Nobody’s Baby – Part I

The Curious History of Harry Langdon, Hal Roach, and Laurel & Hardy

Nobody’s Baby – Part I

by Chris Seguin

He’s been called The Baby.  The Little Elf.  An alien.  James Agee likened him to a baby dope fiend.  Walter Kerr compared him to “a comma”.  One title card simply christened his character “the Odd Fellow”.  Of the man himself, Frank Capra branded him – perhaps permanently – as “an impossible, opinionated, conceited, strutting little jerk” and “the only real honest-to-goodness human tragedy that I have personally seen from start to finish”.  Call him what you will, Harry Langdon remains one of the most enigmatic – both as a comic creation and as a man – performers in the history of cinema comedy.  During his 20-year maelstrom of a film career, Langdon found himself in and out of the Hal Roach Studios more than once, and served as friend, collaborator, confidant and lasting inspiration to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Before we go too far, a brief look at Harry’s meteoric rise (and equally meteoric fall), and the radical change he brought upon silent comedy – so radical that it allowed Stan Laurel to completely re-examine his decade-long approach to film comedy, slam on the brakes, and turn it 180 degrees.

Harry in a Nutshell

In 1923 Hal Roach, on the advice of Harold Lloyd, tried to talk long-time vaudevillian Harry Langdon into a screen career.  At the time Lloyd was departing Roach to pursue a distribution deal with Paramount, leaving Roach with Snub Pollard and Paul Parrott as his big comedy stars.[1]  Apparently the money wasn’t there, and Langdon signed with producer Sol Lesser (whose big star at the time was a post-The Kid Jackie Coogan).  Harry filmed a handful of shorts for Lesser – at least two, maybe more.  Lesser then turned around and sold the films and Langdon’s contract to Mack Sennett.

The slam-bam Sennett studios seemed like the worst place in the world for a meticulous pantomimist like Langdon, and at first the Sennett style seemed to get the best of Harry.  Eventually Langdon, with the help of writer-director team Frank Capra, Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards, solidified the character that set him apart from every other comedian on the planet: an inexplicable man-child baffled and bewildered by virtually everything he encounters; a helpless innocent whose only ally, according to Capra, was God.

Soon Harry Langdon Productions signed a contract with First National Pictures for a series of features.  The first two, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and The Strong Man, were huge critical and financial successes.  But if God was Harry-on-celluloid’s only ally, he wasn’t on Harry Langdon’s side in real life.  Langdon’s artistic aspirations led to darker journeys into his character’s psyche – and to the departure of Capra and Edwards, along with a large share of his audience.  First National craved films like his earlier, funny comedies.  Meanwhile, Sennett saturated the market with Langdon releases he had held in reserve, cashing in on First National’s publicity machine.

This rapid one-two-three punch decimated Harry’s career and helped forge what became the legend of Harry Langdon: an overgrown egomaniac whose ambition far outranked his talent and his understanding of his own character; whose own blindness to his limitations and insatiable desire to out-Chaplin Chaplin deservedly destroyed his career.

The Langdon Influence

In the all-too-short span of Harry’s superstardom, his influence was everywhere.  So it was inevitable that it would reach Stan Laurel.  Stan had been struggling for years to define his comic persona, which jumped from hyperactive dumbbell to low-key, dead-on (and frankly, much funnier) parodies of Rudolph Valentino, Milton Sills and John Barrymore.

Ultimately, Stan did learn from Harry.  Here’s what he learned: To take it slow.  Sloooooow.  This seemed to be the trigger Laurel required to reevaluate his comic style – and it would change everything.

It didn’t happen right away.  Laurel’s 1926 Joe Rock comedy Half A Man is usually cited as a turning point in his career; a prime example of Stan in full Langdon-mode.  But it’s not really there.  It’s more like Stan Laurel imitating Lupino Lane imitating Harry Langdon.  Stan’s screen character by this time had developed into a prissy, petulant, easily agitated fop (often with a pince-nez versus Lane’s trademark monocle) that he would carry through his first co-starring films with Oliver Hardy.

Stan in Half A Man has his moments of childlike innocence, but he’s really nothing like Harry.  There is a scene where he’s walking along the beach and taken by surprise by the oncoming surf.  Stan chases the waves back into the sea, chastising them, emphatically stomping on the ground to make his point.  But the scene has no subtlety or grace.  It comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.  He’s just a silly child, spanking the ocean and licking his lollipop.

A more persuasive link to the future Stan Laurel is Saturday Afternoon, a 1925 Sennett three-reeler teaming Harry with husky Vernon Dent in an embryonic version of Laurel & Hardy, in a plot that anticipates Their Purple Moment, Blotto and Sons Of The Desert.  Harry is a hapless husband lured into stepping out with a couple of cuties by a burly, worldly friend.  Of course big/little, smart/dumb comedy teams were nothing new – Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan were “Ham & Bud”, and Babe Hardy himself had been paired with Billy Ruge as “Plump & Runt” and with Bobby Ray in a trio of shorts in the mid-20s.  But Saturday Afternoon has all the hallmarks of a classic Laurel & Hardy film: a domineering wife, a secretive plan to sneak out, and one friend all too willing to lead the other astray.

There’s a wonderful scene in Saturday Afternoon where Vernon and his girlfriend chat over a picket fence.  They’re positioned to the left- and right-hand sides of the frame, with Harry in the middle, watching curiously.  He looks away, and the lovebirds share a quick smooch… startling and confusing Harry.  This is very strange…  He’s never seen anything so perplexing in his life.  He watches carefully as they kiss again – what exactly are they doing? – and when they lean in for a long, long kiss, Harry studies it with wide-eyed fascination: this is information he can use on his own girl.  Putting his plan into action, he whistles for his girl – and is chased away by an angry dog.

Determined to put his newfound knowledge of the ways of romance to good use, Harry confronts his wife.  Fortunately, she’s not in the room (or so he thinks) as Harry lays down the law: “—after this you’re gonna wind the clock, fix the cat and poison the ants – .  Catching him in the act, his wife slyly yields and permits Harry his afternoon out, even giving him a dime to buy his girlfriend a soda.

Harry and Vernon arrive late, and their girls aren’t there.  Harry, ever helpful, fetches two other dates.  Unfortunately, it’s a pair of obvious streetwalkers.  Vernon informs him “They won’t do” and Harry passes on the message.  The girls turn violent.  What does Harry do?  What would Stan Laurel do?  What else – he hurls a brick at them.  Because there’s chivalry… and there’s self preservation.  Harry’s no fool.

As Stan & Ollie Rise, Harry Falls

Over the course of 1927, Stan Laurel’s character and the team of Laurel & Hardy were gelling.  The evolution from something like Slipping Wives to the fully formed Stan & Ollie of Leave ‘Em Laughing and From Soup To Nuts was rapid and massive.

The “Stan” of Stan & Ollie is often compared to Harry; the similarities were strong enough that Hal Roach would one day consider Langdon as a natural replacement for Laurel.  But what’s interesting is that, on deeper examination, how very different Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon are.  Yes, both are childlike innocents unprepared for the big, scary world out there.  Both are easily frightened and confused, and can barely function without the guidance and protection of others.  Both get sleepy when bonked on the head.

But let’s begin with a simple example – food – and go from there.  In County Hospital, Stan brings Ollie a bag of hard-boiled eggs and nuts.  He unpeels an egg and eats it.  That’s all he does, as Ollie watches.  For a full minute-and-a-half.  Then he reaches for another one.

In Harry’s 1925 Sennett comedy Remember When?, Harry is a wandering hobo who happens upon a picnic table loaded with sandwiches.  Each looks more delicious than the first, and every time Harry reaches for a sandwich he’s distracted by a potentially yummier one.  Inevitably he’s shooed away before he gets his pudgy fingers on a single sandwich.  But for Stan Laurel, one hard boiled egg after another is fine.

Now let’s consider the Laurel stare.  Blank and beautiful, impenetrable, and perfect for timing out laughs.  Langdon has a blank stare too… but there’s more to it.  Harry’s mind was always working.  Behind his blinking eyes you could see curiosity, apprehension, bewilderment, terror, mischief, anger, anxiety as he tries to process whatever information he’s presented with.

The actual impact of Langdon’s influence on Laurel – our first view of the full-fledged Stanley we would come to know – doesn’t arrive until the opening of The Battle Of The Century, when the camera catches pugilist Canvasback Clump in the corner of the ring, awaiting slaughter… his brain betraying nothing and a slight, vague smile on his face.  This would set the tone for every Laurel & Hardy film for the next 20-plus years, and finally bring Stan Laurel (alongside his friend, Mr. Hardy) the unique personality that would gain him fame, fortune, and universal comic immortality.

As Laurel & Hardy’s star was rising, Harry Langdon’s was descending… fast.  1928 was a very good year for Stan & Ollie, a very bad one for Harry.  His films were failing, one by one. First National was in dire straits, selling out to the Warner Brothers who were distracted – like Harry with a plateful of sandwiches – by the talkies.  Everything seemed to gang up to ensure Langdon’s downfall.  In the Exhibitors Herald-World, M.A. Manning, operator of the Opera House in Baldwin, Wisconsin said of Harry’s final silent feature, Heart Trouble“The first Langdon ever played here and the last.”   The last. Mr. Manning spoke for all of Hollywood with that one.

NOTES – Nobody’s Baby

[1] Stan Laurel’s return to the Roach lot in  coincided with this timing, so it’s quite possible that Stan was brought in to fill the void that Harry ultimately didn’t fill.