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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book Choice --- Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon

I got this week what weighed like a Manhattan phone directory, but turned out to be the new, and monumental, Harry Langdon book from authors Michael Hayde (he of outstanding previous books on Jack Webb and Superman) and Chuck Harter, just published by Bear Manor (available here --- a hardcover edition will be offered "very soon," according to the authors). Little Elf is rightly sub-titled "A Celebration Of Harry Langdon," and puts to rout innumerable myths about the comic as well as unearthing much about HL's vaudeville career never published or known till now. All Langdon bucks stop here as no stone goes unturned over 686 large pages, half of which is compelling bio, the rest detailed film coverage. I'd forgot sheer number of pics Harry appeared in (or wrote) between 1924 and 1945 (several released posthumously). Said inventory was wake-up to how many are left to see (especially talkies) --- and girds me toward finding those so far missed ...

Langdon's Terrific in Hot Rhythm, But Ouch! --- Not Listed Among Players on the Lobby Card

Harry Gets To Be "Master Of Mirth" At The
Majestic ... But For One Day Only
One was Hot Rhythm (1944), just another that previous historians would label Poor Harry In Decline, but showed to this viewer what magic he wrought as character comic support to low-cost jivin' Jack (Robert Lowery) and Jill (Dona Drake), Monogram's hope for song-and-romance tandem to rival elsewhere teams. Every time Harry walks in, the joint lights up, especially his tiltings with eccentric-and-then-some Irene Ryan, years back of Granny Clampett, but no less mirth-making for the gap. What I notice about late Langdon is how well he mingles among both straight and comic talent. Stan Laurel observed HL had the makings of a great actor in addition to humor gifts. These Monograms prove it, as does support turns done for others, like Swingin' On A Rainbow at Republic. Hang it, though, for so few in circulation. Hot Rhythm streams on Netflix, but I only got over the Rainbow via Cinevent 2010, where collector/historian Richard M. Roberts ran his seemingly one-of-a-kind print.

Long Pants and Harry's Truest Oddball Of A Misfire, But Its A Fascinating One

Obscure For Decades, A Soldier's Plaything Finally Is Available on
 Warner Archive DVD
I wish too that TCM would re-run Langdon's 1929-30 season shorts for Hal Roach. These came after the feature fall, and all have points of interest. In fact, Harry occupied many and varied cribs over those twenty plus years he filmed. Work was where HL could find it, meaning you'd see him doing a commercial subject here (for B.F. Goodrich tires), teamed there & thither with El Brendel, Una Merkel, many others. He'd walk on even to an East Side Kids frolic (Block Busters in '44). Much of these were toward the end, Langdon still game whatever the circumstance. The fact he was expert at gagging made work easier for crews in a (customary) hurry on low-budgeters. The Little Elf authors confirm Langdon's having more comedy acumen in small digits than whole teams banging rival typewriters. So just how many laff-makers were so sharp as Harry then?

Babe Hardy Posing as Though Stan Were Still His Partner, But This Was Langdon and Hardy in Hal Roach's Aborted Go at Replacing the L&H Brand 

Harry Plays at Tentative Comeback in
 Hallelujah, I'm A Bum
Another thing this book does magnificently is reconstruct lost Langdon, including shorts for Sennett long gone, talking comedies unseen since early-30's newness, and appendix-placed Heart Trouble, detail-covered in closest-to-actually-seeing it mode (which I guess we never will --- Harter/Hayde couldn't locate a screening after 1931). Conflicts Langdon had with Frank Capra are definitively dealt with, a wonderful introduction to Little Elf by ace scholar Edward Watz adds much to what we know of Capra vis-à-vis Harry, with Raymond Rohauer anecdotes (always welcome) for a sweetener. Harter/Hayde devote their bio epilogue to the afterlife of Langdon's image and his films, bringing on TV airplay, compilations (such as Robert Youngson), Blackhawk selling on 8/16mm, plus postures previous writers have taken re Harry's rise and crash. It's the best summary thus far tendered, certainly a fairest and most informed.

Legendarily Lost Heart Trouble from 1928 --- Little Elf's Account is Almost Like Being There

You'll not believe all the dope these authors found on pre-movie Harry. Little Elf is like innards of a long-forgot theatrical trunk filled with Langdon lore. I'm amazed such stuff survived, let alone that 2012 diggers could get at it. There are even scripts for HL's vaudeville turns, written, of course, by him. I came away from Little Elf thinking anything's possible --- will Harter/Hayde be the guys who someday find Heart Trouble? In the wake of this book, I won't be surprised. Noteworthy is over five hundred illustrations throughout Elf's pages, much being trade promos, rare ad art, wire photos --- lots new to me --- and culled from Langdon stashes far and wide. Little Elf is more than a book about one comedian --- it's masterly coverage of an era and the many whose orbits Harry crossed. Cameos, many extended, include Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Laurel and Hardy ... the list encompasses most every headliner of Langdon's day. I'll be in and out of this book over pleasurable months to come. Certainly for whatever Harry Langdons I screen, it'll be sitting in my lap.

More Harry Langdon at Greenbriar Archives --- Part One and Two.


Blogger Dave K said...

Wow! Can't wait to get my hands on this one. Harry is one of my absolute favorites... even made note of his birthday last week on my doodle-blog;

I think you are dead on as to his gifts as a character actor in later years. Many silent era comics had no trouble finding bits in later talkie features but, as often as not, simply became invisible in supporting casts (think Hank Mann or Snub Pollard). Langdon however almost always adds a sparkle even in tiny parts, and when given a little extra screen time like that dandy little Monogram musical he is positively memorable.

Loved his early stuff, and you can put me in the column of those who really like stuff like THREE'S A CROWD (maudlin, but not terrible at all) and THE CHASER (kinda weird, kinda goofy). I certainly hope this belated attention results in more Langdon films in circulation.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Carl said...

Maybe this book will finally put to rest the Frank Capra's portrait of Harry as a clueless dimwit, completely dependent on others--mainly Capra--for his success, and who destroyed his own career by trying to be Chaplin.

6:39 PM  
Anonymous KING OF JAZZ said...

Langdon was in a 1938 British musical with Lupe Velez(!); one elaborate number was part sci fi, which has to be seen to be believed. The film went by two different titles (can't recall either). Langdon was just fine in it.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Langdon does deserve more exposure. Walter Kerr's mostly excellent "The Silent Clowns" seems to assume Langdon ultimately fixated on aping Chaplin's "pathos". On seeing "Three's a Crowd" and "The Chaser," I got the feeling that what Kerr saw as botched sentiment was actually unsentimental (and intentionally eccentric) comedy. The former has plenty of moments that undercut the mother-and-baby plot; and the latter was a frankly anti-sentimental cartoon about a henpecked husband finally "taming" his caricatured feminist wife (An attempted suicide is played as slapstick; Harry as a lover who makes girls swoon feels like the audience is meant to recognize a parody of something specific). You sometimes get the impression he's no more worried about audience sympathy than the Paramount Marx Brothers.

Footnote: Harry Langdon Jr. grew up to become a successful Hollywood photographer, producing what are recognizably definitive portraits of celebrities. Always thought it amusing that while Langdon found success with slowed-down comedy, his son found success by freezing action altogether.

2:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Langdon seems to have a trove of talkie material that rarely gets regular exposure and is hardly available on home video. It's a situation similar to Charley Chase in which they are both considered silent comedians despite having a pretty solid career in talkies right up to the end of their lives.

I'm one who hopes his sound comedies become more available in the future.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Slightly off-track... Having watched "Zenobia," it occurred to me that Stan Laurel could have played Langdon's role if he (Stan) and Hardy had decided to forgo their usual characters.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I thought Capra's version of Langdon's rise and fall was purely self-serving: taking credit for Langdon's success but denying any responsibility for his slide. Easy to do when the guy you're writing about has been dead for years and there's really no one left to dispute you. I'm looking forward to reading this new book.

I've seen a handful of the Langdon Columbia shorts but they never really seem to click for me. Langdon always seems somewhat at odds with Columbia's style. The Educationals I've seen worked a little better.

Come to think of it, that's pretty much the way I feel about Keaton's Columbias and Educationals, too.

Wish by some miracle "Heart Trouble" would turn up somewhere.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Chris Santucci said...


I'm happy to see Greenbriar continues to thrive at Appalachian. I stumbled across your blog while checking back on App's theater programs--and I'll continue to track your thoughts on all things classic. Thanks for keeping my fellow Mountaineers alive with the magic of movies.

I hope to swing by and check out a flick after being gone for some many years. In the intern, I always remember fondly watching "Sabrina" to a packed audience when this thing first started back in 2003--has it really been that long?

P.S. I still have my green Greenbriar shirt, and it still fits.

Your humble movie-fan and former theater manager, Chris

10:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Chris! Great hearing from you after all this time. Glad to know you remember the Greenbriar and the many shows you managed so well --- thanks for stopping by GPS.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I always enjoy Langdon's silent films--and his 1932 appearance as the opinionated park janitor in HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM, I found his Hal Roach 2-reelers on TCM a couple years ago repulsive and unfunny.

With a few exceptions here and there, Hal Roach's talkie shorts don't play well for today's audiences once one gets away from the Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang shorts. Of course as historical artifacts they have value, but I would NEVER show many of his talkies to my theatre audiences.


6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it may be treading on sacred territory, but for me Roach's talkie shorts tend to move like molasses. I've always heard that it's completely different seeing them with a live audience, but I've seen a number of them with live audiences and they still just dragged.


5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hardy and THE ELEPHANT were the real team in Zenobia.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Well, actually there is one moment in Zenobia that never fails to kill me -- a very brief dialogue exchange between Langdon and Billie Burke. They're both so wonderfully ditsy -- and actually seem to complement each other, that I'm surprised Roach (or anyone) never thought of teaming them!

10:41 PM  
Blogger The Flickering Image said...

Thanks so much for your review, my copy is on the way, can't wait to get my hands on what seems to be the definitive book on the greatest comedian of the silver screen!

8:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I haven't put this book down since I got it. I found it at the Larry Edmunds bookstore in Hollywood just sitting there. I had no idea it was coming. Who'd of thought, at this late date, we'd get the definitive Langdon book? He strikes me as the funniest of the silent guys. He didn't make the best films and something doesn't work as well with sound but he personally was just funny.

5:11 PM  

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