Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Film Review: The Kid Brother

"The Kid Brother"
**** (out of ****)

It may not have the fame of "The Freshman" (1925) or an iconic comedy sequence like the one in "Safety Last!" (1923) but the comedy "The Kid Brother" (1927) is one of Harold Lloyd's best.

Re-watching many of Harold Lloyd's comedies, I have come to the conclusion he may have been at the forefront of creating the situation romantic-comedy as we know it. How else do you explain "Girl Shy" (1924)? This, more than anything, separates Mr. Lloyd from his two more famous (?) contemporaries. I cannot recall a Buster Keaton comedy I would describe as romantic. In "The General" (1926) for example, Mr. Keaton spends as much time with trains than he does with a girl. Charlie Chaplin, in movies like "City Lights" (1931) could display a romantic sentiment, but Mr. Chaplin's movies generally had dramatic undertones rather than romantic.

In various Harold Lloyd comedies I've noticed a struggle trying to find a way to combine comedy with a credible romantic sub-plot. Some have a very good plot structure, "Girl Shy" and "Grandma's Boy"(1922), while others limit Mr.  Lloyd's interaction with the leading female character in order to focus more on comedy sequences, "Safety Last!" and "The Freshman".

In truth some of the same statements could be made about "The Kid Brother" but watching it again, it is the only comedy with Mr. Lloyd that I have seen that I have enjoyed as much as when I first saw it. The movie does balance romance with comedy with the comedy slightly edging ahead. The female character is used as a plot device, around at just the right moment to motivate our hero and provide him with the inspiration he needs. For instance, she does not participate in any of the comedy sequences, though some are built around her presence.

However, "The Kid Brother" is a successful movie simply because it is well told. The movie has an excellent plot structure, that tries to go beyond a laugh-a-minute plot, attempting to provide more character development for the Harold Lloyd character to create more of an emotional connection with the audience. That may mean fewer laughs as a result but it doesn't prevent "The Kid Brother" from being a rewarding experience. I am also aware some will say I am contradicting myself because I rated "Grandma's Boy" three-and-a-half stars while making the same comments about it as I am "The Kid Brother". Why am I not giving them both four stars? Because I like "The Kid Brother" more.

"The Kid Brother" is a kind of "Cinderella" story with Mr. Lloyd playing Harold Hickory, a shy, under confident young man who feels lost in shadow of his father, Jim (Walter James), the small town's sheriff, and his two older brothers; Leo (Leo Willis) and Olin (Olin Francis). Harold wishes he was an strong as his father and brothers. This scenario is familiar for Mr. Lloyd as it is reminiscent of "Grandma's Boy".

One day Harold sees Mary (Jobyna Ralston, in her last role co-starring with Mr. Lloyd), the daughter of a traveling medicine man, who has since passed away. Wanting to "prove" himself in her eyes. Harold pretends to be just as strong as his brothers, ordering them around when he knows Mary is nearby.

Outside of these sequences, there isn't much of a courtship between Harold and Mary. It appears Mary is instantly attracted to Harold, with no other male rivals in sight, fighting for Mary's hand. This dispenses with the usual romantic entanglements that proceed instead allowing more time for visual gags and character set-up.

A lot of the visual gags are clever with Harold using his surroundings to his advantage to avoid physical conflict. Without giving away too much, a gag involving a monkey and a pair of shoes is funny and a sequence with Harold trying to embarrass his brothers, while also trying to avoid a beating from them, when he brings Mary to their home late at night, after being caught in the rain. The brothers are embarrassed to be seen in their pajamas.

One sequence seems a little out of place, as Harold is fighting off a bad guy that he learns cannot swim. Harold gets bloody minded and tries to drown the man. It is all meant to be played for comedy but the impulse of the character contradicts the sweet, innocent nature the movie had been establishing, which I guess it meant to make it funny when it does happen.

The movie was co-directed by Ted Wilde, who received his first (of two) screen credit for directing a Harold Lloyd comedy. The first second directing effort was for "Speedy" (1928). Wilde worked with Mr. Lloyd on a few comedies, including "Why Worry?"(1923), "Girl Shy" and "The Freshman". Jay A. Howe (credited at J.A. Howe) only received screen credit for this Harold Lloyd comedy, despite his long career in comedy during the silent era and working for Hal Roach at one time.

The main theme of the movie however is a standard one found in far too numerous comedies of the time period; masculinity. A man proving his worth in the eyes of the woman he loves. In these movies a man's worth is equated to strength. A woman, these movies tell us, needs to fall in love with a "strong man". There is also the father / son dynamic that addresses the same theme. Jim believes Harold is frail and treats him as such, making comments like "You might get hurt Harold. This is a man's work."

"The Kid Brother" may lack some of the big laughs and thrills of "The Freshman" or "Safety Last!" but it is easily one of Harold Lloyd's best comedies due to its well constructed plot, character development, combination of comedy and romance, fine visual gags and Mr. Lloyd's acting (pay attention to his body language!). This would be a fine place to start to introduce yourself to the comedy of Harold Lloyd.