For 1920s audiences, The Strong Man (1926) showed the quintessential appeal of Harry Langdon‘s idiosyncratic child-man persona. It is easy to see why. Langdon was radically different than the hyperkinetic antics associated with high profile silent clowns such as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Today, he is considered the “Forgotten Clown.” This is partially because Langdon died prior to 1950′s revival of interest in silent comedians. Another reason is his later ventures into blacker arenas: Long Pants (1927) and Three’s A Crowd (1927) which made (and still make) audiences uncomfortable. Still, Langdon’s risky choices were defensible. With sound around the corner, his stardom would most certainly have been short-lived anyway.
Frank Capra, in his directorial debut, invests his signature stylized charm onto Strong Man. It begins with cannon fire. Paul (Langdon) is a soldier on the WWI war front. Needless to say, he is an atypical soldier. He can’t even knock over a tin can with a machine gun. But, put a slingshot in his hand and he can make the big guy cry (yes, David and Goliath references abound). He gets letters from his penpal, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), who swears love to her long distance Belgian soldier.
After the war, Paul is employed by the German Strong Man, Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). As they enter several American cities, Paul looks for the elusive “Mary Brown.” He thinks he has found her in a gold digging pickpocket (Gertrude Astory). This “Mary Brown” is actually “Lily of Broadway.” When she tries to retrieve a stolen wad of cash, stashed in Paul’s jacket pocket, it foreshadows several Stan Laurel scenes to come in which a child-man resists being undressed by an aggressive female.
When Paul finds the real Mary Brown, he discovers she is a blind, saintly preacher’s daughter in a modern day Dodge City. Paul is no Errol Flynn version of Wyatt Earp. Instead, he dons the Strong Man persona and entertains the rowdy crowd.
Meanwhile, Mary’s pappy is playing the part of Joshua and soon, the walls of Jericho come a tumbling down, the movie ending just as it began: in cannon fire. The Strong Man is an episodic film with a second half loaded with saccharine. The real climax of the film is in the interaction between Paul and Lily.
Capra clearly preferred the Langdon persona to be innocent. Langdon’s child man was the only one of the major silent clowns who actually sported face powder. That, combined with chipmunk cheeks, sleepy eyes emerging from the face of a pear, ill-fitting clothes, and a toddler’s gait supported Capra’s vision of the character. It was putting that character in an awkward, pre-code erotic situation, however, that gave impetus to the film. In this vignette, director and actor work together beautifully. An endless staircase, an imagined rape, and a shocking eyeful of a nude model sends Paul exit, stage left.
After this, the film often succumbs to a children’s book version of Biblical storytelling. Still, we do see the Capra touch in its genesis. Likewise, we witness the flowering of Langdon’s big risk. Buster Keaton took a similar risk with a film; not quite as edgy, but his loss was almost as dramatic, resulting in his contract being sold to MGM. MGM, seeing the “failure” of The General (1926), denied Keaton future creative control.
Of course, time declared Keaton the victor. Langdon also, seems to have exerted considerable influence, especially for someone still tagged with that underground, “forgotten” moniker.