Death, Lust, Betrayal and Long Pants: The Comedy Noir of Harry Langdon
by Anthony Balducci
The first time that I saw Long Pants (1927), I assumed that it was meant to spoof F.W. Murnau’s dark drama of seduction, Sunrise (1927). I later learned that Sunrise was released seven months after the release of Long Pants. Langdon is a much different leading man than Sunrise‘s George O’Brien. O’Brien, with his steady bearing, contrasts sharply with the slow-blinking Langdon. O’Brien, a fully developed man, is a symbol of virility. He has a strong chin and a penetrating gaze. Langdon is a poorly developed man with fat jowls and a vacuous gaze. O’Brien’s face and physique are chiseled out of cool marble while Langdon’s face and physique are chiseled out of warm marshmallow. Nonetheless, the two films share an identical premise. A temptress from the city is passing through a small town when she attracts the attention of a local man. The man finds the woman so enticing that he is willing to murder a faithful and moral woman to whom he is pledged just to run off with her. These women who Langdon and O’Brien find so alluring (Alma Bennett and Margaret Livingston, respectively) are even dressed similarly.
Of course, a person is in questionable territory when they identify Langdon’s “Little Elf” character as a man. The film resolves this matter early on by showing young Harry graduating from short pants to long pants, which is meant to signify the character’s transition into adulthood. The film’s title emphasizes this very change, but it’s up to the viewer to decide if this version of Harry is any more adult than the Harry of past films. He does seem vain, selfish and rash compared to the sweet and lovable character that Langdon portrayed in The Strong Man.
Pamela Hutchinson of The Guardian wrote, “Sunrise begins, as so many great films do, with the promise of sex and the threat of violence.” The same can be said of Long Pants. In the first scene, Harry is absorbed in extravagant daydreams as he sits in his attic reading a romance novel. In his desire to act like an adult, Harry has long been inclined to mimic what he sees adults do. It is not surprising then that, as a budding adolescent, he would look to books to teach him about the sexual relations of men and women. Unfortunately, he may be reading the wrong books. A book that Harry checks out of the library is Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” which readers of the book will know involves adultery and infanticide. Harry reading this book is not as innocent as Buster Keaton reading “How to Be a Detective” in Sherlock Jr. or Harold Lloyd consulting his self-penned tome “The Secret of Making Love” in Girl Shy. Langdon, himself, got the idea for Long Pants from reading Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” which tells the story of an ambitious young factory worker who murders his pregnant girlfriend so that he can pursue a relationship with a wealthy woman.
No time is wasted setting Long Pants‘ story into motion. After putting on his new pants, Harry rides his bicycle into the woods, where he encounters Bennett. Bennett looks blasé as her chauffeur changes a flat tire on her limousine. Harry, instantly smitten with this exotic lady, tries to impress her with a few bicycle tricks. He becomes overwhelmed when the woman finally relents to his attention-seeking antics and gives him a kiss. O’Brien similarly has an encounter in the woods with his exotic lady, which culminates with O’Brien being overwhelmed with passion and the couple kissing. It is essentially the same situation except for the bicycle tricks.
Harry’s parents arrange for their boy to marry his village sweetheart (Priscilla Bonner). His father attempts to have a final word with Harry before the wedding, but all that Harry can think about is getting rid of his bride. He comes up with the idea of taking Priscilla into the woods and shooting her. A fantasy sequence actually shows Harry carrying out the foul deed. O’Brien was encouraged to murder his wife by the seductive Livingston, but Harry needs no such encouragement.
While guests are happily gathering for the wedding, Harry leads his loving bride out in the woods to put a bullet into her braincase. He tries to distract her by initiating a game of hide-and-seek. He gets her to count to 500, which should give him plenty of time, but nothing goes right for him. The gun falls through a hole in his pocket and becomes lost in a pile of leaves. Harry has to dig frantically through the leaves to retrieve the gun. He no sooner yanks the gun out of the leaves then he bumps into a tree branch, which pushes his top hat down over his eyes. He then stumbles blindly into a barbed wire fence. Eventually, he steps into a bear trap and can’t get himself free. Fate, which usually protects Harry, has now turned against him. Or, it could be that fate is protecting him from doing something that he will regret. O’Brien was never able to summon up the nerve to murder his wife, but Harry proves to be a lot more nervy than O’Brien. His boldness remains undiminished, but it is his luck and wit that fail him. In the end, Priscilla finds the gun laying on the ground. She proves far more adept with the gun than Harry as she playfully takes shots at a makeshift target.
Most viewers have a hard enough time relating to a character as strange and mysterious as the Little Elf. It is probably asking too much of the viewer to expect them to be understanding of Harry’s feelings and motivations as he attempts to murder sweet and innocent Ms. Bonner. Harry was charming because of his childlike innocence. But these actions weren’t childlike and they weren’t innocent.
The latter half of Sunrise involves O’Brien’s experiences in the city. By the time that he returns home, the man has seen the error of his ways and has recommitted to his small town lady. This is mostly what happens to Langdon in the latter half of Long Pants. But, unlike O’Brien, Langdon never shows remorse. O’Brien breaks down crying, his anguish and regret undeniable. By comparison, Harry comes across as an emotionless sociopath. He walks unannounced through the front door of his parents’ home and calmly joins his parents and Priscilla for dinner. He says nothing. He offers no hugs or kisses. He just sits there with an enigmatic look on his face. It is like the final moments of Taxi Driver (1976), which leaves the viewer studying Travis Bickle’s face to decide if the man has in fact purged his homicidal urges. I hope that Priscilla never again goes walking in the woods with Harry.
Who would put “Desire Under the Elms” into the hands of a dim-witted man-child? No good could come from a book that is part “The Secret of Having an Adulterous Affair” and part “How to Murder an Infant.” Long Pants was written by Arthur Ripley and Tay Garnett. These writers were no doubt in possession of dark sensibilities and it is not surprising that both men jumped into the film noir trend of the 1940s. Garnett had his greatest success as the director of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which involves John Garfield murdering amiable Cecil Kellaway to have Lana Turner to himself. Ripley, who often contributed material to Langdon’s films that was macabre and surreal, was able to indulge his darkly bizarre and neurotic tendencies when he directed The Chase (1946). The plot isn’t too complicated. Steve Cochran hires an assassin to plunge a knife into Michèle Morgan to stop her from running away with Bob Cummings. Cummings is accused of the murder and spends much of the film fleeing from the police. Morgan actually has a mercifully quick death compared to characters in other Ripley films. In Ripley’s Voice in the Wind (1944), Alexander Granach is stabbed with an ice pick and then bleeds to death as he drags himself up a flight of steps. Film noir was the place for affairs, femme fatales and murder. Ripley achieves a definite strangeness with his camera angles, compositions and set designs for The Chase. As if the film isn’t weird enough, it gets progressively weirder during an extended dream sequence. The Chase, much like Long Pants, seems to go out of its way to alienate viewers.
The Chase opens much like a silent film comedy. A tramp (Cummings) loiters outside of a restaurant window, staring longingly at diners inside. His foot strikes something. He looks down and sees a wallet on the ground. The wallet, which is stuffed with money, is an answer to his prayers. The next that we see of him, he has just finished off a meal. He bears a self-satisfied smile as he puffs on a fat cigar. The scene very much resembles a scene enacted by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. When Cummings arrives at a mansion to return the wallet to the owner, some comic business with a peephole in the door ensues. The film’s comedy elements end at this point, but it is nonetheless an odd way to begin this story. It is interesting, too, that a wallet loaded with cash brings together hero Cummings with vicious gangster Steve Cochran. It is somewhat reminiscent of the wad of cash that unites Langdon with a murderous criminal in The Strong Man.
The only chance that Langdon, Ripley and Garnett had of getting the viewer to accept Harry’s attempted homicide in Long Pants was to get them to take into consideration the character’s naivety and immaturity. A lawyer would call this a diminished capacity defense.
The seeming youthfulness of the Little Elf was, in every way, vital to Langdon’s comedy. It was hard for Langdon to maintain this character as he got older and his long pants had to be replaced with retirement home leisure pants. In His New Mamma (1924), Harry becomes frightened when a balloon illustrated with a grimacing face floats up behind him. The balloon routine was ideally suited to the childlike comedian and it was ideally suited to silent film. I talk about the routine at length in my book The Funny Parts. But times change. Seventeen years later, Langdon revived the routine for a low-budget Monogram feature, Double Trouble (1941). This version of the routine has none of the charm or surrealism of the original. It is neither funny nor believable to see Harry, now an old man, be spooked by a pool float. So, now, try to imagine the worn and baggy-eyed Harry of Double Trouble taking his bride out into the woods to shoot her. It would have been creepy.
In his defense, Langdon’s Little Elf could not function as a comic hero in the manner of the characters played by Keaton or Lloyd. He reacted in his own unique way to influences and events, which meant that he could be put into the most conventional situation and it was not likely to remain conventional for long. Plots are built on a limited number of concepts. A character might find himself involved in a quest, or an escape, or a rescue, or a love affair. Creating an original situation is impossible, but creating an original character who will react uniquely to a situation isn’t. The Little Elf was an original character.
Langdon is riveting because you never know what he is going to do next. I was reminded of Langdon when I read something that film critic John Brennan observed about actress Sandy Dennis. He wrote, “She’s impossible to ignore, even if she is annoying the hell out of you, which, oh, she could. You can’t take your eyes off her. . . because you’re afraid she might do or say something and you might miss it.”
Even a simple drunk scene is different with Langdon. When Harold Lloyd becomes drunk in High and Dizzy (1920), he barely resembles the “Glasses Character” that Lloyd’s fans have come to know. The resourceful go-getter has vanished into thin air and someone entirely different has taken his place. Lloyd’s brain has been so addled by homemade spirits that simply walking down the street now proves to be a major challenge for him. Buster Keaton was, at his best, precise, stoic and athletically graceful. But acting drunk involves acting clumsy, disorderly and drowsy. Keaton acting drunk was no longer Keaton. But Langdon in an inebriated state may have, in ways, been even more Langdon than the everyday sober Langdon. While acting drunk, Langdon was able to emphasize his best comic traits. He managed better than any other comedian to present himself as unsteady, fumbling and discombobulated. Even more important, slow-witted Harry became slower-witted Harry. This may be the reason that Langdon is in an intoxicated state in many of his films – The Hansom Cabman (1924), Boobs in the Wood (1925), The Sea Squawk (1925), Soldier Man (1926), The Stage Hand (1933), and Love, Honor and Obey (The Law!) (1935). Harry does not become aggressive as most comedy drunks do. He does not move his arms with sweeping gestures or boldly stumble forward. He becomes as sleepy as a baby after a warm bath. His body becomes limp and he struggles to keep his eyes open. His usual childish helplessness has become amplified.
Still, alcohol does bring about one change in Harry’s personality. Harry becomes less apprehensive and more giddy. He puts his hand to his mouth to stifle a giggle, but he is feeling so ecstatic that the giggles can’t be stopped. This is the Little Elf without fear or inhibition. Maybe, that was the problem with Long Pants. Harry, intoxicated with lust, loses fear and inhibition. As any immature individual, he is driven to serve his needs and desires by his id. He lets loose only to suffer dire consequences. Without cultural rules to guide him, Harry does the unexpected as he usually does, but this time the unexpected is too strange and off-putting for most people to take.
Still, in spite of his missteps in Long Pants, Langdon remained original and intriguing from beginning to end, for which the man deserves to be applauded.