The Kid Brother, The Human Experience as Comedy
“My humor was never cruel or cynical. I just took life and poked fun at it. We made it so it could be understood the world over, without language barriers. We seem to have conquered the time barrier, too.”
– Harold Lloyd
It was 1927, Harold Lloyd, the third popular figure in the triumvirate of silent comedy films, was already at the height of his career and at the most sophisticated stage of his art. His film contemporaries, Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, enjoyed the same popularity, although the box-office success was different for all three. Unfailingly witty all three, but individually idiosyncratic. They differed in style and eccentricities. Nevertheless, throughout the history of cinema the ridiculously sympathetic bespectacled man has been the most criminally underrated; woefully overlooked in scholarly discussion as in the ordinary colloquy of cinephilia. Competing with such titans of cinema as Chaplin and Keaton is no mean feat. It is somewhat understandable why Harold Lloyd’s popularity dwindled with the decline of pure cinema; and equally discernible why his sound stage never reached the high standards of his silent era work. Chaplin’s indelible career endures in film studies because of his singular ability to reinvent film. Keaton’s formidable career is imperishable for having so many complex qualities that to this day we try to decipher his towering talent. There are thousands of other reasons why Keaton and Chaplin belong in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest; however, to write about them would be to go off on a tangent.
Harold Lloyd is the subject of this analysis. Lloyd’s prolific filmography may not have the same poetic patterns as the films of the other two comedic geniuses, yet his rich oeuvre resonates on an unprecedented sociocultural scale. A mesmerizing study of a specific time period, Lloyd’s films are an ecstatic documentation of the American zeitgeist in the Roaring Twenties. Through the lens of the cinematic apparatus, Lloyd pictures the average American, x-raying their dreams, their passions and their joys. The power of identification is the crucial factor that elucidates and encompasses his capacity to make us laugh at everyday situations by portraying a truthful reflection of our society, and those who comprise it. As a result, Lloyd is underrated for the wrong reasons. His skill at making us laugh in tense and thrilling situations, his homogeneous knack for making us live adventures that resemble our everyday fast-paced lives is an unparalleled expression that specifies his films as a sweeping journey through the American experience. Although to a certain extent, the human experience as well, in the broadest universal sense.
Ever since I had the wonderful opportunity to experience Lloyd’s filmography, I always ask myself the same question. What is the one film in his extensive oeuvre that best epitomizes his cinema? Surely, many will have a special film that evokes a correct answer to that question. Being a highly subjective question, I believe it can only be answered on a personal level. In my case, The Kid Brother, is the first film that comes to mind to suggest it as a solid foundation for my thesis. I started this writing like this, “It was 1927,” it was evidently premeditated. The Kid Brother was released on January 17, 1927. Simply put, Lloyd’s career was at the pinnacle of his stardom and talent. However, beyond being a film made at the right time in his career, it is a film that triumphantly encapsulates the Harold Lloyd myth. Hypothetically, one could say that The Kid Brother is the most essential film in his filmography. On the other hand, objectively, one could say that it is Lloyd’s absolute masterpiece.
The delectable The Kid Brother synthesizes all the elements that made Harold Lloyd the great entertainer he is. Optimism, perseverance, prosperity, innocence and generosity constitute the buoyant ethos of this fabulous comedian. The Kid Brother is a sophisticated embodiment of each of these. Unlike his films that exalt American urbanism and the vertiginous skyscrapers of the unstoppable pre-Great Depression American metropolis, The Kid Brother is more modest in its scenic horizon, but no less beautiful. It is a virtuoso comedy shot on an impressionistic western canvas. Lloyd is far from his daredevil activities in the midst of the modern chaos of the city, far from the restless rhythm and the cacophonous noise of the industrialism of the new American cities. Here Lloyd finds himself in an idyllic, peaceful and contemplative habitat. As he did in his 1922 film Grandma’s Boy, Lloyd makes the most of natural space and its pictorial atmospheric properties. The Kid Brother has all the ingredients to make one of the best silent comedies of all time, and boy, does it succeed.
The Hickory’s are the protagonist family in the inspirational story of The Kid Brother. They are an honorable and respected family in Hickoryville, the Hickorys patriarch is the town sheriff, the stalwart and stern Jim Hickory, played by Walter James. His three sons, the brutish Leo and Olin, and the wimpy, timorous and obedient Harold, played by Lloyd. Jim Hickory and his two sons treat Harold like a housewife, don’t let him appear in public many times and never give him duties that they consider to be “men’s only”, according to them, he is still an awkward and shy boy. The Hickory family name is praised by all, so the Hickorys must keep their reputation as tough, heroic men intact; Harold wants to be a part of that legacy but his father adamantly opposes it, scoffing at him and distrusting his subtle brilliance. Physically, Harold is not a man who inspires stereotypical masculinity or gallantry; he is skinny and somewhat clumsily nervous. Yet, his heart and unquenchable hopes constantly seek to win his father’s approval so that he may have a dignified and prestigious position to proudly bear the name of his old-fashioned family.
A traveling medicine show comes to Hickoryville to perform its quirky presentations. Delicate, breathtakingly beautiful Mary, played by Jobyna Ralstone, is the female star of this medicine show. Harold instantly falls in love with her, and sweet Mary’s emotional response is reciprocated. From that moment on Harold begins to gain an unrecognizable confidence, after all love can do anything, right? Adding to the excited hormones of the harmless Harold, thieves take a large sum of money from his father’s house; money that had been a fundraiser for a dam in the village. Chase after chase, misunderstandings, and pure cinematic mayhem ensue. Harold takes this fortuitous opportunity to show what he is made of and to finally prove to his father that he has the Hickory name in his veins.
Harold Lloyd formulates a panegyric to the persevering man, to masculine prowess, and to the determination of human character to achieve what it wants. It is somewhat rhetorical and explicitly prosaic in Lloyd’s work to see these themes intertwine to explore the obvious, and the truisms they contain. Nevertheless, this cinematic and narrative equation in Lloyd’s hands is unerring. No one enlivens the gratifying energy of watching our underdog hero consummate his dreams through effort and persistence as Harold Lloyd does in his immaculate comedic praxis. The Kid Brother is perennially uplifting, to see it in contemporary times is to see again the reflection of your personal struggle, of your aspirations that sometimes seem unattainable, but Lloyd is there to tell you that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to with steely resilience and unconquerable tenacity. The fresh and solid character development we witness in The Kid Brother is a testament to who Harold Lloyd was during that period when motion pictures spoke with gestures and emanated sentiment with their pristine imagery alone. Jobyna Ralston, in my perspective, the finest actress to have played alongside Lloyd, shares in this film some of the most tender moments cinema has ever seen. The quasi-spiritual, gently passionate and evocative connection she exchanges with Lloyd are for the ages; romantic sequences amidst slapstick hilarity that diversify Harold Lloyd’s dexterity to do so much with so little, to realize romantic beauty without losing the great sense of humor that surrounds it.
Clearly, this is Lloyd’s most sophisticated film. If his other films are accused of being redundant prose and passable entertainments, then this is the one that vindicates his true essence and puts his exhaustive wit in the eyes of the incredulous, making it impossible to deny that The Kid Brother is the closest Harold Lloyd has come to silent poetry. The Kid Brother’s lyricism blossoms in every frame and sharp camera movement that is used as mellifluous verse narrating a eulogy to human virtues. It is a magnificent film, with a visual narrative that belongs unmistakably to the year it was made, 1927, a year later the seventh art would reach the pinnacle of its artistic language. I can’t imagine the American cinema of the 20’s without Harold Lloyd, but particularly, I can’t imagine it without The Kid Brother. It is the archetype of American optimism, of the prosperity and felicity of a nation before the disgrace of the Great Depression. An inalienable piece of silent cinema.
Ordinarily, it features with cartoonish and fleshed-out tonalities the commonalities of the still undeveloped western genre in the silent period; the comedy in sync with these western textures manifests a mystical appeal. I am almost certain that all of these nuanced, exquisite technicalities in articulating this western comedy originate from Lewis Milestone’s ephemeral involvement as an uncredited director. After retiring from this production, Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe took the directorial reins. Although, well, as we all know, Harold Lloyd also directs his films even though he never appears in the credits as such. I suspect that the genesis of the cinematic bravura that this film exhibits is courtesy of Lewis Milestone, and much of the narrative uniformity of the rhythmic comedy comes from the other directors. Whoever directed more or fewer sequences, what we have as a final result is an exercise in pure comedy filmmaking. Bold, romantic and touching.
Conjecturally, it could be asserted with a certain piquancy that Harold Lloyd’s performance constantly aims at the same objective, a mimetic objective. His method of acting is a complex selection of ordinary factors that characterize the average American. But, as cinema has proven to us over the years, his language transcends sociocultural barriers. The man in the glasses, Lloyd’s quintessential character, is beloved by everyone because he looks like us. The Kid Brother’s character, Harold Hickory, evokes universal values, unifies those hopes that sometimes through the vicissitudes of life we lose or stop believing in. Harold Hickory functions as a mirror when we need to remind ourselves of what we are made of. My thesis in defense of Harold Lloyd’s colossal talent is substantiated in this character, someone who motivates us in the most sympathetic and amusing way. The Kid Brother is an everlasting masterpiece that restores the human spirit. Gag for gag, it is life itself, metaphorically speaking.