The Kid Brother
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Today Harold Lloyd's fame as one of the top film comics of the silent era rests largely on his two most often-screened films, Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925). But many film critics and Lloyd admirers rate The Kid Brother as one of his very best, arguably a masterpiece, and probably his most accomplished all-around performance. Even critics who rate Lloyd below Chaplin or Keaton because they find his films mechanical and lacking in human feeling point to this movie as the exception, an exciting, funny, and touching work that depends on acting and story line more than daredevil stunts.
The Kid Brother, a male Cinderella story, finds Lloyd as Harold, youngest son of the backwoods Hickory clan, treated with contempt by his brutish father and brothers because he's timid and sensitive. Though unappreciated by his family, he's also a clever young man, demonstrated by the way he comes up with various Rube Goldberg-like devices to help him complete his huge burden of farm chores. Harold falls for lovely Mary Powers, who moves in with his family after her traveling medicine show burns down. When thugs from the show steal the town's money, Harold's father is accused. Then the mistreated young drudge springs into action, using his brains rather than brawn to impress his family and outwit the crooks in a hilarious sequence of chases and gags until he restores his father's good name and wins the heart of his girl.
Lloyd was always known for the care he lavished on putting his films together, but The Kid Brother took longer to make than any of them - a full eight months in production. Much of it was shot outside the studio, primarily in the open country around Placentia, Calif., which had the right mountainous look for the story's rural setting. Other sequences were shot near the Santa Ana Canyon and on Catalina Island. Like Keaton's master movie of the same year, The General (1927), Lloyd infused his usual comic genius with a more serious, complex approach to the material, and even the gags were worked out not only for maximum choreographed comic effect but also with attention to how audiences perceive films and what makes the greatest cinematic and narrative impact. The story is credited to five writers. It also lists two directors, and Hollywood lore gives a nod to a third, Lewis Milestone, who most likely put in only a few days on the project and later moved on to a distinguished career of his own. But, again as with Keaton, the true creator of the movie was Lloyd himself. It fared well enough with critics, although it was not singled out as a significant advance over his earlier works, and its commercial success (one of the highest-grossing films of the 1920s) made Lloyd the top box office star for the year, a position he maintained with his subsequent release, Speedy (1928). That film was his last silent; as with other great silent comedy stars, Lloyd's career began to decline with the coming of sound. He made eight more films over the next decade, then was off the screen for nine years until filming his final movie, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947, reissued in 1950 as Mad Wednesday) under the direction of Preston Sturges, another comic master in decline.
So why has The Kid Brother been relatively unseen and overlooked in the years since it made such a big splash with audiences? Biographer Tom Dardis explained that partly it might be due to Lloyd's having kept firm control over what would be released for distribution in the last years of his life, a time when many cineastes were rediscovering the great films of the silent era. Dardis also puts forth the theory that many of the best films of the late 1920s were regarded by film studios as dated relics during the coming of sound and that, with the carrot of the new technology dangling before them, audiences were less interested in the remaining products of the pre-sound era.
Directors: J.A. Howe, Ted Wilde
Producers: Harold Lloyd, Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor
Screenplay: Thomas J. Crizer, Howard J. Green, John Grey, Lex Neal, Ted Wilde
Cinematography: Walter Lundin
Editing: Allen McNeil
Art Direction: Liell Vedder
Cast: Harold Lloyd (Harold Hickory), Jobyna Ralston (Mary Powers), Leo Willis (Leo Hickory), Olin Francis (Olin Hickory), Walter James (Jim Hickory), Constantine Romanoff (Sandoni), Eddie Boland ('Flash' Farrell).
by Rob Nixon