April 4, 2019
Kid Bother, The – U.S., 1927
Directed by Ted Wilde
A few seconds into Carl Davis’s 1989 orchestral score for Harold Lloyd’s 1927 film The Kid Brother, a trademark announcement pops up containing Lloyd’s signature, the words Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc., and an illustration of Lloyd’s glasses. It is this last feature that I find most fascinating. Much of the appeal of the Silent Film stars was their carefully crafted familiarity - a Keaton character was a man of earnest, yet clueless privilege, Chaplin’s were predictably decent, down-on-their-luck guys who put others first, Charlie Chase was a family man. Lloyd’s characters, like Lloyd himself, wore glasses, and he drew upon society’s stereotypes of the bespectacled – their physical weakness, their mental prowess, their entrenched desire to be courageous and strapping - to create indelibly sweet characters whose outer strength often arrived late, but fortunately not belatedly.
In The Kid Brother, Lloyd plays Harold Hickory, the youngest son of Jim Hickory (Walter James), the brawny sheriff of a small town looking to improve its lot by building a dam. Like many of Lloyd’s other characters, Harold is the outlier. In an early scene, we see Jim and his other two sons, each one possessing muscles that would make some bodybuilders envious, lifting lumber as if it were cotton. Harold looks on with a facial expression that conveys both envy and awe. Later, his father discourages him from joining the hunt for a criminal, explaining that catching criminals is “a man’s job” and proclaiming in front of the entire town that Harold might “get hurt.” Ouch.
So, the familiar set up is there. All that is needed is the spark that ignites Harold and pushes him to become the man he truly wants to be and is probably already inside. That ember comes in the form of Mary Powers (Jobyna Ralston), the daughter of a recently-deceased traveling medicine man. Mary arrives, having been persuaded to continue the show by her father’s colleague Flash Farrell (Eddie Boland). Just why he needs her to do this is never explained. We never witness her displaying any medical knowledge, and her part in the show seems to consist of dancing for the audience, which could have been done by anyone with at least a year of dance training.
Early on, Harold comes to Mary’s defense when a fellow member of her traveling show tries to assault her, although to be honest, it is not quite Harold that frightens off the ruffian. In a classic Lloyd moment, Harold is comforting Mary when he suddenly realizes the impropriety of holding a stranger’s arm. His face becomes flush with embarrassment, and he politely unlocks their arms. Moments later, we get another great Lloyd moment in film, as we watch Harold climb ever higher up a tree just so that he can get another glimpse of Mary before she completely vanishes from sight.
From there, the film is somewhat predictable, yet never completely to its detriment. There’s a clever extended bit in which Harold is tending to Mary while his brothers are waiting to ambush him for allowing the medicine show to be performed in the first place. The problem is that custom doesn’t allow them to let a woman see them in their pajamas. This creates a clever segment in which Harold’s brother engage in a game of advance-retreat. The scene reminded me of Keaton’s classic film Our Hospitality (1923), yet was original enough to stand on its own. Of course, there’s a conflict that only Harold can solve, one that in doing so forces Harold to become the man he has always wanted to be. Interestingly, the chief villain, Sandoni (Constantine Romanoff), is much more heinous than those in previous Lloyd movies, perhaps owning to the influential work of German directors such as F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen (The Golem), and Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary). A tall, bald, bulging, muscle-bound creep, Sandoni resembles many of the monsters from classic silent films, and it’s doubtful that this was a coincidence. It turns the film into an archetypal David-and-Goliath tale.
In the end, The Kid Brother is a fun film, yet not a side-splittingly funny one. It has a great romantic story at its core, yet not one that diverges enough from ones we’ve seen before in Lloyd’s and others’ work. While it has a thrilling finale, it is one that runs too long, gradually causing a sense of tedium to creep in to what should be a suspenseful, emotionally-fulfilling sequence. And while it ends with Harold and Mary walking away, their arms once again interlocked, it does so after Harold decides to pick a superfluous fight with a neighborhood bully, thus reinforcing the notion that one only becomes a hero when he discovers the folly of turning the other cheek or forgiving. It is a message that many current films have also embraced. However, it is also one that has had far-reaching consequences for society, and we may have been better off reinforcing the opposite view. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion Collection)