An excerpt from LITTLE ELF: A Celebration of Harry Langdon by Chuck Harter & Michael Hayde
Long unavailable to most comedy fans and scholars, Langdon’s Roach shorts — at least the six available for viewing — are a mixed bag, but the majority are quite funny, and for the most part successfully integrate the Little Elf into the sound medium. The fact that many incorporate routines and situations from earlier films proves conclusively that Langdon didn’t merely follow orders but was an active participant in their conception.
Roach himself was evidently pleased, as he exercised his option to extend Langdon’s contract, but the comedian still hoped to get back into features. “It’s because of my golf more than anything else that I want to go back to making feature length films again,” he told columnist Dan Thomas. “I would have much more time between pictures and therefore would have more time to knock that white pill around.” According to Thomas, any day Langdon wasn’t working, he’d be on the Lakeside course, rain or shine. “He shoots a good game, too, doing under 75 quite consistently,” wrote Thomas for his “Seeing Stars” column.
The opportunity came sooner than expected. Within three weeks of Roach’s extension, Warner Bros. offered Langdon a supporting role in “Come Easy,” an original story by novelist Vina Delmar written for Austrian actress Lotti Loder, who, it was hoped, would be the studio’s version of Dietrich and Garbo. That the offer came from the owners of the company that unceremoniously dumped him less than two years earlier was perceived as a good omen, plus there was Helen’s unswerving faith that he was much too valuable a talent for two-reelers. Langdon immediately requested a release from the Roach deal, which was granted.
Handling the love interest was Ben Lyon, with Langdon as his comical pal. The story, such as it is, pits the two in the Army, stationed in Germany during the immediate postwar occupation. Langdon, as Tim, is a willing enlistee; while Lyon, as Georgie, hastily joins up to escape what he believes is a murder rap. As soldiers, the two engage in various comic mishaps that naturally involve their commanding officer (Noah Beery), who repeatedly assigns them to clean a stable of horses. Georgie falls hard for Loder’s Gretchen, daughter of a local innkeeper, but when his hitch is ending, he doesn’t want to take her to his homeland for fear of an eventual conviction. Only when he spies Hank (Fred Kohler), the fellow he thought he’d killed and who is among the replacement troops, does he realize he’s free and clear to marry his German love.
The studio chose “Come Easy” as its entry in cinema’s latest technological advance: wide film. By this point, sound-on-film was becoming the industry standard, but few filmmakers were happy that, as a result, picture width had noticeably shrunk. The solution seemed to be a graduation from 35mm to something larger; consequently — and not surprisingly — various entrepreneurs came up with 56mm, 65mm and 70mm film widths. Unlike the Cinemascope revolution of 23 years later, few were interested in wide screen; the hoped-for result was a sharper, less grainy picture to completely fill existing screens, along with a wider, better-quality soundtrack. The Warners opted for 65mm film, labeling their process Vitascope.
The picture, directed by Michael Curtiz, was shot during April and May. Prior to completion, producer Darryl F. Zanuck changed it’s title to the titillating A Soldier’s Plaything. The resulting film is a fast 56 minutes of episodic situations (all of which are heralded with text titles), mostly comic in nature. Langdon basically portrays the typical buffoon soldier, who turns left when the command “right face” is barked, and vice-versa. His best moment is a comedy song called, “Oui, Oui,” during which he plays the piano. Langdon’s singing talent was hinted at in The Fighting Parson (1930); here it’s on full display, with a few comic expressions and gestures added for good measure. His voice is pleasant and he puts over the tune quite nicely.
Warner Bros. released A Soldier’s Plaything in regular 35mm. Although the studio claimed to have manufactured “a special projector head, which can be used for either 35 or 65mm… and have already turned out enough to equip all of the company’s theaters,” according to Film Daily, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers were undecided as to whether 65 or 70mm should be the uniform standard, and exhibitors refused to invest a penny until that question was settled. Vitascope made it’s theatrical debut in October with Kismet (1930), a First National feature, and Motion Picture News reported that, out of thirteen New York newspaper reviewers, only two commented favorably on the process. Seven ignored it altogether, and the remaining four didn’t care for it. These percentages basically mirrored audience interest as well. “Wide film” was put on the shelf for a couple of decades, while other technical matters, such as improved color and sound reproduction, were pursued.
As for A Soldier’s Plaything, it flopped badly. Most critics were decidedly underwhelmed; Film Daily labeling it “a miscue production that offers very little in the way of entertainment,” and the New Your Times calling it “an insignificant item.” Domestic rentals amounted to $185,000 and foreign bookings were a paltry $22,000. With a negative cost of $344,000, the overall loss equaled $289,000.
Along with anticipating a second picture at Universal, Langdon also signed with a new concern, Liberty Productions, for a comedy titled The Ape, written by Earl Snell. Owing to a lack of financing, Liberty Productions sank without a trace. Unfortunately, something similar was about to happen to Langdon’s film career. He didn’t realize it, but once shooting wrapped on See America Thirst (1930), he would not stand before a motion picture camera for 16 months.
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