Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Freshman & The Kid Brother

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Freshman & The Kid Brother

These two films, which arrived together on the same DVD, were my first introductions to Harold Lloyd, other than the famous clips I'd seen before (running down the field with the football in The Freshman, and of course hanging from the clock in Safety Last!). In the great debate between Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd is the also-ran, though in this at least he's doing better than someone like Harry Langdon, who's been more or less forgotten. If nothing else, that shot of Lloyd barely grasping the hand of a giant city clock, hanging perilously above the busy street below, is one of the indelible images of the silent era, ensuring Lloyd's place in screen history. But his persona was unique - not a knock-off of the Tramp or the Deadpan One, it was probably closer to that of your average (slightly dopey) American man, and certainly bares more than a passing resemblance to Woody Allen (at least as he presented himself in the early, funny ones).


I still haven't seen all of Safety Last!, but of the two we have here, The Freshman is probably the more famous. It presents Lloyd as an all-American kiddo circa 1925, excited to go off to college and basing his behavioral tics off a corny campus movie. He quickly becomes the butt of jokes and everyone takes advantage of his good-natured antics, pretending to make him popular even as they laugh at him behind his back. The only exception is the requisite good girl (Ann Dillon), a maid at the dormitory where Lloyd makes his home-away-from-home. Lloyd's big dream is to make the football squad, despite the fact that he's a weakling and a klutz. The coach uses him as a live tackling dummy (introducing some of the first real physical humor into the plot) and then, having pity for the cheerful sap, makes him waterboy for the team.

Oddly enough, the first half of the film is not very funny, and doesn't even seem like it's trying to be. It's clearly a comedy and it sustains a certain light tone alongside its pathos, but most of the time you feel too sorry for Lloyd to laugh at his humiliation. But he keeps on coming, and as the movie progresses and his pratfalls and triumphs escalate, the film becomes funnier. By the climactic football game, in which all the players are injured and Lloyd runs on field to take their place, one can be amused by Lloyd while rooting for him too. I especially enjoyed this development because, according to family lore, my father had almost the same exact thing happen to him in high school - too small to play as a freshman, he was put on the team as a pity gesture, but when sent to clean out an injured teammate's locker, he instead put on his uniform and rushed out onfield to practice. The perplexed coach let him continue and soon he was leading the team in tackles.

I offer this as a reminder that Lloyd, more than Keaton and Chaplin, connects to something in the average American psyche: our determination to succeed, an almost poignant reservoir of grit and determination, a belief that the underdog can become top dog if he works hard enough. Keaton is a survivor and Chaplin a poet and I'm not sure that in either case all-out triumph is what they are seeking. But the three do have something in common: they're all little guys, and they don't give up - whether advertently (Lloyd), somewhat inadvertently (Keaton), or completely inadvertently (Chaplin), all three play with the big boys, and make it through due to ingenuity, chutzpah, or both. I like this quality in the silent comedies, and I fear some of it has been lost today, in which "quirky" becomes a niche and the quiet outsider gets to recuse himself from tough competition or the hurly-burly of the male world. There's something immensely satisfying about seeing Lloyd win not an academic decathlon, but a football game, despite the absurdity of his size and the hodgepodge of his athletic instincts.

Anyway, the better of these two films is actually the later one, The Kid Brother. Taking place in the backwoods, Lloyd plays the runt of his litter, and here the "underdog-makes-good in a he-man world" theme is even more pronounced. Lloyd's father is a sheriff, and his two brothers burly woodsmen. Lloyd is the clever one - he finds ways to expedite chores that would normally be the province of his deceased mother - but he gets no respect from his family and is usually excused from the "men's business", be it fistfights or signing contracts. Yet he fools a medicine show girl (Jane Dillon again) into thinking he's the sheriff and even manages to woo her in the face of his brothers' blundering flirtations.

Ultimately, he has to redeem her name and that of his father's, by tracking down the man who stole some town funds. The climax of the film is a breathless sequence of fighting, hiding, and running, brilliantly executed on a ship in port. At one point two villains wrestle with each other while Lloyd tries to stay out of sight - he leaps behind a couch, which is overturned, jumps behind a bureau, which is knocked down, and hides under a blanket, which is eventually pulled away. Each step is executed flawlessly and the humor (and excitement) keeps building. Why a backwoods movie suddenly shifts its scenario to a floating wharf I couldn't say, but it certainly makes for some inspired comedy - including the still-more-random image of a cabin monkey traipsing about the deck in human shoes.

The Kid Brother is less driven by its premise than The Freshman (it relies for its energy on a series of random gags rather than the personality-driven antics of the earlier film) but at the same time it surrounds its character with more of a plot than The Freshman. Neither film is as tightly wound as a Keaton or Chaplin masterpiece but in some ways, the comparison is unfair. Lloyd is not a poor man's Buster or a poor man's Charlie, he is his own unique comic persona, one which resonates with the eternal, slightly sappy, inherently sympathetic, American optimist. Though filled with pathos, the films are not exactly sentimental - they're too optimistic for that as well. Perhaps the greatest symbol of this bursting optimism is a gag (if you can call it that; it's more of a visual treat) in The Kid Brother.

Lloyd watches his newfound love walk away into the meadow and as she disappears from sight, he hops into a nearby tree and climbs up a few branches. She slips back into view, further down the hill, and as she disappears again he continues to climb, higher and higher, the camera rising with him in an unbroken shot and the whole landscapes spreads before him. Yet his view remains locked on that girl down below, the object of his dreaming, and his cheerful ascension to the roof of the world is as simple as it is big. If that doesn't sum up the American Dream, what does?

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