Silent star Harold Lloyd shines bright
Truth be told, I’m ill-informed at best when it comes to silent films. But I’m working on it. It helps when the silent films I do choose to watch are absolutely fascinating to behold and work like gangbusters from top to bottom, which is the case with Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother.
At Cinapse we like to try to cover every Criterion release that hits the market, which sometimes causes us to stretch out of our comfort zones. As noted, silent films are quite far outside my wheelhouse… but action cinema is my great passion, and The Kid Brother most certainly employs (invents?) action film tropes to tell its tale.
I wasn’t even particularly familiar with Lloyd as a major Hollywood talent. While I’ve seen woefully little of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton’s work, I’ve nonetheless been highly aware of their influential careers for quite some time. Apparently Harold Lloyd is considered in the same breath as these giants, and after taking in what many consider to be his greatest film, I can see why.
The Kid Brother tells the tale of Harold Hickory, youngest son and brother in the legendary Hickory family. Harold’s father and brothers are tough guys: law enforcement officers who play key roles in building the town of their namesake, Hickory, into a thriving community. They’re the pillars of society… and the scrawny and bespectacled Harold does their laundry. Fantasizing in his father’s badge and gun belt one day, he’s mistaken for the law and sets in motion the very events that will force him into an adventure that’ll test his mettle and propel him from “zero to hero”, as was apparently one of Lloyd’s most reliable storytelling tropes.
When a crooked snake oil salesman brings a travelling show into town, he brings with him the beautiful Mary Powers (regular Lloyd co-star Jobyna Ralston) and the villainous strongman Sandoni (another frequent Lloyd collaborator and former wrestler Constantine Romanoff). Harold signs the permits for them to stay in town when he’s mistaken for the sheriff. And when the money collected by the community to build a dam goes missing, Harold’s father, who had been entrusted to hold the money, is put under pressure to find the culprits. Of course, circumstances put Harold in the right place at the right time to discover the thieves hiding out on a beached pirate ship and he’ll seize his moment to bring back the money, save his family’s good name, prove himself to his father and brothers, and even win the heart of the girl. But not without a host of brilliant sight gags, pratfalls, and action set pieces that bring to mind a superstar inspired by this era who I’m much more familiar with: Jackie Chan.
Within the opening moments of the film I found myself chuckling at some of the elaborate comedic sight gags and stunts and figured I was in for a treat. There’s a purity to this era brought about by the limitations of the medium at the time. Having no sound and yet still being a boundary-pushing technology, film was a purely visual medium and sight gags were king. What was impressive on top of that was how effective the screenplay (did they use screenplays back then in the same way they do now?) was at wringing romance and redemptive adventure out of all the hijinks. Apparently this “zero to hero” trajectory was a go-to formula for Lloyd when he played his “glasses characters”, and it works flawlessly here. The final set piece with Lloyd and the giant strongman duking it out onboard the tilted pirate ship felt like it must have been an inspiration for such classic adventures of my lifetime such as The Goonies or even Pirates Of The Caribbean. The gags, the sets, the trained monkey with seemingly supernatural comedic timing, and even the character development all work together to create a rousing finale equal parts inspiring, romantic, and entertaining.
The more silent films I watch, the more open to them I become. There’s a purity to them that’s refreshing, an urgency to communicate clearly to the audience, and a visual splendor that feels totally unique to a modern cinephile. The Kid Brother was easily among the most entertaining and satisfying silent films I’ve seen yet.
Here is a situation where the Criterion brand really earns its reputation as the elite home video label. The film transfer is absolutely stunning, with a picture so detailed and clear it feels almost impossible that you’re watching a film from 1927. The bonus features for The Kid Brother are almost as fascinating and celebratory of cinema as the film itself is. I marvelled to learn that Lloyd had suffered a horrible injury in the years prior to The Kid Brother and actually achieved some of his greatest successes while missing a thumb and forefinger from his right hand covered over with a prosthetic! The stunts, the falls, the fist fights… all performed by a master of his craft missing fingers and yet making it work. There are insightful interviews with Lloyd’s descendants, and even a “talkie” interview with Lloyd himself in his later years. Perhaps most fascinating were a couple of short films featured on the disc also starring Lloyd. The shorts themselves were great, but the stories behind their inclusion on this release were even better. An archivist is interviewed and goes in depth on how these short films were digitized and updated off of rarely used film stock sizes and the whole deep dive into ancient forms of film technology was breathtaking. Then there’s a detailed demonstration of how the Wurlitzer organ was used to create the soundscapes for silent films and specifically how a restored Wurlitzer was used to create a brand new score for these short films. Seeing the inner workings of a Wurlitzer is almost like being told how a magician does his tricks, and I found myself transfixed and falling in love with cinema in a way previously unknown to me. It sounds dramatic, but there’s truly a magic at play here… a love for cinema that goes far beyond commerce and into sincere devotion.
I’m personally grateful for the opportunity to have experienced The Kid Brother in this gorgeous presentation, lovingly restored, and packed to the gills with deeply fascinating bonus content. This is infectious entertainment and highly accessible to those as ill-versed in silent films as I am. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of The Kid Brother comes with my very highest recommendation.
And I’m Out.
The Kid Brother is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection