By Wayne Powers
The evolution of Langdon’s unique “elf” character has been explored, acknowledged and acclaimed internationally by some of the most respected film historians and scholars. Langdon’s trail-blazing comedic approach had a tremendous impact on the output of his peers, (especially Stan Laurel), and launched a sea change in the direction of film comedy. And oh, that face! Yet his brightly burning star dimmed all too quickly. An unfortunate series of events well beyond Harry’s control, (which included the rapid succession of the advent of sound, marriage problems and the stock market crash of 1929), all contributed to the stunningly rapid reduction of Langdon’s status for most of his final fifteen years.
Harry was no longer the great star and successor to Chaplin himself, but neither was he the bankrupt has-been that some would have us believe. He remained a well-respected working comedian, actor and writer in the Hollywood comedy world, with flashes of brilliance evident in even the supporting roles, cameo appearances, and low-budget starring roles he was offered, right up to his untimely death in 1944.
Sadly, Harry Langdon’s genius is still largely forgotten. Those who do remember Langdon are split into opposing camps, those who “get it” and those who don’t. Even today, there is a small but annoyingly misguided contingent of “comedy buffs” who actively lobby to see Harry’s position as the “Fourth Great Silent Comedian” filled instead with one of a varied group of very talented but certainly lesser comedians.
It wasn’t until decades after Langdon’s death, thanks to James Agee, Walter Kerr, Kalton Lahue, Donald McCaffrey, Robert Youngson, and others, that Harry’s unique body of work was finally granted a fond and appreciative second look and his legend began to revive.
Yet the devoted fans, collectors, and students of his work have had to painstakingly seek out his frustratingly elusive films through the years, often settling for barely viewable copies-of-copies or badly butchered “condensations,” but happily enduring whatever was necessary just to get a fresh, if too-often faint, glimpse of Langdon’s unique brilliance.
When I was first exposed to the genius of Harry Langdon, I was a mere slip of a lad, but busy television executive Herb Graff of WNET-TV in New York, took the time to answer my naively urgent letters and telephone calls inquiring about that quirky fellow with the innocent baby face. He guided me to the legendary but now-defunct Blackhawk Films where I dropped a good portion of my allowance and lunch money for the remaining years of my youth and beyond it. It was a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten the late Mr. Graff, and I wish to sincerely and fondly acknowledge his kindness.
In a time when all media literally assault the senses, perhaps exposing today’s younger generations to a simpler, more artful style of comedy will plant some seeds to benefit the future of this increasingly troubled and violent world. In fact, we adults could use a healthy dose of Harry, too!
My advice is this: Spread the joy! Bring Langdon to your family and friends, or some young one who really matters to you. You could become their “Herb Graff.”