When people talk about the masterpieces of silent comedy, they usually name The Gold Rush, The General, and City Lights. If they bring up Harold Lloyd at all, they’ll praise Safety Last or The Freshman.
To my mind, Lloyd’s The Kid Brother belongs with the best. It earns that right by its irresistible story, its beautiful cinematography, its rousing finish, and its nostalgic and yet not entirely positive view of rural America. But most of all, it earns that level of respect by containing several of the funniest extended comedy sequences ever committed to film.
For these reasons, I put this relatively obscure 1927 comedy on my A+ list. This list contains the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.
Harold (Lloyd’s characters were always named Harold; only the last names changed) is the youngest son of Sheriff Hickory–the most powerful and respected man in Hickoryville. Harold’s father and two older brothers are big, strong, manly men. Harold, who does the housework while the men in the family clear the forest and carry logs, idolizes them. They don’t think much of him.
The arrival of a medicine show, made up of two evil men and one innocent young woman (Jobyna Ralston) jumpstarts the plot. Harold, barely recognized as a grownup by his family, will have to vanquish the villains, win the lady fair, and save his father from a lynching.
And of course he can do it. What no one seems to notice is that Harold Hickory is by far the smartest person in Hickoryville. He’s built contraptions to help him with his chores. He regularly outwits the large bully next door. When his much stronger brothers set out to beat him up, he tricks them into attacking their even stronger father. Even Harold doesn’t know how smart he is.
A note on authorship: Harold Lloyd produced and starred in his films. He never took director credit. (The Kid Brother was officially directed by Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe.) I consider Lloyd the auteur of his films.
No one could build an extended comedy scene like Lloyd and his team of collaborators. The Kid Brother has at least four great extended comedy scenes, each astonishing in its creativity, meticulous construction, and laugh delivery. In my favorite, Harold takes the girl home, where his brothers are waiting to beat him up. Needless to say, there are no beatings. I won’t go into details.
We don’t only laugh at Harold; we cheer for him. He’s an underdog whose considerable gifts are overlooked by everyone (except the girl, of course). This is Lloyd at his most sympathetic. In Safety Last, he tricked people so he could lie to his girlfriend. In The Freshman, he wants to be the most popular kid on the campus. But in The Kid Brother, he’s avoiding a whipping and, in the last act, fighting with a known murderer.
Lloyd knew when to turn down the laughs and let the story take hold. That final fight is truly suspenseful, and scary. But Lloyd added brilliant comic pieces to it as a sort of leavening.
He does much the same thing with romantic scenes. He comforts the girl, who has just lost everything she owns. She’s resting her head on his shoulder. He feels drops of water on his hand, and he looks up. No rain. He realizes she’s crying. He hold her tighter. The drops on his hand turn into a torrent. Now he’s really worried about her. And yes, it’s raining.
For all its feuds and backwardness, Hickoryville looks like a beautiful place to live. The Kid Brother is easily Lloyd’s most visually pleasing film, with sunlight streaming through the trees and glistening on the water. Walter Lundin’s photography here rivals that of Bert Haines and Dev Jennings in Keaton’s The General.
A confession: I have some personal history that may affect my love of The Kid Brother. It was the first silent feature I ever saw, and the first silent I saw properly–in a theater with live music. In the last years of his life, Lloyd screened his films at schools in the Los Angeles area. In my first year at Hollywood High School (1969-70), he came with The Kid Brother. The school auditorium had a pipe organ, and Gaylord Carter played the accompaniment. That was the beginning of my love of silent film.
Also, like Harold Hickory, I’m the youngest of three sons. I know something about avoiding confrontation with bigger and stronger siblings.
But I don’t think these issues effect my opinion all that much. I’ve seen The Kid Brother theatrically at least four times. I know the reactions it gets from an audience. Believe me; it’s a masterpiece.