Learning the Ropes
This is my contribution to the 1927 Blog-A-Thon over at goatdogblog. Check out the hub for some good reading on that most important year in film history.
The most important image in The Kid Brother is unlikely to get much notice from most people. It's a simple action. Almost an afterthought, really. When Harold Hickory (Harold Lloyd) first climbs aboard the ship where the thieves have taken their stolen money, he grabs for a hanging rope. Of course, the rope isn't attached to anything, and Harold falls flat on his back. The careful observer might be reminded of another character named Harold grabbing a rope that isn't attached to anything. Of course, this other Harold hung from a clock face, so nobody remembers the rope. But this isn't even what makes this image so important.
This action draws direct attention to the use of ropes in the film. Ropes are a recurring image in The Kid Brother, from Harold hanging the laundry up to dry to the lynch mob going to hang Harold's father, Jim (Walter James). Every time Harold uses a rope, it fails. Every time someone else uses a rope, it holds strong. Look at the opening sequence. Harold hangs his laundry to dry by tying one end of the rope to a kite. This being a silent comedy, the rope comes undone, leading Harold to go chasing after his clothing. Compare this to Hank Hooper (Ralph Yearsley), Harold's rival. Hank is also seen hanging his laundry to dry, but he doesn't need to go chasing after it. Hank's rope doesn't falter, placing him in a more dominating position in their relationship. Harold needs the protection of his brothers to avoid being beaten by Hank.
When Harold finally captures Sandoni (Constantine Romanoff), he ties him up. Unfortunately for Harold, he knot fails, and Sandoni continues the back-and-forth chase. It isn't until Harold contains Sandoni in a pile of life preservers that Sandoni can be returned to the law without threat. Harold's ropes don't work. This should probably be taken as Harold's lack of maturity. He hasn't found his place in the world, and this is reflected by his physical failures. Nevertheless, Harold makes up for it with his craft and ingenuity. Unfortunately, these attributes are not held in high regard in Harold's world. It is only through capturing Sandoni and returning the money that Harold can be a man.
Harold's maturity is shown in two different ways. First, the final shot of the movie shows Harold fighting Hank and emerging victorious. However, the ropes provide the proper context for the second way. At this point, the townsfolk have accused Harold's father of stealing the money, and they plan to lynch him. Harold saves his father's life just as the mob is marching him to a death by hanging. Suddenly the rope, shown prominently in the mob's hands as they march, is useless. All the trouble that Harold had earlier in the film is nothing. Everyone is in the same state that he once was, so he can be accepted into the community.
Harold Lloyd has trouble with ropes. At any point before the end of his movies, they fail him. They're a symbol for his weakness, but they usually come back to save him at a key time, as in Safety Last!. The Kid Brother offers an alternative to the usual tactics. Instead of the rope becoming a symbol of his power, the noose in the mob's hands become a symbol of their weakness. In this reversal, Lloyd points the finger at us, the unthinking mob. Maybe we could all use a little weakness every now and then.