Nobody’s Baby – Part III

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

Nobody’s Baby – Part III

by Chris Seguin

The fine Italian hand of Harry Langdon

So by March 1930, Harry was out of the Hal Roach lot… but not out of work.  He played supporting roles to Slim Summerville and Ben Lyon in two features, vanished into a vortex of bankruptcy and divorce lawyers, and resurfaced two years later at Educational to regurgitate old successes from The Strong Man and Long Pants in a series of low-budget two-reelers.  He came close to a comeback with a juicy, fourth-billed role in Al Jolson’s heavily promoted Hallelujah, I’m A Bum, but the oddball rhyming musical, while delightfully charming today, was a disaster with audiences of 1933.  In 1934 he joined Columbia’s newly created short subject department, where he abandoned his familiar costume and character, grew a moustache, and reinvented his comic persona as a slightly befuddled, decidedly un-magical, middle-aged man… Leon Errol or Hugh Herbert, without the bite.

In 1935 Harry abandoned the Hollywood who abandoned him to tour Australia, performing in a stage revival of Anything Goes.  Heading home after a successful run, he stopped in England to do a small part in Mad About Money.  Back in Hollywood he churned out two quick two-reelers for Columbia before landing, of all places, back at the Hal Roach studios.

Who knows exactly what caused Harry to return to Roach in 1937?  Stan Laurel, according to Harry in a later interview, was responsible for getting Langdon a job as a writer.  But an August 12, 1937 newspaper report may hold the real answer: “Reports persist that Stanley Laurel won’t return to the Hal Roach lot, and that Harry Langdon will replace him as a comedy co-star with Oliver Hardy.”

Here’s where you can start to connect the dots.  The year-long gap between the filming of Way Out West and the scripting of Swiss Miss was the result of yet another contract dispute between Stan Laurel and Hal Roach.  Roach was getting progressively more fed up with his studio’s biggest – and most argumentative – breadwinner.  Laurel was, to Roach in 1937, what Langdon was in 1930: a “high handed”, temperamental, pain in the neck.  A much-humbler Harry might be just the solution Roach was looking for.

But first, let’s go back a few months, to the summer and fall of 1936 and the creation of Way Out West.  Langdon was in the air.  Stan, Roach or somebody must have screened Harry’s masterpiece The Strong Man recently, since Way Out West mirrors many of The Strong Man’s core comic ideas: the melodramatic battle of good vs. evil in a western saloon; a stagecoach sequence centered around comic annoyance; the search for a young innocent named Mary (“Roberts” in Way Out West; “Brown” in The Strong Man); and a masquerade by a duplicitous, platinum-haired seductress out to “de-flower” the comic innocent (Stan/Harry).  Even Stan’s pantomimed account of his horrific seduction to Mary Roberts (behind the meat locker door) echoes Harry’s retelling of the tale to Mary Brown in the earlier film.  

Way Out West turned out to be enough of a box-office success for Roach to tolerate another four-film pact with Stan Laurel Productions – scotching any need for a Langdon & Hardy partnership.

Regardless, here was Harry back at Roach (as an insurance policy against Laurel?).  This “just in case” mentality may have resulted in Harry’s first appearance in a Hollywood feature in three years, an unbilled cameo in Roach’s There Goes My Heart.  As a milquetoast minister cajoling bickering lovers Frederick March and Virginia Bruce into matrimony, Langdon’s return to the screen receives particularly loving treatment from director Norman Z. McLeod, one that must have inspired a happy “welcome back” from moviegoers.  Harry’s placid interpretation suggests interesting opportunities as a character actor… a “what might have been” scenario similar to Oliver Hardy’s uncredited bit in Riding High.  He even gets the final shot to himself, a true leave-‘em-laughing homecoming.[6]

At the same time Harry was making his minor come-back in Roach’s first United Artist release, he was also hard at work on Roach’s final release for MGM: Laurel & Hardy’s Block-Heads.  Even before its release, Block-Heads was announced as the team’s final film.  For some critics it was “good riddance” to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, and time for a belated appreciation of Mr. Langdon.  “R.W.D.” in the The New York Herald-Tribune began his Block-Heads review thusly:

“The fine Italian hand of Harry Langdon is discernable in the latest Laurel and Hardy feature-length film at the Rialto.  Langdon, who in his heyday was undoubtedly a greater comedian than either the sad-faced man or the fat fellow ever could be, helps to create a comic tour de force which lifts this offering well above the entertainment level of the recent Swiss Miss.  Block-Heads is, pardonably enough, a film without a point, unless it is to massage the spectator’s stomach muscles, so the other four authors may breathe freely with Mr. Langdon.”

Well, somebody liked Harry.

That Block-Heads was superior to Swiss Miss goes without saying.  What is hard to say is exactly what Harry contributed to the script.  Block-Heads is a noisy remake of the boys’ first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are, padded out with some uncharacteristically frantic comedy and a hefty dose of “white magic”.  But the first two reels are delightfully genteel – even melancholy – with an obvious foundation in Langdon’s Sennett three-reeler Soldier Man.  Some have even gone as far as calling Block-Heads a remake of Soldier Man.  (Calling BlockHeads a remake of Soldier Man is like calling A Chump At Oxford a remake of Langdon’s Feet Of Mud.  Both have street sweeping scenes, and both Stan and Harry play golf with a broom and a manhole.  Harry seems content with recycling old gags on his Laurel & Hardy assignments.)

But the similarities end at the initial comic set up: an innocent doughboy unaware that World War I is over.  Put Stan and Harry in exactly the same situation, and their key differences become apparent.

In Block-Heads, Stan steadfastly patrols the trenches he was left to defend twenty years earlier.  Pivoting in place for the umpteenth time during his umpteenth march back-and-forth, blowing his umpteenth reveille, dining on his umpteenth can of beans, Stan is the ultimate literalist – he could do this forever.  (“When I’m told to do something …”) Confronted with the reality of having wasted twenty years on his pointless watch, his only reply is, “How time flies!”.

Harry, on the other hand, wanders aimlessly and alone, encountering bundles of dynamite, panicky faux-Euro peasants, and a rather mystifying set of cow’s udders.  The udder sequence is one of Langdon’s most celebrated routines; hiding under a cow while taking aim at a foreign “enemy”, Harry is mesmerized by the teats… he can’t keep his eyes, or his fingers, off them.  (It’s hard to concentrate on your target with these things dangling in your face!)  In a typically convoluted Sennett twist, Harry is led to believe the cow has eaten some dynamite.  As he dashes off to fetch a pail of water, the cow runs away…just as the dynamite blows up a butcher’s discarded basket.  As chunks of meat rains down on Harry, he scolds the smoldering carcass: “I told you to cough it up.” Just then the butcher’s basket, still smoking, lands in front of Harry… a heaven-sent barbecue perfect for preparing dinner.

It’s interesting to think what Stan would have done with the same material.  He had recently taken to doing solo pantomime routines in their features (bottling wine in The Bohemian Girl, finagling brandy from the St. Bernard in Swiss Miss), so it’s very easy to imagine how Stan might react while taking cover beneath a bovine.  Think of the broken statue gag in Wrong Again – it could have been wonderful.

But the character of “Stan” simply doesn’t possess Langdon’s childlike curiosity.  Beans, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, wax apples… it’s all the same to Stan.  If Ollie wants to carry him to his car, who is Stan to question why?  He doesn’t stop to wonder about such things.  Sure, Stan has his childlike moments – packing his toy boat for Atlantic City in Be Big, finding a spinning top in Tit For Tat, poking a chalk drawing of Ollie in the eye in Towed In A Hole – but total acceptance of what’s in front of him is generally Stan’s response to any situation.  An udder might distract him for a moment or two, but he’d be more likely to get himself entangled with his gun.

Still, Langdon’s influence is felt in subtle ways through-out the film.  As Block-Heads gallops to its climax, it revisits a typical Laurel & Hardy gag lifted from Unaccustomed As We Are.  Ollie enters a gas-filled kitchen, lit match in hand, to ignite a stove.  A pause, then the inevitable ka-boom!  Here’s where Harry’s “fine Italian hand” comes in.  Stan, startled, bolts from his chair and hurtles himself down thirteen flights of stairs to the safety of the street.  Once outside, he comes to a flat-footed stop and examines the building.  He approaches the high-rise warily, giving the building a tentative shove before dashing back into the street – just in case it crumbles from the force of his mighty hands.  Approaching again, he pushes it, pushes a little harder, then leans against it with his shoulder.  Satisfied that it’s not going to crumble into dust, he tips his hat to the doorman and returns to Ollie’s apartment.  If anything is a scene from a potential “Langdon & Hardy” comedy, this would be it… Stan’s derby is even crumpled into an approximation of Langdon’s trademark dented fedora.

So it was no surprise that, when Laurel refused to indulge in Roach’s demand for retakes on Block-Heads’ climactic scene (check out Stan’s gangly double in the shotgun finale), Hal Roach would once and for all turn to the man who could be Mr. Laurel’s comic cousin: Harry Langdon.

NOTES – Nobody’s Baby

[6] In June , just as Block-Heads had wrapped production, it was announced that Harry would star in Follies On Horseback for producer Jed Buell.  Stan Laurel had partnered with Buell in to produce a series of westerns starring singing cowboy Fred Scott.  Following Laurel’s departure from the Roach lot, Buell was slated as associate producer on Stan’s announced first feature for Mack Sennett, Problem Child.  (Buell was well suited to this story about a full-grown child of midget parents; he had earlier produced the all-midget western Terror Of Tiny Town.)  It’s very likely Stan was doing Langdon a favor by putting Harry and Buell together; Langdon would ultimately star in 1940’s Misbehaving Husbands for producer Buell at PRC.