Harry Langdon --- Part Two
I wish I could present a simple and concise explanation for Harry Langdon’s downfall, but there isn’t one. Let’s just say his luck tapped out as suddenly as it roared in. Others supping greedily from the well of his popularity didn’t help. Mack Sennett’s reissues and delayed distribution put more Harry in circulation than audiences, even enthusiastic ones, could absorb. Chaplin had probably been as overexposed at times, but his act was less fragile than Langdon’s. It was easier revisiting a comedian always on the (fast) move. Had we run out of patience with Harry? Exhibitors added snap and quicker tempo to their Langdon wish list. It was time he got with the program. Harry standing still had begun to make his public restless. Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton sped through six and seven reels on their character’s initiative. Goal orientation is a must in comedy (for that matter all movies). Everything about Langdon militated against features, even if his were the shortest ones around (Three’s A Crowd and The Chaser ran just over an hour). There’s those who still say he works best at three reels and under. Laugh-getting features by 1927 was a science perfected on studio assembly lines. Seamlessly efficient Paramount and MGM serviced patrons less discriminate, which then as now enabled the success of factory clowns. Beery/Hatton, Fields/Conklin, Raymond Griffith, Dane/Arthur … all seemed more proficient at the game than a slipping Langdon. Showmen stood out front and listened appreciatively as Johnny Hines roused laughter within, music to exhibition ears second only to coin jangling in their pockets. Hines’ Chinatown Charlie (presumably lost but for stills like this one of Johnny in character) ranked easily the best (Everybody seemed to enjoy it immensely!, said one manager) avoided brickbats exhibitors tossed at Three’s A Crowd. Oh! What a lemon! No plot, silly from start to finish. Don't do it again, Harry, or you will ruin yourself for life, warned Charles A. Hagen of Crossett, Arkansas. Was First National listening? Likely they were, for trade advertising on The Chaser was much reduced from a Long Pants level of extravagance, even as FN surprisingly increased Langdon’s advance to $260,000 for production (of which he overspent to a total negative cost of $261,039.94). Historian Walter Kerr, whose 1975 The Silent Clowns remains a great and timeless book on the subject, remembered visiting Chicago’s First National exchange (at age 12!) and inquiring as to when Langdon’s next feature would be ready. Oh, I don’t know, said the booker, we’ll be dumping the little son-of-a-bitch soon. Were the comedian’s prospects so diminished as to be known among personnel this far removed from company headquarters? The Chaser was/is said to be Harry striving for easier laughs as in Sennett days. A Langdon quote I’d read should have put me on notice to the contrary. In order to be a good comedian, I must escape the tragedy of marriage, this uttered as Harry leaped from the frying pan of a bad first union to the fire of a second (worse) one (above at start of the latter). Domestic hell was not a thing unknown among comedians. The aforementioned quote might attach to any of them. Langdon just took the theme of marital imprisonment and emasculation to levels they’d not have dared. He isn’t just dominated by the wife (and mother-in-law). By way of a skirt and unwelcome attentions from mashers at the door (plus an iceman who kisses him), Harry becomes the wife (at one point apparently laying an egg). It’s a nightmare doubtlessly experienced by many husbands, but how often were they confronted with it on movie screens?
All evidence suggests that Heart Trouble was choked in its cradle. I couldn’t find a single trade ad. Exhibitor’s Herald World never even listed a release date. First National records indicate it was August 12, 1928. No matter, for this was Langdon’s last for them and few by now cared. Prints went mostly to the hinterlands, always first to forgive and last to forget. W.T. Biggs of Adair, Iowa summed up mixed emotions as Harry piled up in features. This proved to be a good comedy and it pleased. Langdon has been a poor drawing card for me but they came on the second night to see him. Sound factored in by now, but even without it, First National trained bigger publicity guns on the Johnny Hines comedies, as here in trade jubilation over The Wright Idea, interestingly that comedian’s last before he was let go. First National had opened Lilac Time, their first with music and effects, in July and their absorption by Warner Brothers was imminent (October 1928), transitions concurrent with talent going elsewhere. Langdon brought in Heart Trouble for his best yet price --- $214,053 --- but it was too late for such economies to be rewarded. So how good was Harry’s last independent feature? That we may never know owing to loss of its camera negative in 1953 when Warners ordered Heart Trouble junked, probably for nitrate decomposition. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s half the show that Three’s A Crowd and The Chaser are, we’ve got a tragic and ongoing loss the equal of any silent classic gone with nitrate winds. Langdon himself looked wistfully back from a 1938 interview and recalled selling his interests in the Harry Langdon Corporation, including rights in the six features, to Warner Bros. for five thousand dollars. That figure may be (probably is) low, for he spoke in the same article of First National slashing budgets on The Chaser and Heart Trouble from $250,000 to $125,000, and that clearly was not the case. I can’t even remember the names of the last two pictures I made on that contract. They were so bad I never went to the preview. I took one look at them in the projection room and was sick. Was Langdon like an MGM-era Buster Keaton for confidence laid so low as to no longer trust his own judgment? Maybe so from a decade’s hindsight, though upon leaving First National in Summer 1928 and beginning a tour of theatres in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Langdon did show he had plenty left by way of experiment and willingness to deliver something other than what audiences expected. His act, a departure from his former stage presentations, permits him to register more convincingly with a theatre audience than on the screen, said Exhibitor’s Herald-World. The performance in question supported screen fare and usually finished with Harry doing an eccentric dance, but what of the one-act skit he performed that kept the house in titters, although the offering was supposed to be very tragic. Was Langdon confounding his hosts with straight drama in place of comedy for which he’d been booked? Some who remembered his vaudeville beginnings in Johnny’s New Car (a rare image below) wished for more of the same, but Harry was still bent on exploring that eternal divide between comedy and tragedy, narrowing it further in said odd skit of his own conception.
Langdon was still news, even if his pictures weren’t. It is reported that upon his return to Hollywood, he will accept one of three offers, which was tendered him before his northern tour, said the trades. This was October 1928. Within weeks, an announcement came. A contract has been signed that is unique for both parties, Hal Roach and Harry Langdon. Under the terms of the contract, Langdon is to make feature length talking pictures for Hal Roach for a period of three years. This was precedent for several reasons. It would introduce Langdon’s voice to the screen and bring Roach back into feature production with a star comedian for the first time since Harold Lloyd. Significantly, however, there was no press release from the producer or his releasing company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Had Langdon jumped the gun? Though he would align with Roach, there were no further announcements to that effect until the following June. By then, it was understood that Langdon would be back in shorts, his first love. The Roach series lasted but one season, despite drumbeats of promotion (as here) MGM arranged. The eight subjects Langdon made there are nigh on impossible to see today. Nobody’s shown them for generations it seems. TCM could (they have the lease), but so far haven’t. It was said that Harry wasn’t getting along with co-workers at his new studio. It had been a long time since he’d taken orders. Roach echoed others in calling Langdon too slow. That was pretty much Harry’s ticket out of the big time. Shorts for Educational, then Columbia, were nobody’s idea of career progress, but Langdon soldiered on. He looked older now and that hurt. Writing and gag-manning back at Roach in the late thirties might have been where he was happiest. Another post of multiple parts could be written about twilight years for Langdon, but tracking those films is a commission I don’t relish. Will anyone ever release them? May-be the Columbias (rumors abound), but those for PRC and Educational will likely remain the province of patient and determined collectors. Langdon’s critical revival, back-handed though it was, came five years after his death in 1944. Esteemed critic James Agee penned a tribute to silent comedians in LIFE magazine. That may not seem such a big deal after years we’ve had to forget what an institution this publication once was. By September 3, 1949 when Agee’s article appeared, there were few households and not a single dentist’s office without weekly copies. People would read a thing in LIFE and remember it for the rest of their own. Harry Langdon’s image as lonesome loser was chiseled by Agee here and abetted by interviewee Frank Capra, by 1949 a director of sufficient prestige as to go unquestioned over his version (read distortion) of the Langdon story. Agee: Langdon was almost as childlike as the character he played. He had only a vague idea of his story or even of each scene as he played it. College educated Capra helpfully explained his Principle of the Brick, a deft summation of comedy concepts Langdon understood instinctively, but couldn’t express so eloquently as a still aggrieved director embarked upon four decades purloining credit for Langdon’s accomplishments. The weight of Capra’s authority, combined with Agee’s, was almost parental. After all, these men were there in silent days and bore witness to Comedy’s Greatest Era. So did Walter Kerr, who endorsed their version of events. Kevin Brownlow wrote in The Parade’s Gone By (published 1968) that Langdon had lost his will to work by the time he did Three’s A Crowd, and William K. Everson agreed that HL was anything but the best judge of his character and content of his films. Comedy’s fourth genius seemed at best an accidental one.
Sightings of Langdon were rare and haphazard. Joe Franklin ran highlights of surviving Sennett shorts on his New York nostalgia program during the fifties. Robert Youngson mined these as well for feature compilations. He was one of the few to identify Langdon by name. Otherwise, Harry was among anonymous Funny Manns running loose on kid shows filling time with chopped down two-reelers. Blackhawk Films listed three Langdon subjects in its 1965 catalogues. They at least approached coherence for being complete. The First National features were meanwhile hardest to see, thus bad reputations of ones Langdon directed went unchallenged. Enter Raymond Rohauer. He’d rescued Buster Keaton’s silent work, plus scores of features and shorts turning to jelly. As curator of Huntington Hartford’s Gallery Of Modern Art in New York, Rohauer organized a Langdon festival with the comedian’s widow and son in attendance (here he is interviewing them). This was December 5-17, 1967. Gauging audience reaction and commercial potential for the films, he then approached Warners and purchased the First National features. WB had renewed copyrights for all six back in the fifties, but did nothing in the way of commercial exploitation. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants became Rohauer’s property on June 23, 1969. Another deal for Three’s A Crowd, The Chaser, and Heart Trouble was closed on February 26, 1970. Rohauer paid a total of $60,000 for the six features. Warners delivered what elements they had, which included nitrate camera negatives for Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, Three’s A Crowd, and The Chaser. There was only one reel of Long Pants intact, and Heart Trouble was gone altogether, thanks to its having been junked in 1953. Rohauer used the British Film Institute’s 16mm print of Long Pants to make his negative, which may account in part for that film’s reduced standing among Langdon features. Outside of negative decomp in a few scenes, those four First Nationals for which elements survive are among the most pristine of all silent comedies. Whatever one thinks of Rohauer’s unscrupulous methods in dealing with rival distributors and collectors, there’s no doubt his efforts were the salvation of Harry Langdon’s legacy. To gamble $60,000 for such obscure product nearly forty years ago, plus monies spent making prints and marketing the films, must have seemed folly to Warner minions who took Rohauer’s check. Milestone Films licenses his library for DVD today, Rohauer having died in 1987. Heart Trouble meanwhile remains missing. Maybe there’s a print in Europe somewhere. I’d like to think I’ll see it someday. So do a lot of others. They gather online and discuss Langdon at places like SilentComedians.com, where more history on Langdon and others is written over a single month than was generated in fifty years before such sites were available. These resources, along with DVD and what it has given us of Langdon’s films, is a modern miracle I hope we never take for granted.
Many thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for advice and information regarding Harry Langdon.