“Pretty good audience for Hurricane Sandy,” Repertory Director Bruce Goldstein said before Sunday’s screening of Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER (1927) at Film Forum – a theater on the outskirts of a New York City neighborhood about to be evacuated.
It was a small but responsive crowd for the penultimate installment in Film Forum’s weekly Lloyd series, as the dreaded “FrankenStorm” began to clomp meteorologically through the streets of Lower Manhattan. Goldstein pointed out that Buster Keaton’s STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928), with its iconic hurricane scene, might have been a better choice for a final screening before the temporary, weather-related closure of the theater.
“As the saying goes, the show must go on at Film Forum,” Goldstein said. “But not tomorrow. We’re closed. Blame Bloomberg.”
“No, blame Gov. Cuomo!” an audience member replied, with insistence.
Political debates concluded, the show kicked off with Alf Goulding’s BASHFUL (1917), a “rediscovered” short produced for Hal Roach’s Rolin Films and starring Lloyd, Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard. Lloyd’s delightfully knockabout one-reelers for Roach have been a weekly fixture of this Film Forum series, with restored picture and new music and effects tracks. (Unlike the features, the shorts are projected at Film Forum via DVD and not accompanied live on piano.)
My understanding is that these shorts are in the public domain but, once the Harold Lloyd Trust (managed by his granddaughter Suzanne) restores and/or scores the films, the new versions becomes copyrightable. That’s great news, and it suggests that a DVD or Blu-ray set may be forthcoming. The Nebraska-born comedian made hundreds of one-reelers for Roach between 1915 and 1919 featuring early appearances of his “Glass Character” and its predecessor, Lonesome Luke (sans horn-rims and with a Chaplin-esque mustache).
BASHFUL, released in December of 1917, is one of the first “Glass Character” shorts. Lloyd plays a rich young man (the Boy) who is so socially backward “he would shy at a lady finger.” Like in Keaton’s 1925 feature SEVEN CHANCES, Lloyd’s character stands to inherit a large sum from a deceased relative, but only if he’s married (and, in this case, has a child). Of course, since he’s so bashful, Lloyd has neither. He won’t even kiss The Girl (Daniels) when she tries to sneak a smooch at a dance.
After the Boy receives a telegram about the potential inheritance, he and the Girl decide to pose as a married couple, and his mustachioed manservant (Pollard) precedes to “borrow” babies from local families. When Uncle Bill (Bud Jamison) arrives, he finds more than a dozen infants – including a black kid, whose face Lloyd tries to “clean off” with a napkin. (It was 1917, remember.) Uncle Bill falls for the gag and all ends happily.
Next up was THE KID BROTHER (1927), with live accompaniment (and an original score) by Film Forum pianist Steve Sterner. Directed by Ted Wilde (with an uncredited Lloyd and Lewis Milestone) and released by the Harold Lloyd Corporation in January of 1927, KID stars Lloyd as Harold Hickory, youngest son of a gruff, small town sheriff (Walter James) in 1877. Because Harold lacks confidence, Sheriff Hickory favors his two dimwitted older sons (Leo Willis and Olen Francis), relegating our hero to menial tasks like laundry and dishwashing, à la Cinderella.
Everything changes when ”Professor Powers’ Original Mammoth Medicine Show” rolls into town. The Professor has died, leaving his daughter Mary (Jobyna Ralston, in her sixth turn as Lloyd’s leading lady) to run the show with two creepy carnies: Sandoni “the World’s Strongest Man” (Constantine Romanoff) and “Flash” Farrell (Eddie Boland). They’re accompanied by a remarkable performing monkey (Jocko, from Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN), who would have won an Oscar if there had been a Best Performing Animal category.
Harold and Mary “meet cute” when he saves her from the strongman’s unwanted advances – with an unplanned assist from a poisonous snake. After the medicine show is destroyed in a fire, Mary comes to stay at the Hickory house and Harold’s two brothers court her the next morning from behind a “Walls of Jericho” curtain. Unbeknownst to Leo and Olin, Mary has already left and Harold is the one eating the breakfast they’ve prepared for her. This extended sequence is the most inventive and funniest in the film.
Later, Harold brings Mary to the party celebrating the construction of the town dam, only to discover that the construction fund has been stolen, and the townspeople blame his father. As the sheriff is dragged off to the hanging tree by an angry lynch mob, Harold tracks the real thieves (Sandoni and Flash, of course) to a derelict ship off the coast, retrieves the loot and saves his dad’s life.
“Son, you’re a real Hickory,” the sheriff says. And Harold Lloyd and and Jobyna Ralston walk off into the sunset for the last time.
I had an odd response to this film. I’ve grown to love Lloyd and find him a completely unique counterpoint to the other two “geniuses” of silent comedy, Chaplin and Keaton. But in THE KID BROTHER, he feels interchangeable. This is the first time I’ve watched a Harold Lloyd film and thought, “This feels like Buster Keaton.” Even worse, I thought Keaton might have done it better, or been more believable.
Perhaps I’ve grown to associate Lloyd with “contemporary” stories like SAFETY LAST, GIRL SHY, and THE FRESHMAN and Keaton with period pieces like THE GENERAL, OUR HOSPITALITY, and THREE AGES. Or maybe I found the occasional pathos of the film more Keaton-esque than Lloyd-like. I’ll admit that I prefer the more dominant Lloyd characters like SPEEDY and DR. JACK to the sad sack who redeems himself. That’s probably also why I prefer Lloyd and Keaton to Chaplin’s more tragicomic persona.
Regardless of these mixed feelings, I still enjoyed THE KID BROTHER. Lloyd made only eleven silent features, and he was at the top of his game here, in his second-to-last. The film looks beautiful and nothing at all like the rough, quickly produced shorts he was starring in just a few years earlier. Unlike the restored version available on DVD (and You Tube), the print I saw at Film Forum was not tinted, but it was in excellent shape. And audience was extremely responsive, and filled with families. There’s nothing more heart-warming than listening to little kids giggle at silent movies.
Apparently Film Forum agrees with me on this. After the screening, Bruce Goldstein announced that the theater will be launching Film Forum Jr., a kid-friendly, Sunday morning screening series, in January of 2013. Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. (1924) and Yasujiro Ozu’s I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932, aka CHILDREN OF TOKYO) will kick off the series. I don’t know yet if this will be open-ended or short term, but anything that gets more silent films in front of young people is great news in my book.