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Tuesday, August 19, 2008




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.

14 Comments:

Anonymous "r.j." said...

John, When I was a child, my father would take me to the old "Silent Movie" Theatre here in L.A., and introduced me to all these guys. Langdon, was for a long-while there, my all-out favorite. And I think, looking back ,that is probably because all children feel like "outsiders" themselves, and can readily identify with his character. I just know that I liked him a lot. A dear friend of the family's, whose son I just made contact with after many-years, was Allan Hersholt. He was the son of Jean, and would regale me for hours on-end,when I was a child, with stories about his father and all the Hollywood people he had known.(Allan later became President of The Maquers' Club, during the period when my grandfather was a member). Allan apparently knew Langdon quite-well, and something I clearly, vividly remember him telling me was that Harry was indeed "just like his screen- character",off-screen. He was there, so take that for whatever it's worth. I also remember Allan talking about a feature Langdon starred-in in the early 30's called "See America Thirst", which he called "a very funny picture". Quick post-script:Harry Langdon, Jr. has for many-years been a well-known celebrity-photographer (along the lines of Richard Avedon), whose studio is located in Beverly Hills. One early- morning(and not too many years ago, I was passing by. Harry,Jr., who was standing in the back of his studio, appeared to be going thru his morning-ritual of making himself his morning coffee. The large window to his office was wide-open and I must tell you and your readers, for a moment or two I stood there, absolutely-riveted. The gestures, body-language, even facial expressions reminded me so much of his old man, I felt like I was watching a brand-new, unseen Langdon comedy -- seriously! R.J.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Early sound guy said...

John: Did you happen to see the 1930 WB/FN rarity A Soldier's Plaything when it played on TCM not far back? It clocked in at 54 minutes and looked to have been heavily cut prior to release (as evidenced by an unlikely cameo by an unbilled Jean Hersholt, who must've been intended to have been seen much more). Harry sings a pleasant little song, "Oui, Oui," in this one and is quite charming. Not a good film, but a fascinating curio.

11:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

R.J., I too recall riding past Harry Langdon, Jr.'s studio on Wilshire and seeing those big windows out front. It was always a temptation to go in and meet the son of the great silent comedian. I wonder how many such visitors he gets. Concerning "See America Thirst", I've never seen it. Always wanted to, but suspect I'd have to travel to a show for any hopes of filling that gap.

Early Sound Guy, I've watched for "A Soldier's Plaything" on TCM, but always missed it somehow. Did you know it was originally shot in 65mm? The release prints were standard 35mm, and the wide negative is now lost. Imagine seeing Harry Langdon with such clarity!

7:47 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Right on the nose, John, Langdon's silents have been comparatively hard to come by. (I think I've seen more of Langdon's Columbias!) I remember reading a rental catalog of the 1960s that offered the Langdon First Nationals in 16mm, and HEART TROUBLE was listed, with a synopsis and a rental rate. Just before the catalog went to press, someone pasted an ominous "not available" snipe over HEART TROUBLE. Around the same time Universal's 16mm division was offering a silent print of SEE AMERICA THIRST.

Robert Youngson used to refer to Langdon in his compilations as "the immortal baby." I've known people who don't care for Langdon because they don't like the "baby" act. No one seems to remember Harry's other character, the middle-aged milquetoast. He plays it beautifully (with a wispy mustache) in A DOGGONE MIXUP, and he got raves in the trade papers when he reprised it for the PRC feature MISBEHAVING HUSBANDS. I remember one critic noting that Langdon was a master at this kind of characterization.

It's a shame he didn't have more chances to pursue this more mature character, but there was never much room for subtlety or character development in Columbia shorts!

9:54 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Nice pieces, I'm especially pleased to see artwork from The Chaser. I think film fans have a certain amount of blame to bear for the fact that The Chaser and Three's a Crowd were consigned to oblivion relative to the three better-known ones; frankly, I think Tramp, Tramp, Tramp stands way above anything else Langdon did (The Strong Man may have the strongest storyline, but it's NOT THAT FUNNY), and I can't see a major qualitative difference among the rest.

If anything, The Chaser's middle is funnier than anything in The Strong Man or Long Pants, and though Three's a Crowd is a failure to me, it's one of those total-filmmaker failures like Terry Gilliam or Francis Coppola make on occasion, where the filmmaker is in such complete control of his environment and material that he squeezes all the air out of it. Nonetheless, it is the obvious refutation of the notion that Langdon was an idiot savant, it's clearly the work of a filmmaker deeply engaged with his character and exploring how far he can take it.

So I think the recovery of the "bad" Langdons is a major DVD event, and should prompt reconsideration of his work in total, as you have done here. I have some more thoughts on them here at NitrateVille:

http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=1145&start=31

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Greg Glienna said...

Thanks so much for turning your probing intellect and thoughtful comments towards one of my all time favs, Harry Langdon. I loved seeing the images, some of which were new to me. Harry always struck me as the the funniest of all the silent clowns. Maybe he didn't make the best movies or have the best gags but there's just something funny about the man.

6:17 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Enjoyed your posts at Nitrateville, Michael. I'm in agreement that the DVD release of "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser" is an event welcome and long overdue.

Thanks for the nice comment, Greg. There is something funny about Langdon, and the drama of his career makes him just that much more fascinating for me. I only regret his later work isn't more available.

8:55 AM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

I have to agree Harry just standing on the corner is funny. I have been a Harry fan for a couple of years now and these recent releases have been much appreciated. Also check out William Schelly's excellent biography on Harry.

3:06 AM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

Just remember what Ed Wynn said, years ago: "A comic says funny things -- a comedian says things funny". And then there are the Harry Langdons, the W.C.Fields, the Jack Bennys, who have to only walk out on-stage or into-camera-range and we're all on the floor -- that's a special gift! R.J.

8:52 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Last year's W.C. Fields' exhibit at the Motion Picture Academy contained a heartbreaking note from Langdon to Fields in the mid-1930s, asking for a loan of $200 to allow him to keep his kids fed until his Columbia contract kicked in the following month. He begins by noting that the IRS and alimony have wiped him out, and ends, "Good God, has it come to this?" (BTW, Fields sent the $200.)
About seven years earlier, Mack Sennett was interviewed by Theodore Dreiser. Although Langdon had left Sennett by the time of the interview, Sennett still hailed him as Chaplin's superior. That Dreiser didn't respond "Are you nuts?" but accepted Sennett's ranking of Langdon as the best indicates just how high Langdon's reputation was at its peak.

It's ironic that Roach complained about Langdon being so slow, because, as Walter Kerr points out, a key element of Roach's Laurel and Hardy shorts was how much they reversed the frenetic pace of silent comedy shorts. Less than a decade later, Roach would re-hire Langdon, first as a writer, then as a substitute for Laurel in "Zenobia," and finally as a comedy lead.

Capra seemed to take a very unattractive delight in Langdon's fall, and was probably most responsible for fixing the image of Langdon as an imbecile. In reality, Langdon was a man of many talents.

The dark side of Langdon's silent work, for example his deadly relations with women in "His Marriage Wow" and "Long Pants," can probably be attributed to Arthur Ripley, who tends to be overlooked as the co-writer with Capra of most of Langdon's best work. (Incidentally, on www.vitaphone.blogspot.com this month there is an August 24, 1929 clipping about Langdon's recent wedding being the first recorded on sound film -- the item indicates that Langdon was now "making dialogue comedies for Hal Roach."

Blackhawk Films actually had quite a few Langdon shorts: IIRC, they had All Night Long, Saturday Afternoon, Boobs in the Woods, Feet of Mud, Smile Please, Picking Peaches, Soldier Man, and maybe Remember When and Lucky Stars. Audio-Brandon released Tramp,Tramp, Tramp; The Strong Man; Long Pants; Three's A Crowd, and The Chaser on 16mm in the early 1970's, shortly before Capra's autobiography came out. Langdon was still remembered in the 1970s -- I remember seeing Merv Griffin interview Priscilla Bonner and showing a clip from The Strong Man. But then he seemed to have dropped out of even film buff's consciousness for nearly two decades. Kino's releases of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; The Strong Man; and Long Pants was not successful, and when I asked them several years ago whether they intended to release more Langdon I received a quite definite "no."
But things change. Now, there's far more of Langdon's silent work accessible than there has been since I become a Langdon fan in 1965. (When I wrote an essay on Langdon for Film Comment in 1972, all I had to work from was the Blackhawk and Audio-Brandon offerings.) And, having felt very, very alone in my Langdon admiration for decades -- after a screening of Long Pants, unaccompanied by any sound but the whirring of the 16mm projectors, at Columbia Film School in 1972 at which no one but me laughed, Professor Andrew Sarris turned at me with a dirty look and queried, "Why do you think he's funny?" -- it feels great to find out, from the comments here and from the recent reception of the Langdon DVDs, that I was not the only person who believed Harry Langdon was a comic genius.

10:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow, onlyanirishboy, thanks for that very thoughtful and informative comment. About the availability of Langdon from Blackhawk, I had referred to a 1965catalogue when there were only three of his subjects offered, though I know they did expand with more of them later, as I collected several in the late 60's and 70's. Sad about that letter from Langdon to Fields, but good to know that Bill sent the needed cash. Those are the kinds of stories that really put a human face on great comedians we love, and I appreciate your sharing them with us.

10:21 PM  
Blogger paul etcheverry said...

I find Harry Langdon's comedy fascinating. Even when his creative ideas fail, you end up admiring his originality, fearlessness and willingness to take risks few other comedians would dare.

Yes, Harry can be surreal and strange - but that makes him doubly interesting.

His 1940 RKO short, Goodness A Ghost, is up on youtube

PART ONE
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--uClQblEmo

PART TWO
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0oepmQKJmg

5:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just met Bill Schelly last week at a Comic Book convention. He was there because he writes books on comics, but he had a single copy of his Langdon book along with him as well. It's just been reissued, and he told me he heavily revised and updated it. If you're only familiar with the 1982 version of his book, this version is probably worth checking out. I've put it on my Christmas wish list.

Dr. OTR

5:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Dr. OTR --- The updated edition of Bill Schelly's outstanding Langdon book is the one I got. I'd not seen the 1982 first edition as it had been out of print for a long time. You'll be very happy with this book, I'm sure ...

7:36 PM  

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