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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Warners and The James Dean Cult --- Part One

Two-thirds of James Dean’s starring work in films was yet to be released when he died on September 30, 1955. The only evidence of his stardom was East Of Eden, and the success of that led to one-sheets prepared for Rebel Without A Cause in which Dean was tagged Overnight Sensation with a future assured playing leads. Never before had a star departed so prematurely. Rudolph Valentino rose, peaked, and began his decline before death intervened and conferred immortality. Son Of The Sheik followed and became rallying point for fans bereaved. Youth snuffed out was (is and always will be) the stuff of morbid fascination for the young surviving. They’ll not be denied a last glimpse. MGM would have shelved the unfinished Saratoga but for letters begging a screen farewell for Jean Harlow. Her older films revived wouldn’t do. Viewers wanted to ponder her closer to the end. The problem was collecting admission for such autopsies without looking ghoulish. That high wire is traversed yet when expensive projects lose a principal just before completion (or release). Warners might well have dug out their Dean files when Heath Ledger died suddenly last January, for what was this but corporate history repeating itself? Would The Dark Knight be all-time Number Two ($491,702,478 so far) had he lived? There were ginger steps over how to sell it. Director Terry Gilliam called WB white sharks shamelessly capitalizing on Ledger’s passing. There’s no easy out when a thing like this happens in merchandising. For all the acclaim given his performance in The Dark Knight, it seems unlikely that Heath Ledger will become a (death) cult figure on the order of James Dean. Times and circumstances are different. The mad rush for Dean echoed frenzied reaction to Valentino’s exit, even as that event flashed hotter (near riots as he lay in state) and burned out quicker. The Dean cult developed over months after September 30,  nourished by fresh product, Giant released a year after he died, followed by The James Dean Story in 1957. He was his own best advance man for the romance of sudden death. It’s fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory, said Dean when reporters raised the possibility of early demise on a racetrack. And what of these disquieting poses he struck when it seemed photographers recorded his every waking moment? Peering through a noose or nested in a casket, Dean looks intent on getting to the other side ahead of his audience, as if a ticket to cult immortality had already been punched and he was just waiting for fate to cash it in. Plenty of omens creeped out viewers in hindsight. Dean appeared with Gig Young (as shown here) on behalf of traffic safety in a spot intended for Warner Brothers Presents, the ABC series that played for a single season in 1955-56. It was part of a segment promoting Rebel Without A Cause and was filmed on September 17, 1955, but never televised. Two other promotions featuring Rebel players were broadcast on Warner Brothers Presents (Natalie Wood on October 11 and Jim Backus on November 1), but the Dean footage was shelved and not seen until it was included in The James Dean Story, released nearly two years later.

James Dean attended a preview of Rebel Without A Cause within hours of doing the safety spot. Warners’campaign was progressing and references to Dean were very much in terms of present and future tense. A new star was born and there would be many triumphs to come. By October, however, those one-sheets were being sniped over with regards Dean becoming the star of the year, little realizing that he'd become precisely that within a few short months, despite events of September 30. Initial reaction was skittish. The Motion Picture Herald’s Selling Approach column tried putting showmen at ease. We believe that because James Dean was killed in an automobile accident a few weeks ago is no reason why his success as a star should not go on. Don’t encourage your audience or any others to have any such qualms. It is one of the utterly mistaken notions of our industry --- so let’s keep his talent alive on our screens! This was November 5, and Rebel was filling houses everywhere it played. Establishment critics meanwhile weren’t giving Dean a pass just because he’d died. Bosley Crowther at The New York Times cited monotonous Brando imitating among Rebel players, JD not excepted. The perceived apathetic attitude of the American public toward motion pictures inspired a group of Allied Theatre owners to launch their so-called Audience Awards, ballots for which would be filled out in lobbies and tallied by showmen. The "Audies" were essentially grassroot Oscars, a democratic alternative to votes cast by Academy insiders. Elections held during Fall doldrums would culminate in a television spectacular (that never happened) comparable in its impact to the Academy Awards television show, followed by bookings for winning films during notoriously slow pre-Christmas weeks. Among those selected was Tab Hunter as Most Promising Personality for Battle Cry and James Dean as Best Actor for East Of Eden, the latter of which took WB unawares. When I attempted to book "East Of Eden" for a repeat run, I was advised that it had been withdrawn from distribution, complained one exhibitor. A rush order went out to place more James Dean at theatres' disposal. On December 17, Warners announced a reissue double-bill for East Of Eden with Battle Cry (ad here), their first recognition of a posthumous surge. Incoming letters rose to 8000 a month, many asking for Dean bric-a-brac. Teens nationwide sought the red zippered jacket Jim wore in Rebel Without A Cause. When studio replies suggested it could be had for $22.95 from Mattson’s Hollywood clothier, their having supplied the original, kids made a run on the place. Dean ranked Number One on Photoplay’s popularity poll by Spring 1956, and high school students in thirty-two cities picked the late star as their favorite. The run-up to Giant was becoming feverish. Director George Stevens took his usual forever editing that long, long feature, trying cultist’s patience. Warnings were issued that he’d best not cut a frame of Dean’s performance. It’s absolutely weird, said the veteran helmsman. Rebel Without A Cause meanwhile not only maintained but was doing splendid repeat business. Eventual profits of $3.9 million against a modest negative cost of $1.4 put it right behind WB’s biggest hits of 1955, Mister Roberts and Battle Cry. With Giant in the much anticipated offing, was it any wonder so many Dean followers refused to believe he was really dead?

A weird new phenomenon is loose in the land, said TIME magazine on September 3, 1956 (the none-too-flattering article was called Dean Of The One-Shotters). It seemed Dean-mania was getting out of hand. Mainstream bastions took note and were unanimous in their disapproval. The bandwagon that looks disconcertingly like a hearse mirrored concern with an overlay of withering sarcasm. These were journalists, after all, who’d been in the game for years and weren’t about to be taken in by such morbid folly. This is really something new in Hollywood --- Boy meets Ghoul. Were they as miffed over rival magazines selling out one shot tributes to Dean (such as vulture pickings shown here)? Ezra Goodman reported for LIFE. Delirium For Dead Star headlined his condemnation of Dean-inspired excesses. By September 24 when the article was published, there were plenty. Humphrey Bogart spoke for an establishment Hollywood ready to apply brakes. If he had lived, he’d never have been able to live up to his publicity, said the actor. Sick of it all George Stevens minced fewer words as Giant’s premiere drew close and he realized many were looking to his epic for a Jimmy fix and little else: A few more films and the public wouldn’t have been so bereft. He shortly would have dimmed his luster. All this as loosely hinged fans insisted their idol walked among us yet. Was Jimmy hiding out in Mexico to conceal disfiguring injuries sustained in the accident? Those sufficiently gullible could hope. Grown-ups expressed concern now that TIME and LIFE sounded their majority’s alarm. Shouldn’t Warners be engaged in healthier enterprise? A still breathing if overworked Tab Hunter suggested they might, as two 1956 releases proposed that ersatz heir to Dean’s following, and boxoffice. Tab, however, lacked JD’s intensity and tragic grandeur. His dreamboat was no substitute for Dean’s storm tossed dramatics, despite the "promising" Battle Cry, and besides, Tab showed all intentions of staying alive to enjoy underpaying benefits of Warner stardom. The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind borrowed Dean’s co-star and hopeful good luck charm Natalie Wood to play opposite Hunter, her Rebel Without A Cause appearance foregrounded in publicity for both. A sadder would-be successor to Dean was nakedly ambitious Nick Adams, his wholehearted immersion in the JD cult raising not a few eyebrows within industry circles. There were two fan magazine tributes under his byline, for which Nick relished mail going up by two hundred letters a week after his first screed was published. They’d been close, you see. Jim left Nick poems he’d written, plus scarves, shirts, and belts, none of which the latter was disposed to share with fans. I sleep with a loaded .32 automatic and a .45 automatic in my house. I keep all the stuff hidden in a big strong steel box locked in the attic. Adams hauled the bounty downstairs to pose Dean-like with his treasures, as shown here. I have police protection --- the cops check my house eight to ten times a day.

Giant would open in October 1956, but theatres and drive-ins toward the back of the line made do with limited engagements Warners permitted of Rebel Without A Cause with East Of Eden. James Dean photos came with admissions to many of these, and showmen noted grosses equivalent to first-run business. October also saw the release of soundtracks via MGM Records with Art Mooney and His Orchestra playing music from Dean films. If we know the teenagers, they will go for it, by the millions, said The Motion Picture Herald. Warners meanwhile soft-peddled JD in Giant publicity. Their pressbook referred to him, as before, in the present tense. You’d never know the actor had died after reading press releases the studio prepared. Giant looked to audiences far beyond membership of the Dean cult, whatever that group’s anxiety to see it. Contracted billing required Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in favored position, but theatre men knew where their bread was buttered, thus marquees, including the Chicago one shown here, brazenly sold Dean as Main Attraction. Newspaper ads were as culpable. Dean’s image alone represented Giant in a number of ads, his name elevated to a position above Taylor and Hudson. This sort of exhibitor free-styling was commonplace as everyone sought to cash in on the Dean wave at its height. Boxoffice magazine divined reality in its October 13 review and spelled things out for whoever booked Giant. It is the presence and popularity of James Dean that will prove the most potent factor in attracting ticket buyers, particularly from the teenage groups. Discomfort over a phenomenon bordering on psychosis was offset by prospects of cash in the till. It is his name that will bring the bobby-soxers in droves and will stimulate them into seeing the picture time and time again. Sure enough it was teens pulling four-hours of Giant on repeated shifts. Bolder Dean devotees liberated poster materials out front, valuable publicity in itself for some situations. Minneapolis’ Radio City Theatre found its Giant display minus a James Dean head one morning, prompting rewards to be paid upon its return and placement of a sheriff’s detective to guard a replacement bally. The warning sign now posted (above) was both enticement to purloining fans and those who’d not yet paid admission to see what all the fuss was about. Dean’s relatives were dragged off Indiana farms to thump on Giant’s behalf. His aunt, uncle, and a cousin showed up at an Indianapolis drive-in opening in late November and were duly lauded for service to the trade. It seemed James Dean had no peer, let alone competition, for first placement among teen idols. That would change, and soon, as many theatres coming off Giant playdates changed marquees to herald their next attraction --- Elvis Presley and Love Me Tender.

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, 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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

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. A $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 greedy for the marbles and those amounted to whose inspiration would dictate 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 accepted 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 directed 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 implemented when Capra was applying conventional tools to construction. 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.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Disney's Story Of The Animated Drawing

Being but twenty-one months old at the time, I missed a landmark night in animation history. For we who came to know television first in the late fifties, it was perhaps less of a big deal than for those who remembered first sets being brought into homes. How special was Disneyland? Unless you were there, you’ll never know. Two of my friends were. One was nine when Walt Disney presented The Story Of The Animated Drawing on November 30, 1955. The other was only five. Both recalled details of a program they’d not seen in fifty-two years. We got out the DVD and watched, mostly to test their decades old recollection against long unavailable evidence now before us. How good is it? Well, imagine a history of cartooning seen through the eyes of many of its pioneers, hosted and narrated by the dean of them all. Disney spent what was needed to get such projects right, never mind that his venue was budget-conscious early television still shunned by other major studios. The Story Of The Animated Drawing remains the most polished and persuasive of any such documentary, and makes latter-day talking head-fests plod by comparison. If only we still had Walt to guide us through a now century of pictures that move! It’s hard to believe history so carefully and accurately explained was once marketed to a TV audience of millions. Disney flatters us still for assuming we’ve brains enough to sit for intelligent exploration of how cartoons got their start. I’ll bet the list of ignitions fired among future historians and animators on 11/30/55 would be a yard long, one of those rare hours of TV that ended with Junior knowing exactly what he wanted to do once he grew up.

Hang it all for Disney having shot The Story Of The Animated Drawing in black-and-white! That alone put the episode in deep storage until only a few years ago when their DVD Treasures series unearthed it finally for inclusion in the Behind The Scenes At Walt Disney Studio two-disc set. Disneyland was an ABC program. For an industry in which the network ranked an always distant third, that was as good as being invisible, but Walt Disney on the schedule as of 1954 put an ABC series in the top-ten for the first time ever. Affiliates primarily committed to the network were few compared with leaders CBS and NBC. We only had Channel 13 out of Asheville, NC, and that was a hundred miles off. They ran Disneyland in its regular Wednesday night 7:30 berth. Stronger stations used ABC as secondary provider with delayed broadcasts of better shows the network offered. Disneyland played many markets on that basis. Charlotte’s Channel 3 presented it on Sunday afternoons, their prime-time schedule being taken up with CBS programming. Kids chased Disney along weekend grids that changed with sports seasons. They could never be certain just when their favorite hour would turn up. ABC was powerless to impose corporate will upon stations not their affiliates. It was accomplishment enough getting any of their product into these CBS/NBC dominated markets. Disney played close to the vest with content he owned and merely leased to ABC for what were often single runs. The Story Of The Animated Drawing disappeared after that second season of Disneyland. When the series went over to NBC with the addition of color in 1961, practical use for episodes originally filmed in black-and-white was nil. Syndication was out as that reduced control Disney insisted upon. Random episodes of Disneyland used to show up among collectors in 16mm, but these were exceedingly rare. You had to depend on anecdotal accounts as to what such old shows were like, as there seemed little chance of actually seeing them.

There should be dancing in the streets whenever another Disney Treasures DVD comes along. Stuff out of those vaults are filled with revelation. Perhaps best remembered of segments in The Story Of The Animated Drawing is a recreation of Winsor McCay’s 1914 vaudeville turn in which he introduced Gertie The Dinosaur. Even those minimally conversant on cartooning know Gertie, if not McCay (seen here drawing at his desk). My first exposure was in Richard Griffith and Arthur Knight’s 1956 book The Movies, which for a long time was about the only oversized and heavily illustrated volume you could get on the subject. I began wearing out my copy from the age of twelve (it remained in print through the sixties) and Gertie in particular appealed to me (that relevant page portion from The Movies shown here). I didn’t know until recently of her beginnings as animated adjunct to McCay’s live act. The Story Of The Animated Drawing gives us the latter verbatim as to its original stage script, the restaging having been supervised by McCay’s son, who’d been there when his father appeared before live audiences. This, to my mind, is the only way to watch Gertie The Dinosaur. A host of future animators were said to have made career decisions as a result of seeing Winsor McCay perform with his animated creation. The Fleischers, Paul Terry, Otto Messmer, Walter Lantz and others were among those converted. Gertie The Dinosaur would be released as a theatrical short subject later in 1914, padded with extraneous live action and titles standing in for McCay’s onstage interplay with Gertie. This is the version we’ve had since, though it would seem to me that Disneyland’s restaging is by far the more authentic record of how early audiences best experienced Gertie. As for Winsor McCay, 11/30/55 represented the largest single viewership his work would have before or since. Writers noted the artist’s obscurity from his death in 1934 until rediscovery in the sixties via a Canadian retrospect, but surely The Story Of The Animated Drawing, with its exposure to nearly forty percent of the nation’s twenty-six million TV households, represents the highpoint of a general public’s awareness of Winsor McCay. Who but Disney could have made it possible for so many to see McCay’s work again, and on network television yet --- such a thing won’t likely happen again in this lifetime. No matter the success of DVD sales and festival attendance, none could deliver beyond a fraction of the mass audience watching Gertie that night in 1955.

The Story Of The Animated Drawing was really Walt Disney’s outreach to pioneers living and dead. Perhaps mellowed after years of grim competition kept him at odds with rivals like Max Fleischer, Walt now assumed the role of gracious winner and paid tribute to men who’d made much of his success possible. Some not mentioned were drawing paychecks right on the Disney lot. Ub Iwerks received an end credit for visual effects on The Story Of The Animated Drawing, but his almost single-handed animating of excerpted Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance many years before went unrecognized. Disney’s was on the one hand a generous gesture as well as opportunity to contrast primitive efforts of early animators with strides his studio had made since (here he displays one of many artifacts featured on the show). Fantasia was offered as culmination of the studio's achievement, and scenes from it comprised the final third of Walt’s presentation (was he paving publicity’s way for a reissue? --- if so, it was premature, as Fantasia would not return to theatres until July of the following year). Filling weekday hours of The Mickey Mouse Club, which had premiered on October 3, 1955, obliged Disney to resurrect some less polished efforts of his own. Early Mickeys and Silly Symphonies played on the kid-oriented show and would subsequently vanish from airwaves as surely as The Story Of The Animated Drawing, these including The China Plate (shown 11-9-55), Playful Pan (11-18-55), and a 1930 cartoon, Winter, featured on the Mouse Club two days ahead of the Disneyland episode of 11-30. (Very) old cartoons had, in fact, been all over television for several years prior to Walt’s homage. Programmers scrambled for what they could get during that bleak period before major studios made backlogs available. Paramount was, in fact, negotiating sale of their shorts, including many produced by Max Fleischer, just as one of his Out Of The Inkwell cartoons, The Tantalizing Fly, was serving as example (with onscreen Oliver Wallace as old time movie organist) of animation long past (and here’s the stinger to Disney’s tribute --- Fleischer’s name is misspelled in its titles!). The Tantalizing Fly was probably familiar to some watching The Story Of The Animated Drawing that night, for it and other silent Out Of The Inkwell shorts had run on many local stations since the late forties. Fleischer’s appearance on Disneyland, even if footage of him dated back thirty years, might have led to an invitation Walt extended a few weeks later. Max would be guest of honor at a January 4, 1956 studio luncheon (above) at which he was reunited with artists, now Disney employees, who’d once been his employees. Trade press coverage oddly referred to The Prodigal and The Veteran (as shown here), leading many to wonder, no doubt, which was who.
Three great books with everything you need to know on the foregoing subjects:
The Animated Man --- Michael Barrier's definitive biography of Walt Disney.
Winsor McCay: His Life and Art --- by John Canemaker and Maurice Sendak.
The Fleischer Story --- by Leslie Cabarga.
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