Home Video Hovel: The Kid Brother, by David Bax
I have a confession to make. I was not, until I watched 1927’s The Kid Brother, out now on Blu-ray from Criterion, familiar with the work of Harold Lloyd. I mean, I’d seen the clock bit from Safety Last! but that was about it. Yet, like many of the other silent film comedians of the era, Lloyd created so specific a character that, within the first few minutes of the comical action/Western, I felt I understood what I was in for. Lloyd’s “The Boy” persona is note perfect. His anxieties make him sympathetic but not quite as sentimental as Chaplin’s Tramp while his stunt work puts him closer to a more human version of Keaton’s alien stoicism. When The Boy–or Harold Hickory, as the character is known here–is told by his father (Walter James), the local sheriff, to stay home because, “The town meeting’s no place for boys!”, it may take you a moment to realize that Lloyd was actually in his mid-30s at the time of production. That doesn’t matter when the commitment to a character is this thorough; Harold even sleeps with Lloyd’s signature eyeglasses on.
When Harold gets left behind, like a Cinderella of the Old West, by his father and brothers on their trip to the town meeting, he decides to try on his dad’s vest–which includes his sheriff’s badge. One case of mistaken identity later and Harold is at the mercy of a couple of traveling hucksters and has hearts in his eyes for their young traveling companion, Mary (Jobyna Ralston).
Much of the movie’s comedy comes from the sexual mores (as much of 1927 as of the small-town 1800s) involved in Harold’s courting of Mary. Sequences like the long, hilarious one in which Harold invites Mary in out of the rain and then must go to great lengths to keep her apart from his pajama-clad brothers (Leo Willis and Olin Francis) only work because Ralston is not only charming enough to make Harold’s infatuation believable but also every inch the comedic performer Lloyd needs to interact with. Others must have agreed; they made many movies together.
Like some of Keaton’s films (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr.), The Kid Brother is just as much a proto-action flick as it is a comedy. The dynamic camerawork is a thrill to behold; a bit in which Lloyd climbs higher and higher up a tree to keep Mary in his sight as she walks away reportedly required the construction of a specialized camera elevator. The final, breathtaking result seems like it could have been an inspiration for Tom Wait’s tree-climbing in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The most stunning sequence, though, is the finale, a thrilling chase onto, over, around and through an abandoned, listing riverboat. If you’re a neophyte like me, The Kid Brother is a great way to introduce yourself to Lloyd and moments like these are ones you’ll want to watch over and over again.
The Criterion transfer, a 4K scan of a fine-grain restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata, is stunningly crisp. Almost complete devoid of scratches or dirt and perfectly stabilized throughout, there are parts of the movie that look like they could have been shot this year. Two scores are available. One is from 1989 and the other is from the 1960s.
The extensive special features include a commentary featuring Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, historian Annette D’Agostino Lloyd and Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd; a conversation between Suzanne Lloyd and the great Cari Beauchamp; a video essay by David Cairns; a video essay on the film’s locations by John Bengston; a Dutch television interview with Lloyd from 1962; a featurette about Lloyd’s estate; two Lloyd shorts; a featurette on the Wurlitzer organ; and an essay by Carrie Rickey. In other words, get this disc.