Screens

Down at the Farm, in L.A.

Jobyna Ralston was the warm, spunky leading lady who inspired Harold Lloyd to unforgettable classic romantic gags, especially when she played a traveling show dancer and he played a sheriff’s son in his masterpiece “The Kid Brother.”
Jobyna Ralston was the warm, spunky leading lady who inspired Harold Lloyd to unforgettable classic romantic gags, especially when she played a traveling show dancer and he played a sheriff’s son in his masterpiece “The Kid Brother.”
Harold Lloyd creates a buoyant rural fantasyland in the 1927 silent film, "The Kid Brother," and Charles Burnett reveals the Deep South in South L.A. in 1990's "To Sleep With Anger." Both films are recent releases on DVD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection, reviewed here by critic Michael Sragow.

Los Angeles entered the American imagination as an agricultural boom town. In the 1880s, railroad lines dangled promises that in the thriving Southern California Citrus Belt, just 10 or 15 miles from downtown, 60 or 70 lemon trees on a half-acre of land could make a family’s fortune. Some new Californians ventured into logging or, a decade later, oil, or 25 years after that, the movies. No city better fit Horace Greeley’s proclamation, “Go West, young man, go West, and grow up with the country!” No entertainer showcased SoCal-style success or the area’s urban and rural glories more brilliantly than Nebraska-born transplant Harold Lloyd.

In 1917, this silent-comedy genius, already a star at the Hal Roach Studios, donned a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and created the persona called “The Glass Character.” This over-eager and insecure, yet inventive and irrepressible fellow became the best-loved silver-screen mascot for American optimism and drive. “The Kid Brother” (1927), due out this spring from Criterion, is his masterpiece. It sums up the Glass Character’s appeal as an over-achieving underdog while creating a rural fantasyland — Hickoryville — from bits and pieces of Los Angeles and Orange counties and a sliver of Catalina Island. (Criterion’s characteristically rich supplements include rare behind-the-scenes stills and location shots and a conversation between film historian Cari Beauchamp and Harold’s granddaughter Suzanne about his leading ladies.)

Lloyd plays Harold Hickory, odd boy out in his family. He’s mild and stringy compared to his domineering sheriff father and two aggressive, hefty older brothers, who work as loggers on their sprawling, hilly spread. The sheriff has banned medicine shows, but when Harold is mistaken for his dad, he lets one in. The Rube Goldberg plot involves the incineration of the travelers’ stage and the theft of money the sheriff has collected to fund a dam. The sheriff commands his two burly sons to find the culprits who stole the cash and thus save his name. In a stinging rebuke, his dad tells Harold, “Son, you might get hurt. It’s a man’s job.” 

We root for Harold to prove that he’s a functioning adult ready to start his own family. We see what everyone else is too busy or self-involved to notice: He’s a big-hearted prodigy of invention. He keeps the household running by semi-automating his chores. He pounds the laundry in a butter churn, then sends it through the ringer on a clothesline attached to a flying kite, so everything should come out airy fresh.

The sole person who believes in him is the medicine show’s owner-dancer (Jobyna Ralston). After they meet by chance in the woods, and he protects her from a potential rapist, Harold leaps onto a tree so he can see her as she walks down a hill. He screams out basic questions — “What’s your name?” “Where do you live?” — as he scrambles up to dizzying heights. The camera, mounted on an elevator platform, tracks with him vertically from branch to branch. It’s ecstatic moviemaking blessed with thrilling straight-ahead poetry: Her love keeps taking him higher.

The Glass Character’s desperation to achieve normalcy and join a community is what makes him a refreshing hero for today, when Americans can’t agree on the meaning of normalcy or community. Lloyd’s “average” looks are ultra-expressive: His round frames magnify the youthful yearnings and delights we all share with him. Watch it with a group, and “The Kid Brother” is sure to restore the now-uncommon pleasure of experiencing common feelings.

As a Deep South trickster, Danny Glover (right) develops a marvelous yet destructive rapport with Paul Butler, as a South L.A. retiree, in “To Sleep with Anger.”
As a Deep South trickster, Danny Glover (right) develops a marvelous yet destructive rapport with Paul Butler, as a South L.A. retiree, in “To Sleep with Anger.”

Charles Burnett’s bewitching comedy-drama “To Sleep with Anger” (1990), slated for release from Criterion early this year, captures a deep strain of rural black culture in the Sugar Hill section of South Los Angeles. Born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1947, Burnett moved to Watts three years later as part of the African-American migration from Jim Crow Dixie. In this homespun peak of magical realism, he conjures a turbulent vision of gnarly Southern roots tearing through a cozy Craftsman bungalow as hard rain falls from a leaky roof.   

The catalyst is Harry (Danny Glover), a deceptively courteous and seductive trickster. Traveling by bus from Detroit to Oakland, he makes an unscheduled rest stop at the home of two Southern friends: Gideon (Paul Butler), who worked with him 30 years earlier, and Susie (Mary Alice), Gideon’s wife, a Lamaze teacher and midwife. (Susie tends the backyard vegetable garden; Gideon minds their chickens.)

With black magic or killer instincts, Harry, a natural born troublemaker, disturbs the fault lines that run beneath Gideon’s clan. Elder son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and Junior’s pregnant wife, Pat (Vonetta McGee), value labor, charity and old-time religion. Son No. 2, “Babe Brother” (Richard Brooks), a loan officer for a bank, and his wife, Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a realtor, neglect home for career and turn Gideon and Susie (and Junior and Pat’s teenage daughter) into 24-hour babysitters for their 5-year-old son. When Gideon falls ill, Babe Brother dives head-first into Harry’s hedonistic lifestyle, which alienates Linda and leads to a clash with Junior that bloodies even sweet, peacekeeping Susie.

Richard Brooks embodies the rise of the “buppie,” to the concern of his mother (Mary Alice), who believes in family and old-time religion.
Richard Brooks embodies the rise of the “buppie,” to the concern of his mother (Mary Alice), who believes in family and old-time religion.

With the aid of cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s mood-swinging lighting, Burnett creates a natural yet surreal atmosphere. Gideon dreams about flames spurting from a fruit bowl and from his dress-white loafers, then up his dapper-Dan white suit, while Sister Rosetta Tharpe sings “Precious Memories” on the soundtrack. Gideon has struggled to hang onto the folkloric and Christian rituals his parents handed down to him: They give his life shape and dimension. Both he and Harry worry about misplacing a protective charm, or “toby.” As Harry says, “You don’t want to be at a crossroads without one.” (Known worldwide for its premium-quality, “director-approved” editions, Criterion will release the movie in a sparkling restoration, plus new interviews with Burnett and Glover.)

Glover has never been more fascinating or assured. His formal patter fills Susie and Gideon with nostalgia for abandoned social graces. But Glover can also slap some grunge over Harry’s glossy charm. In a bizarre territorial moment, Harry chooses to clip his toenails on the living room floor.

Charles Burnett, a great independent filmmaker, has chronicled L.A.’s African-American culture for 40 years.TIMOTHY HIATT/GETTY IMAGES
Charles Burnett, a great independent filmmaker, has chronicled L.A.’s African-American culture for 40 years.

Harry tells a former juke joint gal, now a devout Christian, that he has no enemies, not even her, “because I don’t live in the past. That’s Pushkin, you don’t know him. ‘In the hope of glory and good, I look without fear ahead.’” But as Faulkner, one of Burnett’s favorite writers, famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” From Harry’s bad example, Gideon, Susie and their sons learn what to salvage and what to jettison from the far away and long ago. Their seriocomic crucible creates precious memories to fill our souls.

Michael Sragow, an online movie critic for Film Comment, is the author of “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master.”

“THE KID BROTHER”

• Directed by Lewis Milestone, Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe
• Starring Harold Lloyd
• 82 minutes
• Release: By Spring 2019
• DVD and Blu-ray: The Criterion Collection

“TO SLEEP WITH ANGER”

• Directed by Charles Burnett
• Starring Danny Glover
• 102 Minutes
• Release: By Spring 2019
• DVD and Blu-ray: The Criterion Collection

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“The Candidate,” Michael Ritchie (1972): Filmed in documentary style, this bracing political satire provides a caustic snapshot of the Golden State in the Vietnam-Watergate era.

“L.A. Confidential,” Curtis Hanson (1997): A dynamite crime epic, it spruces up Hollywood landmarks like the Crossroads of the World on Sunset Boulevard to evoke the corrupt yet glittering L.A. of the 1950s.

“Ask the Dust,” Robert Towne (2006): South Africa persuasively stands in for Depression-era Bunker Hill and Long Beach in this wrenching, bleak romance between an insecure writer and a passionate waitress.