by Jay Seaver
There's something almost feudal about the small town of Hickoryville, where the title character of "The Kid Brother" lives alongside his ox-like father and brothers. I don't know if that sort of small town, so dominated by one man or family's personality, could exist today, even if it could a century ago. Of course, it doesn't have to be real; this silent comedy is a riff on the story of the lesser prince proving his worth, and you need royalty for that.In Hickoryville, the royalty is, of course, the Hickorys. Jim Hickory (Walter James) is the Sheriff and town leader, with sons Leo and Olin serving as deputies. Big, tough, burly men, they don't think much of youngest brother Harold (Harold Lloyd), a glasses-wearing dweeb more inclined to build a mechanical contraption to handle a task than to simply attack it with raw strength. Jim is especially annoyed when Harold tells a group of traveling performers who mistake him for the sheriff that they can set up on the town green, and sends him to get rid of them, even though it hurts Harold to break it to beautiful Mary Powers (Jobyna Ralston), daughter of the show's founder. Harold is humiliated, the show is wrecked, and soon after, the town treasury has been stolen after having been placed in the Hickorys' hands.
"A kid brother who's no bother."
So, there's the plot - a fairy tale transplanted to California at the turn of the twentieth century, a tiny kingdom that must be saved by its least impressive prince. He goes on a quest not just to save the family's reputation, but for the good of his land's people, bearding the villain in his lair, besting his rival, and impressing the lady. Mary is in her way a princess, if a reluctant one, and is betrayed by her own magicians (untrustworthy stage illusionists here). There's even room for a bit of swashbuckling at the end.
Of course, this is all done in the context of a slapstick comedy, and a busily gag-filled one at that. Harold's inventive nature spurs many a joke in the first half, as he builds machines and time-saving processes that are as amusingly convoluted as they are effective. When Mary takes a shine to Harold, neither his brothers nor their neighborhood rivals really seem to understand that any competition is over before it starts, and try to get on her good side, bringing her breakfast in bed without realizing it's Harold they're serving.
And, of course, there's the big stunt sequence in the last act. This time out, it's not a high-speed chase or a daredevil high-altitude act, but a showdown with the thieves aboard a riverboat run aground. Despite throwing a punch or two, Harold's not the natural brawler that his brothers would be in this situation, and even they would think twice before taking on the magician's strongman accomplice. Harold, though, is fast and resourceful, squeezing through portholes, dashing to other parts of the structure, and improvising weapons out of whatever is handy. All the while leaving time for double takes and a couple of genuinely funny post-finale bits.
The film's got a good cast. Lloyd, of course, is great, funny as usual while playing off his screen father and brothers perfectly - you see the desire to please and be included alongside the irritation at being treated like a kid. Jobyna Ralston plays a character who is in many ways similar; her name is on the show's marquee but she, too, chafes at living up to her father's reputation. Their chemistry isn't as perfect as it is in some of their other collaborations , but they're a likable pair. Ralph Yearsley is suitably dumb and annoying as neighbor Hank Hooper, with Frank Lanning as his father Sam, Jim Hickory's chief rival. Leo Willis and Olin Francis are fine as the elder Hickory brothers, likable enough lugs who just don't get Harold."The Kid Brother" isn't quite my favorite Lloyd movie, but it's up there. It packs a lot of good jokes into an hour and a half, has an action-comedy climax which is great fun, and makes as much use of its star's personal charisma as his athletic gifts. It's a charming little comic fairy tale of a movie that one can enjoy even if not in a fairy tale mood.
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originally posted: 08/10/05 04:12:28