HARRY LANGDON: ACTOR RETROSPECTIVE ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH

Harry Langdon (June 15, 1884 – December 22, 1944)

CAT'S MEOW HARRY LANGDONTHE SEA SQUAWK POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.

PICKING PEACHES POSTER HARRY LANGDON

Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.

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THE STRONG MAN (1926)

THE STRONG MAN (Dir Frank Capra) Harry Langdon

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.

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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.

THE STRONG MAN 1926 LOBBY CARD HARRY LANGDON

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. Continue reading

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (1926)

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. LANGDON & CRAWFORD

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian Harry Langdon‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.

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A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”

“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”

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Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (Joan Crawford). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”

“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”

Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count. Continue reading

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

Historians, film buffs, and Disney fanatics all cite Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the first animated feature. While it is the first animated feature as we Americans tend to think of animation, actually that “first” honor goes to a little known, innovative oddity from eleven years earlier. The Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926) is a labor of love from the pioneering female German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch.

What makes Achmed still unique 88 years later is animation entirely composed of cutout silhouettes. The result  was one of the silent era’s most enchanting and captivating films. It is also a lucid reminder that the medium of film was at its most innovative in its infancy, before the rules were set and the mediums defined.

Reiniger lucked into a patron for her artistic efforts: Louis Hagen supplied her with enough film stock and financing to proceed with her project. Using scissors and black construction paper as her primary tools, Reiniger spent three years meticulously working in an attic on Achmed with a small crew that included her husband/cinematographer, Koch.

Influenced in part by Georges Méliès and Arabian Nights, Reiniger created a world of sensuous, exquisitely detailed beauty. The film has an almost surprisingly coherent and linear narrative, given that Reiniger was embraced by the European avant-garde. Unfortunately, the director had difficulty booking Achmed, and with the exception of Dr. Doolittle And His Animals(1928), the rest of her career was relegated to short films. There was work on a third feature, to be based on Maurice Ravel’s enchanting opera, “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges”; unfortunately, rights to the music could not be secured and the film was abandoned. The Adventures Of Prince Achmed is the only one of Reiniger’s films to date that has seen a home video release. Some of her shorts occasionally appear on television, but often in truncated versions. One such example is Doolittle, which has aired with added (and intrusive) voice over narration, coupled with woefully inadequate projection speeds. Fortunately, YouTube has been more respectful. The Star of Bethlehem(1921)Cinderella (1922), The Adventures of Prince AchmedPapageno (from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”) (1935), The Magic Horse (1953), and Jack and The Beanstalk (1955) along with a short documentary of her work can all be found there. The documentary shows her storyboarding techniques and the almost rapid-fired speed at which she crafted her baroque figures.

Still from The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)There is a noticeable gap of activity in Reiniger’s filmography from 1938 to the early 1950s. With the rise of Fascism, Reiniger and Koch struggled to flee Germany. Although not Jewish, politically they leaned left, which marked them as subversives. Jean Renoir was among those who aided the couple, but they lived in abject poverty until finally being able to settle in England in 1949. Despite the initial financial failure of Achmed, Reiniger and Koch were respected in film circles and were able to be relatively prolific.

Achmed is of its time in its portrayal of the good guys as completely good, bad guys as completely bad, and the pretty girl as in need of saving (Reiniger’s later films frequently had biblical, Victorian, fairy tale, and operatic themes). Still, it’s put over so beautifully, even the most hardened cynics will hardly care. The color tinting renders the film a phantasmagoric smorgasbord of gemstones. Achmed is awash in emeralds, sapphires, rubies, garnets, aquamarines, amethyst, topaz, citrine, tanzanite, and fire opal.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed weaves interrelated narratives involving our protagonist, his princess sister, their Caliph father, an erotic heroine (who Achmed voyeuristically spies on while she is bathing), a flying horse, a malevolent shape shifting African magician, the Witch of the Fiery Mountain, dancing harlequins, sphinxes, terrifying demons, Aladdin, and the genie of the magic lamp. Locales include an exotic island, a majestic palace, Peru, and China.

Reiniger was  master of her medium and an innovator. Every step through her unique world is an enchanting one.

SPARROWS (1926)

MARY PICKFORD SPARROWS lobby

 defied all odds in becoming the defining cult figure in early cinema, despite the fact that her brief stardom was as an American actress in European films. Although Brooks lacked initial recognition, she  was far more contemporary and provocative than established stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.

MARY PICKFORD SPARROWS (swampland)

Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford was the female superstar of the silent era. She was huge box office, married the swashbuckling matinée idol Douglas Fairbanks (theirs was the first Hollywood celebrity wedding) and together they built their famous mansion PickFair. Astutely, Pickford learned the business of filmmaking: editing, cinematography, lighting and production. She was the first woman to form her own production company and, later, with Fairbanks and , she built the mega studio United Artists. She was one of the founders of  the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While politicos were battling over woman’s right to vote, Pickford’s voice was such an influential one that the Academy awarded her what was perhaps an undeserved Oscar for her first talking  performance in the wretchedCoquette (1929). Pickford and Fairbanks were Hollywood Royalty, wining and dining the famous from Albert Einstein to H.G. Welles. Alas, royalty has its price. Coquette flopped at the box office. With the advent of sound the public wanted new faces, and because of their “royalty” status, Pickford and Fairbanks were seen as the old establishment. Although Pickford had an exceptionally fine voice, her career, along with that of her husband’s, came to an end. Still, even in reclusive retirement, Mary Pickford was treated as a pioneering queen of Hollywood, receiving numerous accolades  and tributes while the outsider Louise Brooks went through winters of extreme poverty. Today, Mary Pickford is virtually forgotten and Brooks is remembered. There are plenty of reasons for this.

MARY PICKFORD SPARROWS (Beaudine)

Pickford’s virginal child persona dates her. The bulk of her films are heart-on-sleeve rudimentary melodramas, soaked in so much religiosity that they make saccharine contemporary fare like “7th Heaven” or “Highway to Heaven” look like cutting edge dramas. Pickford herself doubted the value of her films after she retired, and left instructions for her work to be destroyed. Thankfully, this wish was not carried out (although her films were kept out of circulation until the DVD age). Despite the Victorian halo, Pickford’s screen persona is a curiously bewitching one, due to its archaic, ethereal nature coupled with an irresistibly delicate feistiness. Her mastery of comedy and drama in the pantomime form, her finger on the pulse of Americana, and her thematic sympathy for the less affluent adds to her appeal.

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Sparrows (1926) was Pickford’s last role in her child persona. It’s also her most compelling film. The religiosity is there, but it is so audacious as to be startling. Amazingly, William Beaudine directed. Beaudine later became known as “One-Shot Beaudine” because of his penchant for shooting single takes in poverty row programmers. Although he was one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors, with over 400 films to his credit, the bulk of these were “penny dreadfuls.” For all the sympathy fans have for  suffering under an amateur Ed Wood, poor Bela was not a stranger to slumming it in One-Shot films like Ape Man (1943-Lugosi’s most embarrassing project), Ghosts on the Loose (1943), and Voodoo Man (1944).

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Beaudine’s presence makes Sparrows all the more surprising. Pickford and Beaudine had worked together previously in Little Annie Roonie (1925), which was an unremarkable box office hit (it had returned Pickford to her irascible waif persona after several failed attempts to play an adult). Sparrows was produced by Pickford, photographed by her favorite cinematographer Charles Rosher, and written by C. Gardner Sullivan (Hell’s HingesTumbleweedSadie ThompsonAll Quiet On the Western Front), all of which may explain the film’s being an exception to the general Beaudine rule. However, Sparrows would be Pickford and Beaudine’s final collaboration. The star vowed never to work with Beaudine again after his supposed bad treatment of the children in the cast. Beaudine vehemently denied Pickford’s allegations, claiming she fabricated them for the sake of publicity. Beaudine’s defense is backed by others’ recollections. More than likely, Pickford and Beaudine clashed over artistic control. Art Director Harry Oliver created the stylish swamp, which was merely a few acres on a backlot. Alligators, with wired jaws, were brought in for “dramatic effect.”

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In this Dickensian Gothic melodrama, Pickford plays Molly, the oldest of a group of orphans being used for slave labor on a potato farm. Despite being about twenty years too old for the part (!), Pickford pulls it off with plucky perfection. The potato farm is actually a baby farm, with Molly as the self-appointed mother of the brood. Every melodrama needs a good villain. Sparrows has a superb one in Gustav von Seyffertitz as the aptly named hunchbacked baby thief, Grimes. Seyffertitz was a favorite silent era villain and his portrayal here is saturated in mire. When his racket is threatened with exposure, Grimes has no qualms about “chucking them babies in the swamp.” News of Grimes’ plan reaches Molly. A chilling, breath-taking chase scene follows, which probably influenced Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Molly leads her charges through the bayou, facing gators and quicksand. There is an early casualty amongst the children and none other than Jesus Christ Himself appears to escort the poor lad’s corpse into heaven!

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Sparrows is a model of art direction. Every detail counts. It was hailed as a masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch (who called it one of the eight wonders of the world) and Chaplin (who typically hated Pickford’s films). The late (and much-missed) film historian William K. Everson loudly sang its praises. Everson was rarely off, and he wasn’t here either.

TOD BROWNING’S THE BLACKBIRD (1926)

Tod Browning The Blackbird 1926

The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney cannon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.  Being a public domain title it is, however, available at unique-dvd.com in a superb 10 disc set, “The Lost Films of Lon Chaney.”

Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

Tod Browning The Blackbird MGM

 

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