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.

HIS NEW MAMMA POSTER HARRY LANGDON

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NO MAN’S LAW (1927)

No Man's Law (1927) lobby card

No Man’s Law is about as odd and obscure as it gets. Produced by Hal Roach, it stars Rex, King of the Wild Horses, Oliver Hardy (as a vile villain), James Finlayson,and Barbara Kent. Directed by some guy named Fred Jackman.

No Man's Law (1927) Oliver Hardy

Oliver Hardy is one-eyed, grizzled, no good fugitive cuss Sharkey Nye, prospecting for gold with good guy partner Spider O’ Day, played by Theodore Von Eltz.  James Finlayson, of many Laurel & Hardy shorts, has cute Barbara Kent for a daughter and he is prospecting too but he’s not very good at it.  Rex, the horse, surveying his territory, does not take a liking to Ollie.  When Ollie gets a wee bit too close to a skinny-dipping Barbara, Rex steps in, chasing off Ollie.

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PAUL LENI’S CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

In 1927 Universal Studios chose their new emigree star director Paul Leni to turn John Willard’s hit stage play, The Cat and the Canary, into a work of German Expressionist art.  Carl Laemmle was clearly envious of the types of films being produced in Europe and Leni had proven himself with the critical success of Waxworks (1924).

cat and canary poster

The Cat and the Canary is a compact (not a shot is wasted) standout in the “old dark house” genre.  Who needs dialogue when the visual story telling is so richly expressed? Leni’s style certainly was a profound influence on both the Universal films to follow, and on  in particular, whose Old Dark House (1932) virtually lifted Leni’s shots of shrouded corridors and expansive, ominous windows.  Whale may have learned how to frame a composition by absorbing Leni.  Leni’s lighting, camera angles and set design mirror the emotional state of the actors to remarkably vivid effect.

Cyrus West is likened to the canary (think Tweety Bird) and his greedy relatives are the circling cats (think Sylvester), hungering for his fortune.  So incensed is the dying Cyrus that he dictates that his will be read twenty years after his death.  When it comes to money, relatives can wait.  They all show up on the twentieth anniversary of Cyrus’ passing.

Still from The Cat and the Canary (1927)To contemporary viewers, the relatives are a gang of archetypes: the bitchy, greedy matriarch Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), the sexy cousin Cecily (Gertrude Astor), the Harold Lloyd-like Paul (Creighton Hale), a seemingly insane, red-herring psychiatrist (Lucien Littlefield), death-warmed-over in the form of Mr. Crosby (Tully Marshall), and the virginal Annabel (Laura La Plante, who Whale later used in 1929′sShow Boat).  The gang is ushered in to the reading by a mysterious, somber servant named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox).  The actors are a hoot, one and all, and superbly directed. Of course, there is a romance, but it is subtle and, in a rare example of silent cinema, not embarrassing to watch.

Cat and the Canary

Dead bodies emerging from hidden panels, disappearing bodies, a lycanthropic hand snatching diamonds from the virgin’s neck, a cowering geek hiding under the bed and taking a peek at Cecily’s legs, a conniving aunt, and a villain (with a fake eye and saber tooth) who seems the role model for every Scooby Doo cartoon ever made all add up to something we have seen copied to death (pun intended) countless times since.  Leni’s imaginative style, however, takes precedence here.  Leni even has a good time playing with an intertitle (the film impressively keeps intertitles to a bare minimum).  The “Gosh, what a spooky house!” text shakes and shimmers as if it too is scared from being stuck in such a scary place!

Cat and the Canary (Leni)

The Cat and The Canary is played for laughs and it’s not surprising that Hollywood re-made it twice, first starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in 1939 and, again in 1978 (the latter had an interesting all-star, if eccentric, cast directed by cult nasty fav Radly Metzger).  Both remakes are pleasant enough diversions, but Willard’s play becomes something unique and influential only in the hands of this German Expressionist artist. Leni’s original is finally getting its due and is part of Kino’s valuable American Silent Horror Collection (buy).

NO MAN’S LAW (1927)

No Man’s Law is about as odd and obscure as it gets. Produced by Hal Roach, it stars Rex, King of the Wild Horses, Oliver Hardy (as a vile villain), James Finlayson,and Barbara Kent. Directed by some guy named Fred Jackman.

Oliver Hardy is one-eyed, grizzled, no good fugitive cuss Sharkey Nye, prospecting for gold with good guy partner Spider O’ Day, played by Theodore Von Eltz.  James Finlayson, of many Laurel & Hardy shorts, has cute Barbara Kent for a daughter and he is prospecting too but he’s not very good at it.  Rex, the horse, surveying his territory, does not take a liking to Ollie.  When Ollie gets a wee bit too close to a skinny-dipping Barbara, Rex steps in, chasing off Ollie.

Rex knows trouble is afoot and Ollie proves Rex right by plotting to kill Finlayson.  It’s murderous slapstick business as Ollie tries first to kill Finlayson, then tries to rape Barbara repeatedly, then kill Theodore.  Every time, Rex steps in just in time to save the day, finally in time to kill off Ollie.

That’s about all there is to the plot, and No Man’s Law would not be remarkable at all if it weren’t for Roach’s trademark slapstick style being channeled into Oliver Hardy attempting to kill and rape his co-stars.  Top-billed Rex is barely in it, showing up only when necessary.  Kent is certainly doing her best Mabel Normand.  For once, Finlayson has a  somewhat sympathetic part, and Ollie gets no sympathy whatsoever.

The slapstick business comes when Ollie tries to kill Finlayson by causing a cave-in at a mine and then by pushing him off a cliff.  More slapstick follows when Ollie gets into a fight with Eltz, plays cards with him (while Finlayson crawls under the table in his PJs), fights him again over a gun, shoots him (just a wound), and chases Barbara around the house trying to rape her.  It all wraps up nicely when then Ollie is in in hot flight from the rampaging Rex, who finally kills him.  All is supposedly good. but after seeing sweet childhood hero Ollie slime it up for an hour, I just wanted to go take a shower.

Weird.  Take this one to your next party.

 

LONG PANTS (1927)

Long Pants is the film in which that annoying breed known as “slapstick lovers” start their bitching crusade against the “weird” Harry LangdonLong Pants is also the film that the collaboration between Langdon and Frank Capra came to a crashing halt, due to aesthetic differences which involved the development of Langdon’s character. Langdon and writer Arthur Ripley wanted to take the character into darker territory. Capra vehemently objected and was fired by Langdon, with Langdon anonymously finishing up directorial duties.

Slapstick, as an art form, dates badly and frequently induces more groans than laughs today.Chaplin‘s more ambitious efforts, with (balanced) pathos and dramatic story, telling are of far more interest than his earlier straight-up slapstick efforts for Sennett. Keaton‘s inventiveness and occasional forays into surrealism hold up as his best work and can, up to a point, prove fuel for those arguing for his superiority. Seen today, Langdon was right in his endeavor to make his on-screen characterization darker, more idiosyncratic, more unique, even if naive critics whine that Langdon simply “ceased to be funny” and just “got weird.” It is Langdon’s weirdness that set him apart from the beginning and, while I would probably not, overall, place him in the ranks of a Chaplin or Keaton, I would argue that Langdon etched an influential persona that secures his position as one of the great silent clowns and defies the “forgotten” label often attached to him.

Long Pants

Contemporary audiences, unable to relate to 1927 mores and customs, will certainly find the initial premise of Long Pants unintentionally bizarre in itself. Harry’s father (Alan Roscoe) feels it is time for his boy to grow up and buys him his first pair of long pants, initiating Harry into manhood. Harry’s mother (Gladys Brockwell) is very weepy eyed over the prospect, feeling her little Harry is far too young for long pants and wearing them will only bring trouble. She is correct, as Harry is, psychologically, still a boy. Once Harry loses his short pants (and stockings—an amusingly ‘creepy’ image) and then dons his long pants, he spies a beautiful, exotic woman in a broken down car outside. Mother’s predicted “big trouble” begins its course.

Actually, this is a bad boy habit already formed in Harry, even before his initiation into long pants status, which mama must have sensed. In the opening scene, Harry is lustfully looking at girls from his attic window.
Still from Long Pants (1927)
Harry jumps on his bicycle to get a closer look at this woman in the car, who is in fact the wanted criminal Bebe Blair (Alma Bennett). Bebe is temporarily stranded due to a flat tire. Her chauffeur is fixing the problem when Harry arrives. Unknown to Harry, Bebe is smuggling nose powder for her criminal boyfriend. Harry wheels around Bebe’s car, showing off his newly acquired long pants along with his considerable bike riding skills. Bebe is equally annoyed and amused by this man-child stranger. She gives Harry a kiss in an effort to get rid of him, but, of course, Bebe’s wet lips have the opposite effect on poor Harry. Bebe vamps him and he is now convinced that he must marry Bebe.

Long Pants 1927

Harry’s mother and father have different plans. They want Harry to marry Priscilla (Priscilla Bonner, who starred with Langdon in Capra’s popular Strong Man from the previous year). Indeed, Priscilla is the type of gal to bring home to mama; the only problem is, compared to Bebe, Priscilla seems to be a bit dull. Priscilla and Harry’s parents are insistent on the wedding taking place despite Harry’s new-found infatuation for Bebe. When Harry finds out that his “true love” Bebe has been caught and imprisoned, Harry decides the only thing left to do is kill Priscilla. Here, Langdon foreshadows dark hued man-child types such as Steve Martin (when he counted) and Pee Wee Herman (Stan Laurel, often compared to Langdon, was simply a neutered version). Watching little Harry fantasize about murdering his bride in the woods on their wedding day can be as disconcerting as amorous little boy Pee Wee looking up girls’ skirts with a mirror tied to his shoe.

It is the contrasted imagery and characterization that is disturbing and hilarious. Harry’s screen persona went further into the dark side with the 1928 film, The Chaser, directed by Langdon (in that film, Harry’s man-child could be seen attempting suicide in drag).

Of course, nothing turns out as Harry hopes, but all still ends happily ever after for the Boy. Despite the happy conclusion, Long Pants ranks as one of the most authentically strange comedies of early cinema. In less than a year, Langdon would go several steps further, lose the up-beat ending, and propel his character into a total loser, Charlie Brown-type territory. Consequently, he would lose his too-easily shocked audience as well. Langdon was certainly ahead of his time and lost everything in his battle for individuality. However, the passage of time indicates little Harry won his standout war after all. He remains unique.

Long Pants poster

HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

Approaching Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd is a loaded task. This film, possibly more than other from silent cinema, comes with an almost legendary amount of vehemently negative appendage. One time collaborator Frank Capra played the self-serving spin doctor in film history’s assessment of Langdon and this film. He characterized Langdon’s directorial debut as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster.

That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism.

Langdon Three's  A Crowd

The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.

Capra’s statements are frequently suspect. As superb a craftsman as Frank Capra was, he also made amazingly asinine, disparaging remarks regarding European film’s penchant for treating the medium as an art form as opposed to populist entertainment. So, likewise, Capra’s inability to fully grasp Langdon’s desired aesthetic goals and intentions is both understandable and predictable. Samuel Beckett and James Agee are considerably far more trustworthy and reliable in regards to the artistry of Harry Langdon.

Three's  A Crowd

Capra credited himself for developing Langdon’s character through several shorts, along with the features Strongmanand Long Pants. Actually, Langdon had thrived as a vaudeville act for twenty years and had appeared in over a dozen shorts before he and Capra began their brief, ill-fated collaboration.

Aesthetically, Langdon was Capra’s antithesis and the surprise is not that the two artists would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.

Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged and it’s existence is almost a miracle.

Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly,static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.

The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura.  A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost as if a still photograph. Harry sits up in bed, half asleep,a long stillness envelops the scene. The street outside is now bustling with activity. Back inside the apartment, Harry still sits in that state between sleeping and waking. The alarm clock continues to vibrate. This establishes the character as one who is apart from the world around him. His face barely registers at all and only the slightest of gestures even indicates Harry is actually alive. An eyebrow is arched, the corner of his mouth oh so slowly curls upward.

Harry’s boss, Arthur Thalasso, is outside, yelling, trying to wake his tardy employee. Soon, Thalasso’s family is introduced, then poetically contrasted, with Harry’s solitary existence and all consuming loneliness.

Harry discovers a beaten up rag doll; a metaphoric symbol for the sense of family which cruelly evades him.

Capra described the development of the Langdon persona as an innocent,who triumphs because he is protected by God.  Langdon takes away the divine safety net and took great risk in re-casting his character as a sort of dark-hued, sexually repressed, perennial loser Charlie Brown, alternately attractive to and rejected by women. Despite doing everything right and having the most noble of intentions, this Voltaire-worthy Harry completely fails, and idea is the Divine has a sadistic last laugh at his pathetic creation’s futile attempts.

Langdon

In addition to inanimate objects (the rag doll), Langdon uses nature’s animals and references to animals to metaphorically compound the salt rubbed into the wounds of his much put upon character. A pigeon brings an anonymous love letter to Thalasso’s wife. Thalasso is convinced it comes from Langdon and a chase ensues.  Later, when Langdon discovers a nearly dead half-frozen girl, who he believes to the woman of his dreams, he deduces she is pregnant and ready to deliver. He looks up at her, lying in the safety of his bed, then at the booties in her blanket, then back up at the woman, then at the booties again. His face is still frozen, much as she was frozen, for what seems like the longest moment, as he is methodically taking it all in. Finally, he registers a slight twitch and drops the spoonful of medicine he is about to give her. He flees his apartment, down the long, warped stairway that is shown repeatedly throughout the film. He opens a window and yells inside, “Help, Storks!” An army of women and doctors swarm his apartment, keeping him outside, standing so alone, unsure what to do next.

He has a toy rifle, a drum set, various toys, all for this miracle gift of a holy child, but stands there for half an eternity in complete confusion and bewilderment.

Like Saul consulting the soothsayer, Harry consults a palm reader, to assure him this is all going to turn out all right, that the woman’s husband will not return to claim the wife and child who are, for the moment, Harry’s dream of a family finally personified.

However, like Saul, Harry is at the mercy of God’s humor and, indeed, the husband does indeed return to claim what is his. A surreal dream, a boxing match between Langdon and the husband refereed by Thalasso is only witnessed by the prized woman and child, encased in an opaque, blackened world. Harry wears an over-sized boxing glove, looks at this dream family with the slightest of smiles, points to his glove, then to the husband, slow blinks as the husband strikes a highly theatrical battle pose and…

…Naturally, Harry loses and his dream family is taken away. When the woman of his dreams embraces her husband, Harry looks ups at them, in complete silence, looks at his palm, reminded of the oh so cruel, oh so wrong prediction, then back at this real family, utterly helpless.

Harry returns to the palm reading shop. He raises the brick in his hand to smash the windows, thinks better of it, raises his hand again, decides not to after all and discards the brick, only to see it fly into a wine barrel, which goes crashing into the shop window. Harry retreats up the long winding stairway to disappear into the safety of his lonely home, his dreams as smashed as that window.

The bleakness of Three’s a Crowd is worthy of Beckett, rivals the best of Chaplin, and stands apart as THE unjustly maligned, hopelessly misunderstood, dark horse masterpiece of silent cinema. Fans of silent comedy have often expressed disappointment in this film, citing that it is simply not funny. Similarly, Tom Hanks fans initially resisted his venturing past the expected comedies. Three’s a Crowd defies genre. It is not a comedy, but the purest expression of Langdon’s standout art,which refuses to be pigeonholed. Langdon got his start in film at a much later age than his contemporaries and he always seemed the antithesis of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd; so his evolution into something even starker, less definable, was the most predictable outcome of Langdon’s career, and then only in retrospect.  It is unfortunate that Langdon was not permitted to develop his art and character, but it’s almost a miracle he was allowed to in the first place and this resulting film is his testament. Many of his earlier films for Mack Sennett, while uniquely different, still seem very much expressions of their time, as do the Capra films, but Three’s a Crowd went further and, consequently, stands out and alone as an original, modernist misfit work. It’s, and Langdon’s, time has come.

TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW 1927

Tod Browning The Show John Gilbert

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent  Tod
Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It
is (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of
Souls.” Originally titled “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the
most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema, nearly on par with the
director’s The Unknown from the same year.

Tod Browning The Show poster

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TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

Tod Browning LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT poster lost film

London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.  Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate.  For Mayer, film was strictly profitable,  escapist fare to corn feed an increasingly dumb down audiences.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world.  Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von  Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim).  However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality.  Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit.  He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.

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