Nobody’s Baby – Part V

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

Nobody’s Baby – Part V

by Chris Seguin

Gone, but not forgotten

While Harry’s performing career took a serious blow (you might even say “fatal” – there would be no big comeback hopes after this), he was back on the script-writing team for Stan & Babe’s “reunion” film at Roach, A Chump At Oxford.

Charley Rogers, Langdon, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel and Alf Goulding on the set of A Chump at Oxford (1940)

For some reason, 1939 seemed a particularly uninspired year for Laurel & Hardy… too few moments of brilliance cushioned in all-too-familiar material.  Rather than returning feeling refreshed and risky, the duo retreated to past successes and proven ideas.  Just as Block-Heads remade Unaccustomed As We Are, A Chump At Oxford resurrected chunks of From Soup To Nuts.  The Flying Deuces drew inspiration from Beau Hunks (and, reportedly, an unfilmed scene originally written for The Live Ghost).  Saps At Sea is an unlikely amalgam of Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Three Stooges’ Punch Drunks, with a dash of County Hospital thrown in for good measure.  Originality didn’t seem high on anybody’s agenda.  This goes for Harry too.

As a screenwriter, Harry doesn’t seem to have a discernable style.  The non-Laurel & Hardy films where he receives writing credit – a smattering of his post-Roach two-reelers, his later feature House Of Errors – demonstrate nothing that’s distinctly Langdonesque.  So in assessing his contributions to Laurel & Hardy’s last final three features of their “classic” era, all you can do is look at the similarities to earlier Langdon films.  For example, the disguising-the-girl-as-furniture routine from Block-Heads, first used by Harry in Ella Cinders.  Or the knuckle-cracking bit in Saps At Sea, where Stan tugs at each finger, with a delayed “pop” on the final tug… a favourite Harry gag that shows up in a couple of his Educationals.

Or this one, also from Saps At Sea:

Ollie suffers a hornophobia-induced nervous breakdown, and is sent home from his job at Sharp & Pierce horn factory to recuperate.  Another car has the boys’ Model T hemmed in and Stan (being Stan) honks loudly at the barricading driver.  The horn gets stuck, rattling Ollie further, until Stan takes a hammer to it… causing the entire engine to plummet to the asphalt.

Harry would open his 1942 feature House Of Errors with this exact gag: Harry trying to quiet a blaring horn while Charley Rogers naps a few feet away.  It’s an ideal scene for Harry, and he gets more mileage from it than Stan does.  He squats.  He squints.  He sticks his fingers in his ears, hoping for the best.  He rassles the horn out from under the bonnet.  He shushes it loudly – and successfully (if only momentarily).  He hides it in an echoey garbage can and smothers it under his apron.  He finally beats it into submission with a hammer, clobbering it a dozen times before finally waking up Charley.  Harry performs the sequence flawlessly, in a single, uninterrupted take.

This gag’s genesis can actually be found in Langdon’s fifth Roach talkie The Big Kick.  Gas station attendant Harry spends several minutes trying to quiet a noisy, rattling engine – allowing Harry to perform in pantomime while having the soundtrack serve a purpose (beyond delivering clumsy dialogue).  The perfect silent comedy gag for the sound era.

Horns – Frames from Saps At Sea and House of Errors

Hobos – Frames from The Flying Deuces and Remember When?

Holes-in-one – Frames from A Chump At Oxford and Feet Of Mud

Scouring these films for signs of Harry will bring a few obvious Langdon sightings (the hobo Stan at the end of The Flying Deuces, eerily akin to the wandering Harry of Remember When?).  Overall, the only real impact seems to be the fact that Stan’s a bit dumber than usual… his mental soundtrack about a second out-of-synch with what’s going on around him. This starts to take his character into a slightly surreal realm, more cartoony, more disconnected.  (Stan unpeeling the multi-layered banana in Saps At Sea.)  Also, there’s an odd obsession in three out of four of these films with “splitting up” Stan and Ollie (their 20 year separation in Block-Heads; the suicide pact and “death” of Ollie in The Flying Deuces; Ollie denouncing Lord Paddington in A Chump At Oxford) – coincidence, wishful thinking on Harry’s part, or simply art imitating life?  Again, it’s difficult to say how much of this is Harry’s doing.

If Harry didn’t provide truly innovative scriptwriting support at this point, perhaps he provided something else.  Stan, like Harry in 1928, saw himself on the cusp of potential greatness – he would soon be free from Roach, and able to produce his own films exactly as he saw fit.  Certainly, Harry had been through this before.  He knew the downside, even if Stan only saw the up.  Did Harry serve as support, or as a symbol – a living example of “don’t let this happen to you”?

As 1940 loomed on the horizon, anything seemed possible.  And with the strains of “There’s No Place Like Home” underscoring Ollie’s final Roach-era “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”, and Laurel & Hardy heading off to what they hoped would be greener pastures, Harry had to wonder if he indeed had a home anymore.

Alf and Bert, together again

With Laurel & Hardy out of the picture, Harry wasn’t completely out of work.  Roach kept him around for two more outings released in 1941: a scriptwriting credit for Road Show, and a supporting role in the streamliner All-American Co-ed.

Variety had actually announced Road Show as the second Langdon & Hardy outing back in October, 1938; the zany farce doesn’t suit either one of them.  (Although Babe could have had a great deal of fun as eccentric Colonel Caraway, played here by Adolph Menjou.)  There isn’t really much to suggest Harry’s participation in this screwball comedy that isn’t quite as screwy as it should be; the closest it comes is Charles Butterworth’s hypnotic fascination with a taffy-pulling device.

Harry’s appearance in All-American Co-ed received none of the buildup that accompanied Zenobia (he’s billed sixth between Esther Dale and The Tanner Sisters).

He plays Hap Holden, wisecracking publicity flack out to recruit new co-eds for stodgy Mar Brynn Horticultural School For Girls.  It’s the kind of supporting role Harry would specialize in for the rest of his career.  He does get a few choice moments and a ton of double-takes, tearing strips out of his shirt with an electric razor while being serenaded by lingerie-clad cuties, and feeding a sandwich to a meat-eating plant.

A more interesting turn in Harry’s post-Roach career is a pair of team efforts he made with Charley Rogers, Laurel & Hardy’s longtime gagman, sometime director, and a fellow scribe on Harry’s four Laurel & Hardy collaborations.  Charley was never much of an on-screen performer (he’s the detective in Habeas Corpus, Finlayson’s butler in Our Wife and Pack Up Your Troubles, and Simple Simon in Babes In Toyland), and his brittle, stuffy Englishman characterization is hard to warm up to.  But he’s a surprising partner for Harry.  They have a tremendous chemistry together, their mutual timing is razor sharp, and Charley provides one thing that Harry thrives under: an authority figure that Harry strives eagerly to please.  Their two films together, Double Trouble (Monogram, 1941)[7] and House Of Errors (PRC, 1942) are delightfully playful second features that effortlessly overcome their non-existent budgets.

In both films their names are Alf and Bert (shades of Our Relations), and Harry is once again in his familiar costume, in a somewhat geriatric version of his silent character.  Double Trouble has Charley and Harry as Alf and Bert Prattle, British refugees who arrive at the home of a wealthy American sponsor (who’s expecting children, not two very mature twits).  Describing their disastrous journey across the Atlantic, they share a terrifically timed dialogue exchange, with Harry’s hiccups constantly interrupting Charley.  With each hiccup, Charley says “Boo!” and frightened Harry responds, “All gone!”  (Offered a glass of water, Harry declines: “I prefer his boos.”)  The two engage in a non sequitur laced discussion of their travails (see Stan and Ollie’s “shiphiking” story in Sons Of The Desert), and Harry is once again distracted by sandwiches and apples.  Some things never change.  Later, Harry’s given a few minutes to himself to silently flirt with an assembly-line worker at the bean cannery where he and Charley are working – doing magic tricks, juggling cans, getting his finger caught in a mousetrap.  She’s charmed, and so are we.

The plot of the next Langdon/Rogers union, House Of Errors, plays like a mash-up of Laurel & Hardy’s Fox features, Dancing Masters and The Big Noise – odd, since those two films had yet to be produced (Charley Rogers plays a brief bit in Dancing Masters).

Harry and Charley (or Bert and Alf) are wanna-be reporters who pose as houseboy and butler for the inventor of a new superweapon.  An oily, pencil-mustached smoothie woos the inventor’s daughter while attempting to steal the invention for himself.  Sound familiar?  Story credit for House Of Errors went to Langdon, with scriptwriting support from Ewart Adamson (from the Columbia shorts department’s stable of comedy writers; other Columbia stalwarts in the picture include Harry’s old Sennett sidekick Vernon Dent and Monty Collins, who would later provide gags for Laurel & Hardy’s final film, Atoll K).

Charged with guarding the super-secret weapon, Charley and Harry engage in some spooky, darkened house antics reminiscent of the haunted maze in A Chump At Oxford (complete with exploding cigars).  After some conversation over who’ll sleep first (as in The Big Noise), Charley busies himself with knitting, as the bad guys try to nab a set of keys from Harry’s side using a fish hook and a slingshot.  Of course things start moving about mysteriously, including Harry’s hat, hanky and his suddenly out of control legs.  Blame goes to the pickles and pie Harry had for dinner, much like Stan’s “dizzy spells” in Chump.  And like The Big Noise, and The Flying Deuces before it, the whole thing culminates in a wild aerial chase.  Harry gets the girl (actually, she’s accidentally swooned into his lap) and plants a few fluttery fingertip kisses on her mouth.  A lovely little fadeout for Harry’s final starring feature.

Harry still had a few films ahead of him, but his career had finally run out of steam.  He would continue to play bit parts in poverty row B-pictures and share screen time with the likes of El Brendel and Elsie Ames in a rather sad series of what he derisively coined “Oh – Ouch – Oh” two-reelers back at Columbia, where the director would holler “go faster” until Harry looked just plain tired, all momentum and hope exhausted.  He died on December 22, 1944, at the age of 60.

Harry Langdon may have been forgotten by Hollywood, but there was at least one man who never forgot him.  Stan Laurel kept a photo of Harry on his wall well into the 1940s, and probably until his dying day.  Of Harry he said, “A great comedian who had it in him to be a great actor, like Chaplin.”

That Harry Langdon achieved greatness – and that his greatness remains apparent today, as seen in the recent and remarkable Harry Langdon: ‘Lost and Found’ DVD collection – is undeniable.  His legacy may be clouded in myth, banged and bruised by time, his tale told by those who outlived and overshadowed him, but the proof is in the work… and in the impact he had on two of our most beloved comic figures.

So the next time you laugh at Stan Laurel gnawing on a wax apple, or one of those lingering close-ups of Mr. Laurel standing helplessly by as Mr. Hardy suffers through another nice mess, give a little thanks skyward to Mr. Langdon.  It couldn’t have happened without him.

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Special thanks to: Nicole Arciola, Richard Bann, Ian Elliot, Paul Gierucki, David Kalat, Del Kempster, Glenn Mitchell, Ted Okuda, Patrick Picking, Richard Roberts, Roger Robinson, Ulrich Ruedel and Dave Stevenson.

All Day Entertainment’s exhaustive 4-DVD collection, Harry Langdon: Lost & Found, is essential viewing and available at http://www.alldayentertainment.com

NOTES – Nobody’s Baby

[7] Double Trouble was directed by William West – better known as Billy West, the silent comedian notorious for his Charlie Chaplin imitation.  The Laurel & Hardy connection: Babe Hardy played the heavy in more than two dozen Billy West comedies, and was later teamed with Bobby Ray in a pre-Laurel & Hardy partnership for West’s Cumberland Productions.

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