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

Continue reading

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.

HARRY LANGDON %22THE STRONG MAN%22

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.

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP FIRST NATIONAL AD

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?”

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP LANGDON POSTER

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

LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION

THE CAT'S MEOW 1924 HARRY LANGDONCAT'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

It is easy to see why he appealed so readily to the Surrealists. His persona is dreamlike, subconscious, otherworldly. Langdon’s man-child seems an elfin id. Silence and make-up were existential turpentine for Langdon, removing him, layer-by-layer, from the world as we know it. Continue reading

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

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.