags were normally planned out first followed by a story to connect them. Lloyd plays a doctor with a struggling practice, and it appears his only patient of late is a girl (Davis again) who suffers from a sleep walking disorder. The film then veers far left when Lloyd and his moonshining neighbour go have a day on the town, only to have Lloyd’s doctor run into his sleepwalking patient who has somehow found her way out onto a building ledge. This film also contains one of the more iconic Lloyd images, that of his hair standing on end.
I love that Criterion throws in these short films, though they seem to do it in a fairly haphazard manner. When they include shorts on their Chaplin releases they usually, for the most part, have something to do with the main feature, contextualizing things or offering a probable build-up to certain gags they may have appeared in the feature film. High and Dizzy would have probably made more sense on Safety Last! rather than here since it contains a number of gags out on a building ledge, high above the street. Some of the material found in this two-reeler would be built upon for that film. I’m of course very happy Criterion is including his short films, and I do hope they’re able to release all of them in some manner—I’m thinking some sort of set may be called for—but again it feels sort of random in how they decide what films should be included with what release.
Newly recorded is a conversation between Kevin Brownlow and Richard Correll, filmed in 2013 at the University of California School of Cinematic Arts. This rather engaging conversation features the two talking about Lloyd and the personal experiences they had with him (how Brownlow actually first met Lloyd is really quite amazing) and then talk about The Freshman. There’s a little discussion about the lawsuit brought up by H.C. Witwer, who accused Lloyd of stealing from his story The Emancipation of Rodney, and of course they cover his construction of gags and the film’s final football sequence. There’s also a little bit about the quasi-sequel directed by Preston Sturges, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (a.k.a. Mad Wednesday,) surprisingly one of the few mentions of the film in this set. The most fascinating portion of the conversation might be when they talk about Lloyd’s insistence on keeping his films accessible to “modern” audiences. As mentioned one thing Lloyd feared about The Freshman is that modern audiences wouldn’t get the gags that referenced prohibition, and the film also has gags around the fairly new technology at the time, the radio, that he felt didn’t age well. He would try to do things for theatrical rereleases to help contextualize things, or he would even trim these gags out, which is something Brownlow strongly disagrees with. I think Correll can offer a lot, and so far he has in both of Criterion’s Lloyd releases, but he sometimes comes off as “that guy” who likes to remind you he knew/was friends with someone famous, and there’s plenty of times it feels like he’s interjecting into a conversation just to remind you how close he was to him. Brownlow thankfully balances this out and the conversation comes off quite rewarding. The feature runs shy of 40-minutes.
Historian John Bengman next provides a visual essay called Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus. The 16-minute feature’s primary goal is to show the various locations where the film was shot and how the locations appear today (most are gone.) There’s a lot of information predominantly about the various stadiums the final sequence was filmed in (there were surprisingly a few) and some notes on how Lloyd was able to pull of the appearance of large crowds, where in one case he simply filmed a few shots during half time of a particularly big game. It also offers a brief history on the rise in popularity of college football (something that newfangled invention known as the “radio” played a big part in) and, through still photographs, showcasing a few deleted and alternate sequences that I’m going to safely assume are now lost. I usually find stuff like this fascinating, and though at times it may feel like Bengman is striving to reach some greater significance in the piece that he never quite reaches, I enjoyed seeing the locations, and also the cross references with other comics (like the Three Stooges and Buster Keaton) who would use the same location for similarly themed films.
Digging further into the archives Criterion digs up a tribute to Harold Lloyd by Delta Kappa Aplha, described as a professional cinema fraternity who held a number of tributes and banquets for “pioneers of cinema.” This banquet occurred on January 6th of 1963, was introduced by Gloria Swanson, and then hosted by Delmer Daves, Steve Allen, and Jack Lemmon. The three stand on stage with Lloyd and ask him a variety of questions about his career and his work, starting with the development of his characters Lonesome Luke and the more famous Glasses Character. He then talks about the evolution from one-reelers to full length features (which sounds to have happened by accident) and how comedy changed with the emergence of “talkies” where verbal jokes could now be used. There’s also a little bit about how comics at the time would use the same gags between one another, where Lloyd refuses to suggest they “stole” from one another, but more “borrowed” and put their own twist on them, usually leading to a different gag. There was apparently a clip from Girl Shy shown, which Lloyd introduces, to show off his skill in developing gags, though this clip has been cut out (Lemmon follows up the gap where the clip would have appeared by saying “sure beats the hell out of Ben Hur; they wasted a lot of money on that movie!”) This is another absolutely fabulous addition, with Lloyd offering a surprisingly illuminating account of his career and explaining how it was to make these films at that time and throughout the years as technology changed. It also has the bonus of having few decent laughs. The feature runs 29-minutes.
The supplements then conclude with another great find, a 6-minute clip from the show What’s My Line? from 1953. The general premise to the show, for those unfamiliar, was for panelists to guess the occupation or identity of a contestant or mystery guest. The panelists could only ask “yes/no” type questions and could continue as long as they got a “yes” as a response. If they receive a “no” for the answer then their turn would end and the next panelist would begin asking questions. For each “no” answer given the contestant would get $5 in winnings up to $50 (I’m not sure how that worked for mystery guests.) This would continue until either the panelist guessed correctly, the $50 limit is reached, or time runs out. In this clip Lloyd appears as the “Mystery Guest” in what was a bit of PR to promote an upcoming theatrical rerelease of The Freshman. The panelists then ask their questions and Lloyd answers in a heavily accented voice (I’m not sure if anyone would have actually guessed by his voice since most of his famous work was silent, but I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry.) A fun little addition to the set.
The DVD version presents the three short films on the first dual-layer disc with the feature film. The remaining features are then provided on the second single-layer DVD.
The included booklet provides an essay on the film by Stephen Winer, who covers the appeal and popularity of Lloyd at the time (aided by his “can-do” spirit,) the film’s success, its gags, and even a little about The Sin of Harold Diddlebock and its failure—he feels it didn’t help that director Preston Sturges had a more cynical world view.
Which leads to the one big surprise I had about this set: the lack of much of anything about Diddlebock, which was, as I mentioned previously, somewhat of a sequel to The Freshman (it was also not only a sound film, but the last film Lloyd would do.) I figured there would be more on it, if not the entire film. But I’m going to guess that, despite its poor reputation, Criterion will probably do a separate release, which can go more in-depth into the problems it encountered during production, a lot of it thanks to Howard Hughes, who became involved in the production (the latest rumour seems to suggest Criterion might release a box set of Lloyd’s talkies, so it’s possible the film will appear there.)
Other than the lack of Diddlebock and what is a fairly lousy commentary (in my opinion) this is truly an exceptional set of supplements. Altogether they offer a great amount of contextualization for the film and a terrific look at how Lloyd handled future screenings of his work. Absolutely wonderful work on Criterion’s part. 9/10