I first watched several of Harold Lloyd’s films, including the four released by The Criterion Collection — 1923’s Safety Last, 1925’s The Freshman, 1927’s The Kid Brother, and 1928’s Speedy — in sub-par editions, probably on a tiny television screen, and I never really appreciated how beautifully made they are and how wonderfully they come together. They were a bit muddled, the details difficult to discern, and I’m not even sure what score played to accompany the action on the screen. As The Criterion Collection has trickled out these releases, though, my adoration of Harold Lloyd’s films has grown and grown. That was my experience again with The Kid Brother, which I’ve always felt was minor Harold Lloyd and wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting. But here I sit, having watched it on the new home video release from The Criterion Collection, and I think it’s brilliant. The restoration and the presentation on Blu-ray showcase so much I didn’t pay attention to before, and I highly recommend picking it up. I don’t necessarily think that all movies need to be seen in pristine condition to be appreciated, but that has been my experience with Harold Lloyd’s silent comedies.
In The Kid Brother Lloyd again dons his glasses to give us a story about a brainy, but not brawny, everyman, this time one struggling on the frontier in a little town called Hickoryville. Lloyd himself plays Harold Hickory, so this town is a family legacy. His father is the sheriff and his two older brothers are suitable heirs. Unfortunately, Harold’s just the little brother . . . and, from everyone’s perspective, a weak one at that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As The Kid Brother begins, before we even see Lloyd or his strong brothers and father, we see a lonely carriage passing what looks like an abandoned boat. In that carriage we meet three people: “Flash” Ferrell (Eddie Boland), a proprietor of one of the notorious medicine shows; Sandoni (Constantine Romanoff), a tall, strong, sideshow character, meant to use his brute force to help sell the wares; and Mary Powers (Jobyna Ralston, in her final of the five films she did with Harold Lloyd), the young woman, with no parents, who uses her beauty to sell the wares, and is in a very uncomfortable predicament.
This brief prologue is our first clue that this film is not just a comedy but a horror. Just look at how Sandoni leers at Mary.
Next we see a trio of strong men. These are Harold’s father and two brothers. They hoist this log in the air as if it’s nothing and carry it to the stack.
Meanwhile, there sits Harold, watching them while he attends to . . . what? At first it looks like he’s churning butter. Then he goes to his left and starts to churn a crank. Out pops the laundry, which will go through the crank and then rise up in the air where a kit provides the tension to hang the clothes out to dry.
Harold is a clear contrast to his “manly” father and brothers. They are the true depiction of what it means to be a Hickory in Hickoryville. Harold is an afterthought, left behind to do the laundry, the dishes, etc., while they carry around logs and go to important town meetings.
But clearly Harold is his own, albeit unappreciated, force. In a world dominated by and set up to favor strong men, he uses his brain to keep up . . . as best he can. He actually does a great job. He’s not afraid of the tough men. He knows when to engage and how, for the most part. Many of the comic pieces in this film showcase his ingenious ways of egging his brothers and the town bully on while ingeniously escaping.
Even so, he knows he’s invisible and ultimately irrelevant to them. He yearns for some appreciation, as shown when he has a fantasy and dresses up with his father’s badge and gun.
It’s an innocent misunderstanding, but while Harold is wearing this garb Mary and the medicine show men roll up to get a permit to put on the show. Harold grants the permission, and Mary thinks she has met a true hero, a man who isn’t a brute but who can fight for right. Their budding romance is so nice to watch. They show pure, innocent joy again and again as they support one another. In one of my favorite scenes, Lloyd showcases his climbing skills again by climbing a tree to wave to Mary as she walks down a hill. As she goes over the horizon again and again, he climbs higher and higher to keep her in view.
Of course, this is not going to keep going well. Harold is going to come off poorly in public. His self-perception is going to take a hit.
And the final act of the film really is a beautifully shot and choreographed horror show, where Sandoni’s leering takes on the quality of Nosferatu.
The climax continues to build in surprising and delightful ways. Am I sounding a bit over the top? I’m not trying to. I’m just invigorated by this film.
The Criterion Collection release is great for other reasons too. It comes nicely packed with supplements about Lloyd’s leading women, about the gags, about the locations, as well as with a couple of restored shorts, 1917’s “Over the Fence” and 1918’s “That’s Him.”