Day 4 of 30 Days of Harry!

Originally published in RADIO RECALL, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club – http://www.radiorecall.com

The Old-Time Radio of Harry Langdon

by Michael J. Hayde

Those of you who blinked twice and quizzically re-read the above title may be forgiven.  Harry Langdon?  If you’ve heard of him at all, it’s as a vaudevillian-turned-motion picture comedian whose brief period of stardom didn’t transcend the silent film era.  You may also know him as the one-time employer of award-winning Hollywood director Frank Capra, who early in his career helmed two of Langdon’s most acclaimed feature comedies: The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927).  Shortly after completing the second film, Capra was fired; much later, in the pages of his autobiography, he would describe Langdon as “an impossible, opinionated, conceited, strutting little jerk!”

The perception has stuck to Langdon ever since, but the clash with his director was actually a matter of creative control.  Langdon felt that Capra’s interpretation of his character was too narrow.  Like any artist – particularly one that owned his own production company – he believed he had the right to follow his muse wherever it led him.  Unfortunately, it led him into material and situations that did not find favor with audiences, and after three self-directed features, all of which flopped badly, he lost distribution and his company was dissolved.

Over the past year, while researching and co-authoring a book about Langdon’s life and work, to be released in August by Bear Manor Media, I’ve encountered a lot of myth, more than a few misunderstandings and some long-forgotten facts.  Among the latter discoveries is that Langdon was tremendously interested in radio.  For one thing, as a fan of various sports, he appreciated the novelty of following events from a distance.  A photograph taken during the making of Long Pants shows Langdon and Capra listening to the September 1926 championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney; he had suspended filming in order to tune in.

But Langdon did more than simply listen.  According to the Motion Picture News of February 4, 1927, when the Catalina Island Swimming Marathon was held, he “financed the installation and operation of a huge broadcasting station aboard the steamship Avalon, official convoy of the marathon swimmers.  His studio orchestra was sent aboard to provide music during the interval of broadcasting bulletins (NOTE: In the days of silent films, small orchestras would play appropriate “mood music” during filming while actors emoted).

“The portable station itself, operating on a low wave length, was heard as far east as Cincinnati.  It was picked up by a station on Catalina Island, and by KNX in Hollywood, and rebroadcast all over the country.  The stations, in turn, were picked up and rebroadcast by stations in Portland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver and more than a dozen eastern cities.”  This enthusiastic venture allegedly cost Langdon $100,000, which was roughly his entire gross salary for all the weeks Long Pants was in production!

In the fall of 1928, after his film venture failed, Langdon returned to vaudeville.  This brought him to New York City in February 1929 for appearances in the R.K.O. theater chain, including its famed Palace.  At that time, R.K.O. sponsored a weekly variety series consisting of performers appearing on its stages.  The show was carried over the NBC network via its flagship station, WEAF.  On March 19, 1929, at 11:00 P.M. EST, Langdon made his air debut on this program.  Unfortunately, no broadcast or transcript exists to tell us exactly what he did, but likely it was an excerpt from the sketch he was doing at the Palace that very week.

Langdon didn’t remain away from the movies for very long.  In May of 1929, he signed with Hal Roach Studios for a series of talking two-reel comedies.  While this was a comedown for a one-time star of feature length films, it gave Langdon the opportunity to test his screen character’s suitability in talkies.  Roach’s shorts were distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and they too sponsored a weekly radio program for promotional purposes, titled Voices of Filmland, which aired over the CBS Network.  On January 27, 1930, a special “Hal Roach” edition of the show was broadcast, featuring not only Langdon, but also Roach’s other stars: Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, and the juvenile members of Our Gang (a.k.a. The Little Rascals), which then included young Jackie Cooper.  What a remarkable find this broadcast would be, but alas no recording is known to exist.

Langdon’s shorts for Roach were moderately successful, but when presented with an opportunity to return to feature films, albeit in supporting roles, he requested release from his contract.  Unfortunately, the two features that followed were not financially successful, and once again he returned to vaudeville.  In mid-1932, after nearly two years away from movies, he signed for a feature with Al Jolson (Hallelujah, I’m a Bum; 1933) and a series of short comedies for independent producer Arvid E. Gillstrom, who released through Educational Pictures.  Gillstrom engaged Vernon Dent – best remembered today for his work opposite the Three Stooges – as Langdon’s foil.  The two were very good friends who’d worked closely together during Langdon’s earliest movie days.
On November 12, 1932, Langdon and Dent performed a sketch on California Melodies, a Saturday evening program that originated over station KHJ of the (pre-Mutual) Don Lee Network, and carried over CBS.  Like Langdon’s previous two programs, there’s no existing recording, but at least we have a review, courtesy of Variety: “Etherized from KHJ… WABC brought Harry Langdon and Vernon Dent, his straight man, to the east in great style.

“It was a laugh productive interlude, simply contrived, including the ole slapstick-bladder to punctuate the gags, with Langdon on the receiving end.  Script had to do with a rehearsal of their vaude act.  Dent was an able foil and was on a par with Langdon in the total effect.”

Langdon’s next radio venture was as a writer.  “Harry Langdon’s radio script has been accepted by producer Tiny Ruttner for the new Al Jolson Rinso series starting Sept. 7,” according to the August 28, 1937 edition of Daily Variety.  A portion of this broadcast does exist and circulates, although the article isn’t clear on whether or not Langdon’s script was for the season premiere or a later date.  The comedian’s next on-air appearance was for the October 10 edition of a west coast program, Pick of the Pictures; again according to Daily Variety.  Evidently a Hollywood guest-and-gossip program, it was hosted by Warren Stokes and originated from station KEHE.

As the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, Langdon’s career had pretty much settled into starring in (and occasionally writing) two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures, and playing supporting roles in low-budget features.  He also periodically returned to the stage, which would occasionally take him east.  His son, renowned photographer Harry Langdon, Jr., recalled in 2001: “Our family was in New York frequently, and we’d go to live broadcasts of the Fred Allen and Jack Benny shows.  I recall sitting in the audience of broadcasts of the Texaco Star Theater, looking at that giant red curtain with the sponsor’s insignia on it.  Other comedians would come out before the actual show and warm up the audience, which usually numbered around 500 people.  And then the curtain would go up, the show would begin and out would come Fred Allen and the audience would go wild.”

Fred Allen had actually worked a few vaudeville bills with Langdon in the late 1910’s, prior to the latter’s film career.  In his autobiography, Much Ado About Me, Allen wrote that when Langdon got his first movie contract, “he wanted me to go with him.  He thought that I had a future as a comedy writer.  Harry wanted me to write titles and to work with him on his stories (but) I decided to stay in vaudeville.  I had my aunt to support and had to keep working.  I couldn’t afford to take the risk.  Harry Langdon became a great success in Hollywood.  But success in Hollywood is as fleeting as any fragment of a second.”  No doubt Langdon himself would have agreed!

Two notices concerning radio appearances by Langdon during the 1940s are shrouded in mystery.  The first comes from the Daily Variety of April 3, 1942: “Harry Langdon makes his radio bow as a regular on Art Linkletter’s Look Who’s Here tomorrow night at KNX.  Half hour sustainer airs over Columbia’s Pacific network.”  Look Who’s Here is also known as The Art Linkletter Show.  A broadcast dated April 5, 1942 exists, but takes place from the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, and Langdon is not listed as a participant.  It’s possible that the date is incorrect, an occupational hazard for OTR hobbyists.  In any case, it’s not known how long Langdon served as a regular, if he did so at all, as no other recordings seem to exist.

Langdon’s second radio mystery involves a pilot (or “audition” in OTR-speak) he recorded in April 1944.  The Billboard’s April 29 issue included an article, with an April 22 dateline, stating, “Caryl Coleman, producer for the Blue (Network), waxed the new Harry Langdon comedy show this week, entitled Mr. Fixit.  It is reported that quite a bit of agency interest has already been shown…”  Daily Variety affirmed that Langdon was to “act as star as well as write material” for the series, if it sold.

Unfortunately, the audition did not sell as a series, but it did air in the summer of 1944, apparently over the Blue’s west coast network, as part of a series sponsored by Bullock’s Department Stores.  Daily Variety’s August 24 issue noted, “Republic (Pictures) has bought an untitled comedy recently broadcast in the Bullock’s series with Harry Langdon starred.  Deal was closed with Caryl Coleman, writer and producer of the program.”  It’s unclear just what Republic did with these rights; however, within a few weeks, they produced a musical, Swingin’ on a Rainbow (1945), about an amateur composer from a hick town (Jane Frazee) whose tune is stolen by a radio bandleader (Richard Davies).  Langdon played an artists’ representative in the picture, which turned out to be his final feature film appearance.

In his 2001 interview, Harry Jr. claimed, “My dad was on Jack Benny’s Show.  He was also on an episode of the Lux Radio Theater, a kind of mystery situation where a man hears telepathically the thoughts other people are having.”  Laura Leff’s International Jack Benny Society has ruled out a Langdon guest appearance on Benny’s show.  Those familiar with the Lux program (or the many mystery shows that originated from Hollywood) are encouraged to enlighten the author of the facts surrounding Mr. Langdon Jr.’s assertion.  Possibly he has mistaken “Bullocks” for “Lux” and is in fact describing the plot of Mr. Fixit.

On December 22, 1944, Langdon succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage, the same ailment that had killed his father.  He was just 60 years old.  Five years after his death, James Agee – in a famous Life Magazine article titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era” – celebrated Langdon as one of the four great clowns of the silent days, alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  Since that time, though, he has been nearly forgotten, save for his brief and somewhat mythic association with Capra. 

To be sure, Langdon’s screen comedy worked best in the realm of silence because his pantomime skills were outstanding.  His was the comedy of reaction, and he influenced many other comedians, including Stan Laurel, Joe Penner and Gene Sheldon.  However, Langdon left his mark in talking pictures for over 15 years, and presumably did so on radio as well.  Hopefully the shows on which he appeared – particularly the transcribed audition, Mr. Fixit – will one day surface.

 

Gene Sheldon

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