Another Vote For Harry Langdon --- Part One
What lures us back to great comedies is probably not the laughs. We had those the first dozen times seeing Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and the rest go through paces now committed to memory. Umpteenth viewings of The General, Safety Last, or Modern Times come down for many to personal nostalgia of having made initial acquaintance at revival houses and/or college auditoriums. I’m past trying to win converts to comedians I revere, as thanks to DVD, I’m still discovering a lot more of them myself. Those young and sufficiently curious have it lots easier. They can turn on TCM and there’s whole days and nights of Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin, a concept bordering on science-fiction back when seeing two-reels of Big Business and Easy Street meant scrounging weeks to come up with twelve dollars to get them from Blackhawk in 8mm. So-called lesser lights in their catalog included Snub Pollard, Ben Turpin, and that most singular of oddballs, Harry Langdon. Mention the name to civilians today and they’ll figure him for someone recently moved in down the street or a new member of your bowling team. To assert Langdon’s place beside the Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd triumvirate is to invite disbelief if not scorn. Many of those appreciative of silent comedy remain dense as to Langdon. Until a few years ago, I’d only seen a handful of his Sennett beginnings and none of the features. That’s all changed with Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection on DVD. Producer/archivist David Kalet gathers every short extant and presents them chronologically. Watch his handiwork (plus extensive extras) and you’ll come away transformed (or not), because Langdon, like beer and asparagus, is a thing for which one either acquires a taste or resolutely doesn’t. Enthusiasm comes not in half measure for Harry. His was a talent that shunned the easy laugh, having spent twenty pre-movie years bedeviling vaudeville audiences with routines ever more contrary to accepted notions of what one must do to be funny. The goal at times seemed nothing less than halting all movement other than Harry’s reactive expression. Routines rival comics needed to liven pace were intrusive when visited upon Langdon. The less going on, the better he registered. You wait minutes for him to do something, a less irritating prospect for twenties audiences ground down by the visual cacophony of rote slapsticking. For a while, Harry was the pet rock of comedians, so fresh and defiant of convention as to have seemingly invented a genre all his own, the pantomimic equivalent of a hit record played till the grooves wore out. He was Hotter than Hot (ironically a title of one of his films) and destined to burn off as quick. We’ve got Langdon at our leisure now, and knowing dieticians of vintage clowning serve him best in moderation. Had exhibitors done half so much at Harry’s peak, he might have maintained it a little longer, instead of being voted Biggest Loser circa 1928, weighed down in sackcloth by press and industry tailors who’d later fit John Gilbert with matching apparel. In fact, their names came up in tandem as warning against hubris among screen idols. It was said for years that a swelled head knocked Harry out of stardom, but as with most explanations seemingly simple, that was only part (and a small one) of his meteoric rise and plummet. Rehab meanwhile proceeds, with mine but a small voice among many dedicated to putting Langdon back on that pinnacle he so briefly occupied.
Part of the trouble was accepted wisdom from some who were there, most prominently Frank Capra, whose 1971 memoir cemented the image of Harry The Fool. Langdon wanted to be smart, said the director, implying of course that he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Harry was dead since 1944, with no biographies to mark his way. Who knew he’d been a vaudeville headliner playing top circuits, or of circus clowning and myriad accomplishment cartooning in newspapers? Certainly Capra wasn’t telling, for his was a personal score to settle, but more to come about that. For the start, he was gagman at Sennett who saw opportunity in Langdon as did up-and-comers Harry Edwards and Arthur Ripley, always on alert for shooting stars, which Harry decidedly was. Observers knew he’d graduate early from a nut-farm more congenial to crossed-eyes and bushy mustaches. Sennett recognized Langdon for something brilliant, but he’d give no more creative ground than when Chaplin and Arbuckle packed bags a decade before. The shorts Harry made there were good and getting better, but First National was dangling features and carte blanche as to content. Terms called for $250,000 to be advanced for each of four to star Langdon, and he’d be charged with staff expense and bringing everything under the wire. The team as established at Sennett was much about ambitions and coming rivalry. Capra, Edwards, and Ripley were younger men competing for Harry’s ear even as he elevated their status by taking them along. Overhead was the immediate reality once Langdon set up independent shop. That $2600 per week ongoing expense weighed heavily upon whatever production was next. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, directed by Harry Edwards, went well to start, but already they were over First National’s advance with a negative costing $300,039.99 (leading lady Joan Crawford was borrowed from MGM at $750 per week). Old boss Sennett said Harry had blown the cash before anyone came up with a story, though sour grapes might be factored with regards that dig. Capra replaced Edwards as director on the next in hopes of getting The Strong Man done for less (originally it was The Yes Man as shown in this FN product annual listing). Toward that end, there was satisfaction for a comedy brought home at $240,631,67, which pleased First National no less than reviews and patron response calling this the best of all Langdons. FN’s Gulliver Of Glee was lauded as purveyor not only of goofs and gags, but for a current of pathos that set him apart from humbler fare the company distributed in the person of one Johnny Hines, a funster less acclaimed but in for the longer haul and faster product delivery (that’s him shaking hands with boy counterpart --- note the First National emblem on his car door). Hines is the sort we never knew well enough to bother forgetting. He just turned invisible once cameras looked away, and most of his films went the nitrate dust route. I had a Kodascope print of one that survived, Conductor 1492, which I recall as being good, but specifics beyond a red-tinted fire and powder monkeys besetting Johnny are vague. Is this what separates genius from the workhorses? Exhibitors and crowds they vamped went big for Hines in his day, but something about his appeal was peculiar to then, while Langdon fascinates to now. Even if all nine of Hines’ First National features turn up tomorrow (none are presently available), how likely is it we’d embrace him? --- and yet I’d venture his were more profitable in the end than Langdon’s output.
Langdon went on four weeks vacation and came back to find the children fighting. One-time fast friends Capra and Ripley were in competition for the marbles and those amounted to whose inspiration they’d follow on Long Pants, a hotly anticipated follow-up to The Strong Man. Langdon was no mediator and scarcely a people person, despite age advantage you’d figure to lend maturity and a cooler head toward restoring order (Capra and Ripley were 29 and 30 to Langdon’s 42). On-set politics and Harry’s interloping (recently installed) girlfriend ran riot as did costs ($318,614.03) on a picture needing much work prior to its April 10, 1927 open. Capra had been director in name, but it was Ripley whispering ideas that Langdon embraced. The two were more in synch as to where the character should go and would remain so to the finish. Meanwhile, First National was looking for another Strong Man and threw support dollars at trade ads such as ones shown here while penalizing Langdon for that $68,614.03 overage he’d have to personally make up. The him-or-me stance between Capra and Ripley resolved when Capra was fired on February 23. Langdon began taking credit as prime mover behind the camera, Capra having been just a glorified gagman, which further fanned resentment. Interviewers took the star’s word for gospel. Wasn’t he the funnyman on screen after all? Moving Picture World interviewed Langdon in its March 19, 1927 issue. He is going to cut his corps of gagmen, or comedy constructionists, as they have been called of late, down to one man. The comedian explained that an excellent idea may be lost in its entirety after a half-dozen more of gaggists have made suggestions as to how it could be improved. After three features, he was ready to go it alone, with only Arthur Ripley as writer and closest advisor. Langdon directs himself in scenes in which he appears. He believes that he can do this best because he knows his story and he knows himself. Capra retaliated with letters characterizing Langdon as egotist and a bigger baby than ones he played on screen. Capra had aired his side in an issue of Variety dated March 9, but Langdon continued to maintain he’d directed Long Pants and much of The Strong Man as well. First National meanwhile announced The Butter and Egg Man as Langdon’s next, which he would also direct, putting the comedian by way of what had been a very popular George S. Kaufman play on Broadway, but this would end up with Jack Mulhall starring (trade ad above). Langdon told his Moving Picture World interviewer that he would instead play a wharf rat in a picture for which there will be no leading lady. Hardly a promising commercial prospect (he believes sex is rampant in plays as well as pictures at the present time), but here was the topper … in the future he will try to have as few stories as possible necessitating leading ladies. Langdon was clearly laying himself across railroad tracks should Long Pants fail, but for the moment at least, he could say and do pretty much what he pleased, for those months between The Strong Man and Long Pants represented the undoubted summit, one from which he was soon to plunge.
Long Pants disappointed, and worse luck found Mack Sennett releasing Langdon shorts and a feature (His First Flame --- trade ad shown here) he’d held for several years. Critics and audiences thought Long Pants less funny and almost perverse in having childish Harry seemingly intent on murdering his sweet fiancée in order to marry a temptress he’s barely met. It was an uneasy blend of Capra’s waning influence and a darker Langdon/Ripley mood that would assert itself more fully with Three’s A Crowd, which the comedian would direct between April 28 and June 22, 1927. Langdon delivered the negative at considerable savings ($243,597.50), and pocketed a bonus of $6,402.50 for the difference. Happy days seemed here again now that Capra was gone. Three’s A Crowd was shot, then much reshot minus initial cast members, several of whom are shown here in scenes nowhere on view in the film as released. Langdon had his on-set mood accompanists play somber music as opposed to jazzy tunes favored by other comedy directors. He was still of a mind that tragedy was handmaiden to mirth making. As with Long Pants, there were miles of film shot but deleted prior to release. Langdon believed in previews and gauging audience reaction. These were guides for much of his cutting. The pathos First National encouraged were given fuller expression in Three’s A Crowd, too much so for critics of the time and writers since. Langdon was emulating Chaplin and The Gold Rush, virtually the only feature up to that time to beg so much audience sympathy for a lead comedian. Did patrons resent Harry poaching on sacred Chaplin territory? Three’s A Crowd may indeed be Langdon’s best film. I can’t think of one better, but that’s a personal opinion, and opinions where Langdon is concerned are nothing if not intensely personal. The atmosphere of alley and snow is more unified and convincing than similar settings Chaplin managed, and here at last is pure Langdon unencumbered by cyclones, mobs, and water hoses as were turned on us when Capra was applying more conventional tools to previous stories. His was admittedly the commercial approach, but Langdon’s, I think, has outlasted him. What is said not to work in Three’s A Crowd is still engaging. This is not like anyone else’s silent comedy. The fact that prints survive from the nitrate camera negative gives us the full measure of arresting visuals Langdon achieves throughout. For a first directorial effort, Three’s A Crowd is outstanding, making all the more regrettable its demoralizing reception and effects that had on Langdon’s career and relationship with First National. Historians say he went back to Sennett formula for The Chaser which followed, but as with all Langdon, reactions vary according to individual viewers, and for me at least, The Chaser seems the most idiosyncratic of all his works, but more on that in Part Two …
Many thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for advice and information regarding Harry Langdon.