Friday, July 22, 2011

Sibling Rivalry

Film: The Kid Brother
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When it comes to silent comedians, everybody still knows Chaplin. For good or ill, the Tramp character is still iconic enough that people recognize it. Less well known is Buster Keaton’s impassive, unchanging face, although there are still people who watch Keaton, including me. He’s my favorite of the silent physical comics. Trailing behind these two in terms of recognition is Harold Lloyd, the bespectacled everyman, completing the big three of early comedy. Everyone else—Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and the rest—are now virtually forgotten.

Where Chaplin aimed for pathos and sympathy and Keaton played characters possessed of equal amounts of competence, idiocy, and pure blind luck, Lloyd’s most iconic character was a sort of lovable, plucky everyman who never let himself be defeated, regardless of circumstances. He gave up on his early characters Will E. Work and Lonesome Luke in favor of a character known as “Glasses” for the lensless horn rims he wore. This was the character who carried Lloyd’s career (and he was arguably the most successful of the big three silent comics) into the talkies.

The Kid Brother is in many ways the pinnacle of Lloyd’s craft and character. He hired a team of writers because he wanted constant, non-stop visual gags throughout the film, so there always needed to be something in the works. Like any good physical, visual comic, Lloyd’s gags often have multiple parts and work through multiple variations before climaxing in a final joke before he moves on to the next idea.

In this film, young Harold Hickory (Lloyd) is the third son of the Jim Hickory (Walter James), the sheriff of Hickoryville. Seeing as how the town is named after the family, young Harold has a lot to live up to. In specific, he has to deal with his two older brothers, Olin (Olin Francis) and Leo (Leo Willis). Harold doesn’t get to work with his dad and brothers, in part because he is the baby of the family and in part because he is considerably smaller than the other three. Instead, he becomes the equivalent of the family scullery maid and laundress, handling the day-to-day chores around the house. At this time, we’re also introduced to two other important groups. In town, there are the Hoopers, rival family to the Hickorys. Also, driving through town is a medicine show, featuring a young woman named Mary (Jobyna Ralston).

In Hickoryville, Sheriff Hickory is working on getting the town a new dam, and has finally collected enough money and signatures to petition the governor of the state for the structure. The sheriff takes possession of the money until it can be sent away. Meanwhile, the medicine show rolls in, and Harold, pretending to be his father, gives them permission to set up shop. Everything comes to a head when Harold is sent into town to shut down the medicine show (since the sheriff hates them) and ends up burning it down instead. This sets up a number of plots that will converge at the same time. First, the two men running the medicine show are now out of money and a means to earn it, so they conspire to steal the money for the dam. Second, it sets up a budding romance between Harold and Mary. Third, when the money is stolen, it gives the Hooper clan a reason to make waves against the Hickorys.

The Kid Brother suffers in the modern age essentially from its success. Anyone who has seen even a smattering of comedies can often predict the major plot points that are going to happen at any given time—not because the film itself is predictable, but because the basic story has been copied so many times that this film that introduced a number of these ideas has been turned into a cliché by imitators. It’s a shame, too, because a lot of what Lloyd does is incredibly inventive. There’s not a single scene—even those that lean more toward the serious—that isn’t filled with sight gags, jokes, and pratfalls.

The Kid Brother is also a smart film. Many of the gags are incredibly elaborate. There’s a running series of jokes, for instance, when Harold brings Mary back to his family house, and his two brothers are scandalized, mostly by the thought of being in their nightshirts with a woman in the house. Both of the brothers at this point want nothing more than to beat up their younger sibling, but they also don’t want to be seen by Mary, and Lloyd manages to keep them away from himself by playing on their fears of being seen in their nightclothes. And this goes on for a considerable time, and it remains clever, constantly changes, and is consistently funny.

I don’t have a single beef against The Kid Brother, and I understand that in many ways it is Lloyd’s masterpiece of sight gags, comedy, and story. The only complaint I have—and I am evidently in the minority on this one—is that I don’t think this film is nearly as successful as Lloyd’s earlier Safety Last. The image of Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock hand is iconic, and had I the choice and were I limited to a single representative Harold Lloyd film, that’s the one I’d go with.

But let me be clear: The Kid Brother is inventive, funny, and beautifully made. There’s a reason, after all, that so many other comedies follow the same basic pattern as this film.

Why to watch The Kid Brother: Lloyd is an underappreciated genius.
Why not to watch: Nothing will turn this movie into Lloyd’s superior Safety Last.


  1. Steve,

    I love how you keep taking on these unique films day after day. Plus .. played on a "kick-ass portable DVD player".

    I don't mind an inventive and beautifully made film.

    Good stuff my friend.

  2. The "kick-ass portable DVD player" was my favorite Christmas present from last year. It makes waiting for my older daughter to be done with ballet class far more manageable.

    If you want to try silent films, I recommend comedies to start with, because many translate well to the modern age because they are still funny. YouTube and Google Video have a bunch, and a lot of them are short. You never know until you try one, right?

  3. I have to agree that Safety last would be the more logical choice, but really I do not see why they could not both be represented. Considering the number of Keaton movies in the book and inferior, outdated dramas included it is really is a mystery to me why Lloyd only got one entry. I got a nagging feeling the "big" directors got inferior movies included simply due to their name. A simple suggestion: Dump Foolish wifes and include Safety last.

  4. There are at least half a dozen from this era that could be dumped. Foolish Wives is a good choice. There are a few lesser films from D.W. Griffith that could go as well.

    I'd keep most of the Keaton films, but I do love me some Buster Keaton. Seven Chances is probably the weakest on The List. I'd be fine with a second Lloyd film, or even a third--Speedy, perhaps.

  5. I just watched The Kid Brother on YouTube and I really enjoyed it. Jobyna Ralston always adds a little personality to her films with Lloyd. Love seeing her and Harold and their movie magic.

    But still, I think Safety Last is Lloyd's masterpiece, and if they can only fit one of his films on the 1001 List, it should be Safety Last.

    Has anybody who works on the 1001 List ever explained why they choose The Kid Brother over Safety Last?

    1. I agree completley. The Kid Brother is a fine movie--it's funny, it's entertaining. But Safety Last is one of the truly great silent films, let alone silent comedies.