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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HARRY LANGDON’S THE CHASER (1928)

The Chaser Lobby cardThe Chaser (1928) was  Harry Langdon‘s second directorial feature for First National studios. His third and final feature, Heart Trouble (1928) is considered lost. The few who did see Heart Trouble claimed that it could have restored Langdon to prominence. However, by then First National had written their star off, canceled his contract and punished his risk-taking by yanking Heart Trouble. In most likelihood the studio destroyed all the copies.

THE CHASER FIRST NATIONAL AD

In his review of Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde’s book “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon,” Leonard Maltin writes: “Harter and Hayde are so pro-Langdon that they feel it necessary to disparage Frank Capra [who directed Langdon’s first film] at every opportunity… the authors take heavy-handed swipes at Capra at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that Langdon’s features did take a nosedive after the collaborators parted company. I remember sitting with an audience stunned into silence as we watched Three’s A Crowd and The Chaser when Raymond Rohauer first presented them theatrically in 1971. They are painfully unfunny. There were other factors that worked against these late-silent features aside from Capra’s departure, but Langdon was not destined to succeed as his own producer, as this book explores in detail.” Continue reading

THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

Both  and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist.

The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The Cameraman primarily succeeds because Irving Thalberg succumbed to Keaton’s pleas for “some” improvisation (much to director Edward Sedgwick’s chagrin). Although it was a box office hit, this would be Keaton’s last film in which he had any artistic input. For the most part, The Cameraman began the new formula of strictly following badly written scripts. Furthermore, Keaton was never allowed to direct another feature.

Although Keaton did not take writing credit, Cameraman follows his “keep the narrative simple” style and builds to a kinetic finale. Buster plays a street photographer in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) trying desperately to win her by landing a job at the newspaper she works at.

Still from The Cameraman (1928)Keaton improvised two scenes, one of which has him playing baseball (by himself) at Yankee Stadium. It’s a brilliantly executed vignette. In the second Keaton undresses and dresses in a claustrophobic changing room shared with an oversized man.

However, it is the grand scale Tong War in Chinatown that burns the celluloid. Naturally, the stereotypes abound, but the sequence is so loaded and breathless that there is hardly time to notice. Keaton and a monkey sidekick (!) manage a daring escape. Naturally, the pretty girl winds up on our hero’s arm, even if she’s not much more than a mannequin. Still, The Cameraman is a near masterpiece, and it is the last Keaton film worth watching with one strange exception…

Buster Keaton from %22Film%22(1965)

Samuel Becket’s Film (1968) is a short, and that may be the sole reason for not seriously considering it a certified 366 Weird Movie status. By this time Keaton had been reduced to a second-rate Stooge by MGM. Various DVD collections of Keaton’s “Lost Years” seem to indicate a revisionist thought that hidden treasures lie within those sound shorts and Z-grade features. Although, on occasion, a slither of  the Keaton magic might shine through, for the most part they are a painfully embarrassing lot.

Samuel Beckett & Buster Keaton

Chaplin had offered Keaton a role in his Limelight (1952). Strangely, some still consider this Keaton’s comeback. Actually, in Limelight we see Chaplin’s saccharine meltdown in overdrive, and even though it has a few personal moments, the good parts are encased in much dreck, and Chaplin mercilessly takes Keaton down with him. WithLimelight, one tends to be thankful, for once, that Keaton was wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo for him.

%22Film%22 (1965) Buster Keaton

Instead, rescue came from the unlikely source of an Irish avant-garde playwright. Keaton didn’t see it that way, and neither did the late Andrew Sarris, who essentially dismissed Film as pretentious garbage. Taking nothing from ‘s brand of populist film criticism, Andrew Sarris, who died in 2012, is the greatest loss we have faced in the art of film criticism since the passing of Pauline Kael. Naturally, neither Sarris nor Kael is infallible. Indeed, in their authentic (and virtually extinct) reverence for film, both had a point, and both were off in their infamous back-and-forth row regarding the auteur theory. Another case in point of critical fallibility might be Sarris’ dismissive assessment of Film.

%22Film%22 (Samuel Beckett) Buster Keaton

Beckett had longed to work with , but Langdon died prematurely. When Beckett began considering casting Film (his only screenplay), his first choice for the role of “O” was Chaplin, but the star proved impossible to reach. Beckett’s next choice was Zero Mostel, who also did not work out. Despite being an admitted “Keaton fan” Beckett settled belatedly and reluctantly on the aging silent comedian (who only had two more roles after this before dying in 1966). Perhaps the reason behind Beckett’s reticence  to cast Keaton lies in the actor’s having turned down Beckett’s offer to appear in the 1956 Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot.” At that point, Keaton had been Beckett’s first choice, but after Keaton’s rejection, the role went to Bert Lahr instead. (An MP3 sound file of Lahr’s acclaimed performance is available. It is recommended with reservations. Although listening to the performance is a remarkable experience, it grates to me to recommend something as impersonal as an MP3 sound file. Of course, my reservation is completely subjective, due to having absorbed too much Jacques Ellul and living long enough to see that philosopher tragically become a prophet).

Still from Film (1965)

Keaton was as crabby in regards to Beckett and Film as I am to a superficial, hyper-capitalist 21st century, postmodern mass media: Beckett’s meeting with Keaton reportedly was a struggle. Considering that Beckett was the quintessential iconoclast and Keaton, at this point, was something of an icon, their tense relationship was, in retrospect, predictable. It was Beckett’s long time (and long-suffering) director Alan Schneider who eventually persuaded Keaton, along with a hefty salary for three weeks work. Unlike his experience at MGM, this time Keaton’s ambition to sign for financial reasons yielded something remarkable, even if the artist failed to realize it. Regardless, the casting of Keaton is something approaching ideal. Keaton’s weathered face poignantly suits the nonsensical pathos of Film. Keaton’s entire aged body, mostly shot from behind, sets the expressive, balletic narrative in ways far different than how he used his body in the silent era. Film serves, quite possibly, as a simple, yet delightfully startling tribute to Keaton’s mortality and his body of work.

%22Film%22 (Samuel Beckett 1965) Buster Keaton

The second main character in the film is the camera itself, named “E”: E and O, Eye and Object. Director Alan Schneider’s interview (he credits Beckett as Film‘s true director) and Simon Critchley’s essay cannot be bettered and should be considered essential reading.

 

PLAYHOUSE (1921) AND STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928)

These two Buster Keaton films, separated by seven years, represent the artist at his most hyperkinetic.

Playhouse (1921), co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, is a twenty-two minute short and one of Keaton’s most surreal efforts. The movie iris-ins on Keaton’s Opera House. It’s actually a vaudeville show, in which Keaton is the conductor, every member of the orchestra (dubbed Buster Keaton’s minstrels), a stagehand, and the entire audience. The crowd consists of the actor in three drag guises, a spoiled tyke, a befuddled husband, a lethargic old man, and (alas) Keaton in (mercifully brief) blackface. This is the sole area in which Keaton proved less progressive than rival , who, atypically for his time, was sensitive to racism and usually refused to resort to blackface.The surrealism here turns out to be a dream. Keaton’s bedroom, however, is merely a theatrical backdrop, adding yet another narrative layer. There is a delightful bit of business with a pair of twins, which confuses Keaton, inspiring a vow to lay off the sauce (this IS cinema. He made no such vow in real life). Again, the surrealistic elements serve Keaton’s narrative. A mirror transforms the twins into quadruplets, predictably causing more mayhem.

Keaton doubles as a trained monkey in an act. The simplistic simian face paint is brilliant; Keaton’s face perfectly structured for it. The scene of Buster-chimp going ape amidst the assembled patrons might serve as a reflection of Keaton’s own relationship with his audience. The audience is mystified, and eventually accepting, rather than idolatrous. Keaton does not seek the crowd’s adulation, nor does he have the audacity to portray them proclaiming their love for him, the way Charles Chaplin did in both The Circus (1928) and (more sickeningly) in Limelight (1952). Of course, both of these  iconic silent clowns had their virtues and faults, and comparisons are inevitably moot. Earlier, Keaton does not hesitate to engage in self-parody when he sides with the audience over the performer: “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” That self-parody also might serve as a dig at Keaton’s limelight-craving competitors.

Still from Playhouse (1921)Keaton also pays brief, unsentimental homage to Harry Houdini here, who had given him the nickname of “Buster”.

Although half the length of Sherlock Jr. (1924),Playhouse lacks the compactness and polished narrative of that later film. Still, it remains a tour de force, aided greatly by Elgin Lessley’s camerawork combined with Keaton’s boundless innovation.

Keaton also served as an uncredited co-director and writer in the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). This was Keaton’s last independent production. He looks considerably aged, with a touch of pathos, yet still elegant, romantic, and athletic. The film is understandably most remembered for the startling, stirring imagery of its third act. It begins with a reunion of a father (Steamboat Bill—Ernest Torrence) and son (Steamboat Bill Jr.—Keaton).

Buster Keaton Steamboat Bill jr
Sr. is a seafaring captain of towering machismo, and not sure what to make of his citified dandy of a son. He takes Jr. to a barber and attempts to get him a new hat (Jr rejects a series of hats, including his famous pork pie). Torrence’s portrayal of Sr. is an astute parody of blue-collar mores and traditions. In avoiding a maudlin relationship between father and son, Keaton’s handling seems remarkably fresh and less dated. So too it is with Jr’s romance with the daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s rival (Tom McGuire). While avoiding heart-on-sleeve propensities, Byron’s character is underdeveloped, serving primarily as decor. Thus, Jr’s intense attraction to her fails to register.

The fifteen-minute cyclone finale is an apex of silent cinema entertainment. The stunt work, cinematography (by Bert Haines and Dev Jennings) and set design are simply jaw dropping, regardless (or perhaps even because of) its age. Remarkably, much of the death-defying action is continuous and unbridled. Even more remarkably, Steamboat Bill Jr., like The General (1926), was a box office flop. Shortly afterwards, Keaton made a move to MGM and was coerced into relinquishing creative control of his films to a fascistic studio. His voice, already marred by drink, was unsuited to sound. Clearly an instinctual artist, Keaton was predictably unable to meet MGM’S mass commercial sensibilities, which accelerated his already rapid decline. Alcoholism, depression and institutionalization followed. Yet, courageously, Keaton rebounded, and it is his genius which has endured, while the studio stormtroopers faded into well-deserved oblivion

CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS: A FORMIDABLE GREEK MAIDEN BETWEEN TWO NORSE GODS

The Circus (1928-Chaplin)

‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS posterCHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS poster

Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin’s that was recognized for a “special” Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS (poster)CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS lobby card

The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin’s autobiography is interesting primarily as a career autobiography. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin’s sex life were exposed to the public. According to ‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.

Chaplin THE CIRCUS still

Often, assessment of Chaplin’s films include the biographical. A good example of this is Roger Ebert’s review of The CircusEbert takes the often-traveled road of comparing Chaplin to Buster Keaton:

Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there’s an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin’s untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.

Still from The Circus (1928)

The problem with Ebert’s assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin’s enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin’s post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin’s films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin’s art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS poster

To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton’s Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin’s Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin’s level. The Tramp’s poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin’s contemporaries, only  emerged with a comparable persona.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS lobby card.CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS poster

Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin’s celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people’s priest. Keaton’s character, while more intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything other than chaste.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS (lobby card)

That Keaton was the more original filmmaker cannot be denied. His sense of aesthetic exploration is a model for early cinema. However, Chaplin proved more cunning in his business dealings. He never lost control of his films the way Keaton naively did. (Before he fatally lost artistic control to MGM, Keaton etched a celluloid character who embodied an admirable sense of detachment without resorting to overt populism).

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS

The Circus finds Chaplin closest to Keaton territory, both in it’s organic, innovative composition and its existential arc. The Circus emerges as a flawed, unique work of art, with the bleakest ending of all Chaplin’s features. Desperation, contrasting with carnivalesque tinsel, evolves from the world of music hall pantomime and Max Linder, echoes Picasso’s canvases of harlequins, and prefigures Fellini.

Chaplin The Circus (1928)

The Circus iris-ins on Merna (Merna Kennedy), riding bareback, bursting through a large star. Her ringmaster father (Al Garcia) becomes enraged when she misses the hoop on a second attempt. This misstep elicits a thrashing and period of starvation. Merna’s act is followed by an ensemble of flabby, geriatric clowns. Al desperately needs a saving act.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS lobby card.CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS lobby card

Enter the Tramp, in an elaborate, virtuoso introduction. Starving, the Tramp is not above stealing food from a baby before he becomes the unwitting victim and pawn of a pickpocket. Wrongly accused, the Tramp runs for his life. He surrealistically mimics an animatronic prop in an amusement ride. Once discovered, he evades capture within a hall of mirrors (this scene surely influenced Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai). This delightfully elongated vignette takes Charlie to the circus stage where he unknowingly becomes the hit of the show. The film’s one conceit, which Chaplin could not resist, is in the audience crowning him as “the Funny Guy.”

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS poster

The Tramp is offered a job, as a prop man. The key to the Tramp’s comic success is that his act is unintentional. Al shrewdly keeps his new employee in the dark, which, for awhile, isn’t that hard to do. Charlie is the classic hobo, cooking his meager meal over an open fire, and sharing it with Merna, whom he is secretly in love with.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS lobby card

Naturally, several slapstick vignettes are in order. These involve the animal kingdom inhabitants of the circus. A jackass, a lion, a tiger, and monkeys on a high wire plague Charlie. While some of these bits are elaborately staged, none equal the freshness of the opening.

Chaplin The Circus lobby card

The Tramp discovers that he is the hit act, yet somehow this discovery does not dispel the performer’s magic. However, the object of his affection is in love with trapeze artist Rex (Harry Crocker). The film ends with the Tramp exactly where he started. He accepts his fate without self-pity. Like us, he can understand his rejection, and the iris closes him off to us. Chaplin apparently hoped that iris would forever swallow up what he considered to be a best-forgotten opus. However, Chaplin cannot be trusted here as an objective judge or interpreter of his own work, which stands as a formidable maiden.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN THE CIRCUS

PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well.  A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios.  His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit.  Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44.  Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often attached to him).  Where his career might have gone is almost impossible to assess.  Universal desperately wanted a follow up to their immensely successful version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and they thought they had it with Leni at the helm of Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.  Despite lavish production values and artistry, however, The Man Who Laughs was a disappointing box office failure, partly because it was released just as that new invention called “talkies” was taking hold.  Today, The Man Who Laughs is rightly seen as a landmark, influential film and vivid example of exported German Expressionism.

Still from The Man Who Laughs (1928)Set in 17th century England, Conrad Veidt (another Jewish German refugee) is Gwynplaine , the young son of a recently executed political revolutionary nobleman. Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies and, as punishment for sins of the father, he is forever maimed when his kidnappers carve a hideous grin into his face and abandon him to the elements of a violent snow storm.  In a scene worthy of D.W. Griffith’sWay Down East (1920), or William Beaudine’s grimSparrows (1926), the child Gwynplaine comes upon the corpse of a frozen mother cradling her still living, blind infant daughter, Dea.  Gwynplaine takes the babe in arms and finds sanctuary for them both.

Man Who Laughs

Years later, Gwynplaine is the freak star of a traveling sideshow.  The grown-up Dea (Mary Philbin of 1925′sPhantom of the Opera) is in love with Gwynplaine and is, incredibly, unaware of his deformity.  Eventually, Gwynplaine discovers his noble heritage and, now that the political tide has turned, he is tempted by rank and the possibility of a duchess for a wife in Olga Baclanova (of 1932′s Freaks).

If Veidt’s Gwynplaine seems eerily familiar to contemporary viewers, that may be because he was (reportedly) a considerable influence on The Joker as created by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson (although even the late Heath Ledger’s incarnation of the arch villain seems comparatively one-note when experiencing Veidt as the original role model). Like  (who was Veidt’s only real competition in the field), the actor willingly endured excruciating physical pain to realize his role.

Man Who Laughs Conrad Veidt

Veidt is supported by an excellent cast.  Philbin evokes a vivid pathos as the loyal Dea (that pathos may have been a genuinely latent quality, given that she was, like Jackie Coogan, a young star who was victimized by mercenary parents who milked her for all she was worth).  Baclanova is also superb as the bewitching and genuine temptress who is erotically fascinated with the freak.  She nearly leads Gwynplaine astray in a smoldering (for its time), emotionally complex, and fetishistic scene which could have made  smile.  Baclanova’s acting as the Duchess surpasses her later role for Browning in Freaks, and we can readily identify with Gwynplaine’s conflict of loyalty.

Like a true expressionist master, Leni utilizes multifarious compositions to convey human angst, pity, fear, torture, eroticism, and aspiration.  The film’s only real flaw is the studio-mandated happy ending, which does not entirely convince.  Amazingly, this was the only compromise made by Leni; otherwise, The Man Who Laughs may be the most genuinely authentic German Expressionist film made in the good old U.S.A.  It often seems like a melodramatic Rafael Sabatini tale filtered through an expressionist lens.  It is a psychologically interior film, simultaneously unsettling and mesmerizing.  The history of essential silent cinema cannot be discussed without its inclusion.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Directed by Paul Leni  
Shown: Conrad Veidt