Friday, May 27, 2016

Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” Speeds into Sleepy El Segundo

The Old Town Musical Hall in El Segundo, California is a precious glimpse into the Hollywood of the past. Located just off Main Street in a sleepy bedroom community surrounded by aerospace plants, the Musical Hall started off back in 1921 as the State Theater, dedicated to the screening of silent movies. It gradually lapsed into disuse until 1968 when two musicians, Bill Field and Bill Coffman, purchased a 1925 Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ from the Fox West Coast Theatre in nearby Long Beach.

The two Bills installed the organ (which boasts four keyboards, 260 switches, and all manner of controls and pedals) in their El Segundo theater, and the Musical Hall was born. Today, the little theater is a landmark of Old Hollywood kitsch. The various organ pipes, not to mention cymbals, drums, and other music-making apparatus, have been lovingly refurbished in glow-in-the-dark colors. The organ itself is surrounded by all manner of statuary, including a Buddha on one pedestal, a plush Mickey Mouse doll on another. The stamped metal ceiling is newly installed, and it gleams.

The Music Hall’s movie screenings (normally only on weekends) feature a brief Wurlitzer concert, complete with sing-along, followed by a short subject. I saw Laurel and Hardy’s knockabout farce, “The Chimp,” and then a feature-length gem, Harold Lloyd in The Freshman, from 1925. The Music Hall shows plenty of classic talkies, including old musicals and horror flicks. But it’s at its best when it can show off the Mighty Wurlitzer as an accompaniment to a legendary silent classic.

Harold Lloyd, of course, was one of the three great comedians of the silent era, the others being Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Lloyd’s trademark was his large horn-rim glasses. He looks something like a WASP Woody Allen, but one whose slight built masks a surprising athleticism. In The Freshman, probably his most successful film, he plays an eager young collegian (“Call Me Speedy”) who’s determined to win friends and influence people as he matriculates at Tate University. He quickly depletes his college savings buying ice cream for everyone on campus, and amuses the student body by launching into a silly little dance step whenever he’s introduced to someone new, under the mistaken impression that this is his path to social success. He’s fundamentally an innocent surrounded by sophisticates and snobs. In one of the film’s most hilarious sequences, he hosts an elaborate “Fall Frolic” while wearing evening clothes that keep splitting at the seams because his ensemble is only loosely basted together. (His tailor, trying to make amends, is creeping around in the background, re-attaching sleeves while he’s trying to act suave.) When he tries out for the football team, he succeeds only in serving as a tackling dummy and water boy. Nonetheless, he somehow manages to win the big game—and to learn some life lessons about the value of being oneself.

The Freshman is priceless partly because of its glimpses of early Los Angeles, from the days before the big studio lots sprang into being. The big football game, for instance, is played at the Rose Bowl. (Cari Beauchamp’s invaluable My First Time in Hollywood: Stories from the Pioneers, Dreamers and Misfits Who Made the Movies has a lot to say about those early years.) It’s important too for its picture of how college life was regarded at a time when most Americans hardly dared aspire to step onto an ivy-covered campus. But most of all it lives on because it’s screamingly funny. A big thank-you to the Old Town Musical for bringing it to us in all its glory.

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