The film was written by John Grey, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, and Ted Wilde. It was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor.
Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd), a bright-eyed but naïve young man, enrolls at Tate University. On the train there, he meets Peggy (Jobyna Ralston). They are attracted to each other.
Harold decides that the best way to ensure his popularity at school is to emulate his movie idol, The College Hero, down to mimicking a little jig he does before greeting anyone, and taking his nickname, "Speedy". However, the College Cad (Brooks Benedict) quickly makes him the butt of an ongoing joke, of which the freshman remains blissfully unaware. Harold thinks he is popular, when in fact he is the laughing stock of the whole school. His only real friend is Peggy, who turns out to be his landlady's daughter, described in one of the film's title cards as "the kind of girl your mother must have been".
He tries out for the football team. The coach (Pat Harmon) is unimpressed, but as Harold has damaged their only practice tackle dummy, the coach uses him in its place. At the end of practice, though he approves of Harold's enthusiasm (undiminished after repeated tackling), the coach is about to dismiss the freshman when Chet Trask (James Anderson), the captain and star of the team, suggests making him their water boy, while letting him think he has made the squad.
Harold is persuaded to host the annual "Fall Frolic" dance. His tailor is late making his suit; with the dance well underway, it is barely being held together by basting stitches, but Harold puts it on and hopes for the best. During the party, his clothes start to fall apart, despite the efforts of the tailor (hiding in a side room) to effect repairs. When Harold sees the College Cad being too forward with Peggy, working as a hatcheck girl, Harold knocks him down. The incensed Cad then tells him just what everyone really thinks of him. Peggy advises him to stop putting on an act and be himself.
Harold is determined to prove himself by getting into the big football game. His chance comes when the other team proves too tough, injuring so many of Tate College's players that the coach runs out of substitutes. Hounded by Harold and warned that he will forfeit if he cannot come up with another player, the coach reluctantly lets Harold go in. The first few plays are disastrous. Finally, he breaks free and is on his way to winning the game, but, mindful of a referee's prior instruction that he is to stop playing when he hears the whistle, drops the football just outside the end zone when a non-football whistle sounds. The other team recovers the ball with only a minute left to play. His teammates are disheartened, but Harold rouses them to make a final effort. He chases down the opposing ball carrier, knocks the football loose, scoops it up and runs it all the way back for the winning touchdown as time runs out, which at last earns him the respect and popularity he was after. To top it off, Peggy passes him a note proclaiming her love for him.Harold Lloyd as The Freshman
Jobyna Ralston as Peggy
Brooks Benedict as The College Cad
James Anderson as The College Hero
Hazel Keener as The College Belle
Joseph Harrington as The College Tailor
Pat Harmon as The Football Coach
Pete the Pup has a cameo in the movie.
Exteriors were filmed near the USC campus in Los Angeles. The game sequence was shot on the field at the Rose Bowl, and the crowd scenes were shot at halftime at California Memorial Stadium during the November 1924 Big Game between UC Berkeley and Stanford University.
The Freshman is widely considered one of Lloyd's most hilarious, well-constructed films and was his most successful silent film of the 1920s. Hugely popular at the time of its release, it sparked a craze for college films that lasted well beyond the 1920s. It was one of Lloyd's few films to remain widely available after the sound era, and he reissued the film (with cuts) and used extended scenes in compilation films of the 1960s. The football game sequence was reused by Lloyd and director Preston Sturges in Lloyd's last film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947).
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #79
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10: Nominated Sports Film
American humorist and author H. C. Witwer sued Lloyd in April 1929 for $2,300,000 over The Freshman, claiming that it was "pirated" from Witwer's short story "The Emancipation of Rodney", first published in 1915. When Witwer died from liver failure in Los Angeles, California, on August 9, 1929, the lawsuit had not been settled. Witwer's widow pursued the lawsuit and won a judgment against Lloyd in November 1930. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and Witwer's widow received nothing.
A further lawsuit was brought in 2000 by Lloyd's grand-daughter, Suzanne Lloyd Hayes, against the Walt Disney Company, alleging that elements of The Freshman were copied to the 1998 comedy The Waterboy; the US District Court in Los Angeles eventually ruled against Hayes.
Criterion released The Freshman on Blu-ray and DVD on March 25, 2014.