The Kid Brother, starring silent-era comic great Harold Lloyd, was the first silent film I ever saw that made me actually stand up and cheer. I first saw it some 15 years ago in a college film-history class, and I was so thoroughly taken with the film that I not only sat in on the class the following year when the same film was being shown, I also took my wife years later to the New York apartment of my film teacher, film historian Gene Stavis, so that we could watch it together in his living-room theater.
This was in the days before the Internet explosion, and rare videos were much harder to find back then. Nevertheless, my wife subsequently managed to dig up a VHS copy of the movie for my birthday one year.
Since acquiring that videotape, I’ve performed a simple experiment countless times: I find people who have never seen a silent film, and I make them watch The Kid Brother.
The results are always the same. People start out reluctant to participate, but by the end they’re thoroughly converted silent-film fans. Sometimes they want to borrow my copy of the film to force on other people they know who’ve never seen a silent movie — and then those people sometimes want to borrow it too. In ten years’ time, I have never had a dissatisfied customer with this film. Not once.
By now I’ve long since lost track of who or how many people have seen my old Kid Brother videotape, although it’s safe to say it’s far and away the most watched and rewatched movie in my whole movie collection. If you’ve ever bought a movie and then watched it only once — or not at all — you could hardly do better than to go out and get yourself a copy of The Kid Brother.
One of the biggest stars of the silent era, Harold Lloyd is unfortunately much less remembered today than the other two great silent comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In large part, this is due to the fact that he retained control of his films and kept them from being periodically rereleased, as Chaplin’s and Keaton’s have been. For decades Chaplin and Keaton have played leapfrog in critical esteem, alternatively drifting in and out of fashion, while Lloyd for the most part receded to the background.
Yet not only was Lloyd as gifted a comic actor as either Chaplin or Keaton, his films hold up at least as well — for casual viewers unfamiliar with silent film, probably better. As a first introduction to silent film, I would pick The Kid Brother over the best of Chaplin (Modern Times, City Lights) or Keaton (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) every time.
Why is The Kid Brother so entertaining and accessible? First of all, there’s Lloyd himself as Harold Hickory, a classic Lloyd "Glasses Character" hero. Unlike Chaplin’s Little Tramp, who was as much defined by his bizarre eccentricities as his bowler and cane, Lloyd’s Glasses Character, with his trademark spectacles, was an instantly likable, sympathetic boy-next-door type, a figure as winsome and approachable as Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks.
Lloyd’s Glasses Character persona is always a mild-mannered underdog hero, too bashful to speak to the pretty girl and too slight to take on the brawny bullies. For awhile he gets by on cleverness and trickery, until finally some crisis or event rouses him to genuine valor and heroism, and he finds an unexpected and hidden strength he didn’t know he had.
The Kid Brother ideally showcases this formula, balancing humor, sentiment, and action in a well-crafted story with Lloyd as the youngest son in a family of brawny frontier heroes. His father, Sheriff Jim Hickory (Walter James), is renouned as "the man who made Hickoryville famous," and his two burly older brothers (Leo Willis and Olin Francis) are ready to follow in their father’s footsteps.
Among these rugged he-men, bespectacled young Harold is as out of place as a cocker spaniel in a family of bulldogs (an early title card tells us that "the stork that brought him could hardly fly for laughing"). In a clever sequence, Harold’s wistful aspirations of measuring up to his father’s stature lead to a slick medicine-show huckster (Eddie Boland) initially mistaking Harold for the no-nonsense sheriff himself, then recognizing the "sheriff" for a tenderfoot — and conniving him into signing a permit for the show.
This blunder puts young Harold at odds with his father and brothers, and eventually leads to one of the film’s standout sequences, an extended cat-and-mouse game between Harold and his older brothers. The great conceit here is that Harold has unexpectedly brought home the young lady from the medicine show, Mary (Jobyna Ralston), and the brothers must neither let Mary see them in their nightshirts nor openly menace Harold in her presence. The slapstick potential of this premise is brilliantly and hilariously explored as Harold desperately tries to stay one step ahead of his brothers.
The film’s blend of slapstick and sentiment is perfectly captured in a scene both amusing and sweet, in which, watching Mary disappear over the crest of a hill, Harold climbs a tree to call after her, climbing higher and higher in order to postpone losing sight of her as long as possible. By the time she finally vanishes from sight he is very high indeed; yet even after the slapstick payoff the sequence is not quite done, ending with a reaffirmation of the scene’s emotional center.
In the third act the action takes a more serious turn as a mysterious theft casts a shadow of suspicion over the Hickory clan, and it falls to Harold to take on the bad guys and save his family’s honor. The rip-roaring climactic action scenes, set in part aboard a listing steamboat, are as thrilling as the earlier ones with Harold’s brothers are uproarious, and power the film to its emotionally satisfying denouément.
To borrow an observation of Gene Stavis’s from my film-class days, there are other films in Lloyd’s oeuvre that cram in more gags per minute (e.g., Safety Last), or that are more sentimentally touching (e.g., Grandma’s Boy), but it is The Kid Brother that represents the ideal balance of the best of Lloyd’s work, and is the most well-rounded and accomplished of all his features. It’s his masterpiece, and one of my all-time favorite entertainments.
For fans of silent comedy, it’s the DVD event of the decade: Harold Lloyd, the “Third Genius” of silent comedy (Chaplin and Keaton being the other two), until now almost totally unavailable on DVD, at last enters the modern home-video age in grand style with the The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection.
More charming than uproarious, Grandma’s Boy isn’t in the same league as films like >The Kid Brother, Speedy, and Safety Last! However, it’s well structured for its day, and set the pattern for Lloyd’s best comedy features by helping to define the definitive dramatic story-arc for Lloyd’s already-famous Glasses Character persona.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.