Nobody’s Baby – Part II

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

Nobody’s Baby – Part II

by Chris Seguin

“Well well well well well!”

Hal Roach and the Talkies

With Harry’s First National contract over and done with, Hal Roach was in a position to capitalize on the opportunity: He would finally have Harry Langdon on his payroll.

It seemed like the perfect home for Langdon at this critical point in his career.  Harry’s quiet, methodical technique was completely in synch with the situational approach of the Roach studio, and with comedy strategists like Leo McCarey and Charley Chase defining the Roach style, he’d have strong support on par with Capra, Ripley and Edwards.

And Roach was nothing if not an opportunist in such situations; he had built his “All Star” series by signing former dramatic stars such as Lionel Barrymore and Theda Bara for two-reel comedies.  Hollywood cast-offs Priscilla Dean, Herbert Rawlinson and Mae Busch were supported by Laurel & Hardy in some of the team’s first films together.

Reportedly, Harry was offered a contract in 1928 to star in four silent 4-reel comedies with synchronized scores.  The featurette format had met with some success with another faded star, ex-Sennett comedienne Mabel Normand, whose 1926-27 series with Roach came to a premature end due to Mabel’s ill health.  Harry would fill that void nicely.

But in the early days of sound, plans and press releases seemed to change daily.  On November 4, 1928, newspapers announced: “Harry Langdon has signed a contract to make full-length talking pictures for Hal Roach… the coast producer and cinema comedian will become pioneers in the field of the feature-length talking comedy.”

That honeymoon didn’t last long.  On December 29th it was reported: “Harry Langdon has cancelled his contract with Hal Roach after refusing to accept a three-months’ layoff in prospect at the studio.”  It was during this time that Roach would shut down the studio to wire it for sound.  But not long after production resumed, Harry would have a home.  (Although not immediately – three All-Star talkie comedies were produced before Langdon took over the series.)

Rather than features, Harry would make his comeback in a series of eight talkie 2-reelers.  Roach’s new star was ballyhooed in the trade press with four colour ads, and by a singularly bizarre short film we’ll call, for lack of an official title, Hal Roach Presents Harry Langdon.  Harry first stood before MGM executives (and the studio microphone) in an in-jokey, name-dropping, double entendrelaced promotional reel that’s just the kind of thing to amuse a roomful of cigar-chomping, back-slapping salesmen.  It’d be impossible not to get laughs.

The film opens at the front door of a modestly affluent home.  A knock at the door is answered by Thelma Todd, who opens it to reveal Harry.  After some initial hesitation, Harry’s first words are “Well well well well well” (ten “wells” in all).  He engages in some risqué dialogue with Thelma, who portrays “Mrs. Quimby” – a reference to Fred Quimby, then the New York head of sales for MGM’s short subject division but later the producer for MGM’s fabled animation unit, home to Hanna-Barbera and Tex Avery.

Harry: “You’re Mrs. Quimby, huh?”

Thelma: “Yes.”

Harry: “Not Mrs. Rogers…”

Thelma: “No.”

Harry: “No, no… you’re Mrs. Quimby!”

Thelma: “Yes!”

Harry: “Have you… have you got any little Quimbys?”

Thelma: “No.”

Harry: “Oh you haven’t got any Quimbys…”

Thelma: “No.”

Harry: “Not one… not one little Quimby?”

Thelma: “Not one!”

Harry: “Tsk tsk tsk.  If you were Mrs… if you were Mrs. Rogers would you have any Quimbys?”

Realizing that Mr. Quimby isn’t home (with some remarks about Quimby making “boom boom” and doing some “gap closing” with fellow MGM-exec Howard Dietz), Harry wonders how Thelma would react to a drunken husband coming home.

Harry: “Supposing he did come home intoxicated?  Would you raise a rumpus?”

Thelma: “I don’t think so!”

Harry: “You wouldn’t raise one little rump?” (Thelma lets out an audible giggle.)

Harry drags in a drunken Eddie Dunn for the black out joke, and as the film fades back Eddie steps out of character to announce Harry’s arrival at Roach.

Eddie: “Mr. Roach has the greatest confidence in the world in Mr. Langdon, and I know that Harry is with Mr. Roach heart and soul”.

The message is clear: Mr. Roach wants to reassure MGM that the newly-chastened Harry will no longer indulge in prima donna behaviour.  You have Mr. Roach’s word.[2]

There lies the problem with the entire series.  Roach’s most successful series were always dependent on a strong guiding hand (Stan Laurel, Charley Chase, and Robert McGowan on the “Our Gang” series).  But there was no way that Roach was going to allow Langdon that level of control, particularly after the escalating fiascos of his three directorial efforts at First National.  Unfortunately, Roach was more a businessman than a true comedy craftsman, and the directors assigned to the Langdon series – Fred Guiol, Charley Rogers, Roach studio manager Warren Doane(!) – were hardly the men to guide Harry through the treacherous waters of the new talkie medium.  So who is ultimately responsible for these strange, strange films?  Roach the hammer-fisted businessman?  Or Langdon, the high-handed artiste?

Harry’s talkie “debut” demonstrates a seriously wrongheaded approach to sound.  While this type of stuff must have been uproariously funny to Mr. Quimby, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Dietz (you can just see them laughing their heads off at Harry’s point-blank ad lib “You got a bathroom in there?”), it positioned Harry as a yammering idiot.

Langdon with Lew Foster and Hal Roach

But Harry’s way with words must have — must have — worked for him.  After all, Harry had spent decades on the stage, and had just finished up a successful vaudeville tour before signing with Roach.  So he obviously knew how to use his voice — and it must have earned him laughs.  One has to believe that Harry simply took what worked for him while performing live, and put it into action on the Roach soundstages.  And why not?  After all, Harry-the-character was a talker.  If you watch Harry in his silent films, he’s a non-stop chatterbox, constantly seeking approval or giving his foes a childish tongue lashing.  But silence wrapped this odd figure in the protective veil of otherworldiness; the cold, cruel reality of the talkies transforms him from whimsical pixie to literal halfwit.

So with a new and unfamiliar creative team behind him, and nobody to guide him, Harry was back to square one.  The first two Roach/Langdon shorts are missing-in-action (a shame, because Sky Boy – which features Harry marooned on an iceberg with Thelma Todd – sounds utterly fascinating!), but the earliest survivor, The Head Guy, demonstrates precisely where the series went wrong.  Its centerpiece – a bizarre stream of consciousness monologue featuring Harry, a sandwich, and an apple, all performed in a single take – is literally like watching a car wreck.  You simply can’t look away.  For three and three-quarter indescribable minutes (which I will now attempt, in vain, to describe), Harry contemplates the fact that his girlfriend running away with a traveling vaudeville troupe.  The only solution is suicide:

Harry sits himself down and sobs uncontrollably… a squeaky, gasping blubber.  “If Nancy don’t want me I wanna die.”  His eyes widen with the realization of what he’s just said.  He repeats his death wish, eyes widening again.  He really means it.  More sobbing… until Harry becomes distracted by a pencil and absentmindedly picks at his fingernails.  “I will die I will die!”, he proclaims, banging his fist on the table.  Suddenly, Harry becomes resolute… who needs Nancy?  “I’ll get myself another girl.  Maybe a pretty girl and maybe a bigger girl!”  But Nancy really is the only girl for him, and the suicidal sobbing continues… while the lunchbox on his desk grabs Harry’s attention.  Stuffing a sandwich into his mouth between tears (and coughing on the bread like a child who’s eating too fast), he snuffles his way to dessert before deciding, “I could jump in the lake I will I don’t want no apple now I don’t want no apple now I’ll eat my apple after now”.

See?  I told you it was indescribable.

Langdon excels in silent, solo set-pieces, and each film goes out of its way to provide him opportunities.  There’s two such turns in Skirt Shy: Harry, disguised in grandmotherly garb, stumbles and catches the boxing gloves which serve as his bosom on a tiny sapling. The sapling sways, pulling the gloves out of his bodice and swinging them back into Harry’s face.  Harry swats the gloves; they swat him back.  This goes on countless times, with infinite variations, each funnier than the first… it’s Harry at his best.  A few minutes later Harry, standing under an apple tree, takes a bite of a fallen apple.  Finding it sour, he drops it to the ground… only to have another apple fall from the tree (or, in Harry’s mind, from Heaven) straight into his hand.

With the fifth film in the series, The Fighting Parson, things start to click.  Harry gets a terrific introduction, playing the banjo aboard a stagecoach before splaying out his hands to receive alms that will never come.  (We actually get to hear him play, unlike his earlier banjo strumming in the silent Lucky Stars.)  Later in the film, Harry takes the stage in a tough western saloon, singing Frankie and Johnnie (again accompanying himself on the banjo) and performing an eccentric soft-shoe.  Like Charley Chase in his own Roach series, Langdon uses the early talkie medium to deftly display his vaudeville origins.  The film reverts to silent sight gag comedy for its climactic boxing scene: Harry, with two boxing gloves at the end of lengthy poles shoved up the sleeves of his oversized sweater, looks like human praying mantis… a hallucinatory variation on the boxing scene in Three’s A Crowd, and certainly a child’s view of the type of creature he’d have to be to overcome his nemesis (Leo Willis).

The Big Kick is probably the best of the group.  It’s virtually silent from fade in to fade out, and the first Langdon short to benefit from a musical background (mostly cobbled together from Vitaphone scores created for earlier Roach silents).  Harry says next-to-nothing throughout the entire film, instead performing a series of pantomime routines against a non-existent plot involving rum-runners at Harry’s gas station.[3]  All the old Langdon stand-bys are here: dummies too easily confused with real people, a menacing balloon, and a rather charming stretching-and-yawning, rise-and-shine sequence that predates the opening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure by more than half a century.  Harry even introduces a gag that he’d resurrect a decade later in Laurel & Hardy’s Saps At Sea.  But more on that later.

Langdon’s two final outings, The Shrimp and The King, are trifling slapsticks with a distinctly oddball approach – The King, in particular, with its roots in Soldier Man and The Chaser, and yet more dialogue involving suicide and an apple – but neither recaptures his silent magic.  (Photoplay on The King: “The dialogue is deadly dull, and the fear grows upon us that Harry’s enormous gift for pantomime is lost in the talkies.”)[4] 

A critic had once described Harry as a wind-up toy; in the Roach films he’s literally wound too tight, sproinging wildly out of control for two reels.  Frank Capra would famously tell the story of watching Harry film a two-reeler at Columbia (1938’s Sue My Lawyer), while the director hollered “go faster!”.  This exact scenario could have easily applied to Harry’s stay at Roach ten years earlier; the hectic results are neither pure Roach nor pure Langdon – they’re a step backwards into early Sennett territory.  In the end it’s not surprising that Harry’s contract wasn’t renewed, Roach very graciously “releasing” Langdon to co-star in Come Easy (later re-christened A Soldier’s Plaything) at First National.[5]

But what does all this have to do with Laurel & Hardy?  Well, a couple of things.  Looking at the Langdon and Laurel & Hardy series being produced at the same time, one quickly sees how differently they approached sound.  One method works, one doesn’t.  Harry tends to work in a vacuum, and feels the need to fill silence with chatter… often talking to himself “just because” that’s what you did in this strange new medium.  Laurel & Hardy’s partnership, on the other hand, allowed them to establish a “speak only when you’re spoken to” technique.  Laurel & Hardy naturally engage in dialogue; Harry performs monologues.

There’s also a subtle shift in Stan’s performing style during this period; one that becomes particularly noticeable around the time of Below Zero and Hog Wild (released as Harry’s final two Roach films were reaching theatres).  Stan’s performances seem more ethereal, like he doesn’t quite belong in this world any more.  Witness his doleful gaze in the opening scenes of Below Zero – empty, but just a little sad.  Or his utter uselessness in Hog Wild, where even the simplest task seems beyond his blank comprehension.  It’s at this point that Stan really starts to transcend reality… from a somewhat dim yet feisty sidekick to Mr. Hardy, to the vacant, void-of-any-thought Mr. Laurel.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Langdon’s proximity played a role in this – but Stan had now officially stepped into the role of cinema’s master of comic inertia.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it was likely during this period that Laurel and Langdon would forge their friendship, one that would last Langdon’s lifetime and have a considerable impact on his career as Harry stumbled through the 1930s.

NOTES – Nobody’s Baby

[2] In a February article in Photoplay Magazine entitled “Whatever Happened To Harry Langdon”, Katherine Albert wrote: “Not so long ago he signed with Hal Roach to make two-reelers.  He’d never met Roach before.  The first thing said was, “Now, see here, Langdon, none of that high handed stuff you’d pulled at First National.”

[3] Harry’s lack of dialogue in The Big Kick may be due to the fact that it was his first multi-lingual film. Like Laurel
& Hardy, Our Gang and Charley Chase, Langdon also performed phonetic versions of his films for foreign markets.  Among Harry’s titles were La Estacion de Gasolina (The Big Kick, Spanish), Pobre Infeliz (The Shrimp, Spanish) and Der Konig (The King, German).

[4] A week after the release of The King, Roach released A Tough Winter, an Our Gang comedy featuring African-American comic Stepin Fetchit.  The film was apparently a test for a starring series for Fetchit – Roach may have already been looking for a replacement for Langdon.  Harry’s series was ultimately supplanted by The Boy Friends; Fetchit eventually appeared with Harry in Zenobia.

[5] In June , syndicated newspaper column “In Hollywood” reported that Langdon’s contract with Al Christie would be “assumed by Hal Roach”.  It seems Harry and Roach still needed each other.