By Trav S.D. – Author of Chain of Fools – Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube and No Applause – Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and renowned blogger – http://travsd.wordpress.com
This is strictly anecdotal of course, but it seems to me there are three concentric circles to the public’s relationship to silent film comedian Harry Langdon.
The outer ring contains the Great Unwashed: the billions of people who never heard of Harry Langdon and neither know nor care that he was once one of Hollywood’s top comedy stars. Included among this number are most of the human beings on earth; to remove them from our midst would produce a result something like the Rapture.
The inner ring is comprised of hardcore silent comedy fans, whom (I have observed) all seem to love and respect Langdon’s films. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who’s conversant with Langdon’s complete body of silent work who dislikes or dismisses it.
The third ring, the middle one, is most interesting to me. These are the more general cinephiles, ranging from critics to well-educated film fans, most of whom (the worthy ones anyway), have at least HEARD of Langdon and have probably seen just a little of his work, a film or two, probably The Strong Man, Long Pants or Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. And THESE people (I have observed) almost uniformly DISlike Langdon. The complaint is usually some combination of “strange” and “weird” and “I don’t get it.”
Walter Kerr’s diagnosis was essentially “you had to be there”, i.e. you have to be steeped in silent comedy to appreciate Langdon’s peculiar method of swimming against the tide. Personally, I don’t think the answer need be as highfalutin as all that. I think Langdon is like a lot of other outre performers in that audiences just need to be exposed to a lot more of the work of that performer in order to develop an appreciation. Most ordinary people, for example, can’t stand Jerry Lewis. (Trust me, this is true). But were they brave and strong and open enough to expose themselves to his entire body of work they might find they may encounter many elements that impress them, which provide keys to the rest of it. In the final analysis, as with all comedy, there is no “answer”. Comedy is a mystery. There is no “reason” why something strikes some people as funny. They are not “getting” something you are not. But they may be “seeing” something you are not, not with their brains but with their bellies. Harry’s weirdness is what’s funny. After you see him react a certain way a few times, you come to have an appreciation for his type of reaction, then to anticipate it, and finally to want it.
I’m assuming (since you’re reading this blog) you’re familiar with the Langdon shtick – the clownish toddler man with the groggy response time, blinking, pausing, wondering, doubting, tentatively biting his thumb nail. For a couple of sweet years (1924 to 1926) the movie-going public was in complete sync with his rhythms. Then they weren’t. But this narrative (like that of almost every other silent film comedian) has been radically oversimplified and exaggerated. Most folks with a casual knowledge of Langdon think of a career that lasted for about three years. In reality that’s when the peak of his career was, but who but the most superficial among us measures careers solely in terms of peaks? Langdon had the misfortune to peak early – at the beginning. But the reality is that Langdon’s movie career lasted TWENTY years. It was a movie career most performers with a brain in their head ought to envy. He worked almost constantly until he died. Judging by many of his performances, given the right opportunity, he had it within him to do more. But what he did accomplish was enough to keep him in a mansion. Peg Entwhistle, the actress who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign (and all the other thousands of frustrated aspirants), would have thanked their lucky stars for a career like Langdon’s. And he didn’t just work. He did some GOOD work and often before a sizable audience. It’s only the later commentators (often untrustworthy ones, like Frank Capra) who buried Langdon. But Harry Langdon was a HUGE talent, and remained one throughout his career. It should be the task of conscientious writers to not just restore him to his proper place in the critical hierarchy, but to elevate it to where it really belongs.Langdon is usually spoken of in terms of his deficiencies as a director and how they brought about his rapid descent during the final days of silents. I am much more interested in his distinctive qualities as an actor and performer, as that is the common thread that ties together his vaudeville, silent, and talkie work.
Like almost all silent film comedians (with the notable and possibly sole exception of Keaton), Langdon had a period of groping before his iconic silent film character came into being. Early comedies he made for Mack Sennett like Picking Peaches and Silents, Please in early 1924 are characterized by few if any of the distinctive touches Langdon was to become known for. Working with a brain trust that included Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra, within a year, somewhere around His Marriage Wow (March, 1925), the familiar traits of the “Little Elf” fell into place. He rode this character to fame like a rocket. And, then (again, like almost every other silent film comedian) he hung on to the character which had made him famous for way too long.
To be blunt, in the sound era, the established personae of nearly all the great silent clowns were like millstones. (The only exceptions being those of Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin, though Chaplin blurred the transition and finally did abandon the Tramp). Langdon’s difficulties were greater than most. Whereas somebody like Harold Lloyd merely seemed out of date (being so closely identified as he was with the 1920s), Langdon’s usual character – already clownish, other-worldly and strange – became downright unapproachable. Yet he clung to it with the stubbornness of someone who had ridden that character to the highest heights. You can almost hear him asking himself: “How can I abandon the Little Elf? This is what works! This has been proven!”
But of course, it had worked under a peculiar set of circumstances. Film, as a recording medium, is the epitome of literalness. Clever directors (Melies, Murnau, Cocteau) can create illusions that make an end run around that quality, but it requires a great deal of extra effort. When Chaplin makes angels fly in The Kid, we see the wires. The motion camera picture is like a hot light pointed at the wires. Reality, for the imaginative film-maker, is like a horrible gravity that is only escaped with maximum struggle. And the presence of sound only amplifies that discouraging fact. Adding a baby-like voice to Langdon’s baby-like quality was (and is) simply way too much, at least in the way in which it was attempted. Am I saying the impossible thing I seem to be saying – that there might actually have been a way for Langdon’s screen character to work in the sound universe??? Eh, maybe. Under certain circumstances. Peewee Herman, for example, works (and works exceedingly well) in the sound universe, but only because he usually lives in an aesthetic world that supports him. The other characters, the sets, the costumes, and so forth harmonize with his character. His very existence is not an affront under these circumstances. It’s all one. In Langdon’s case, however, in his early sound shorts, his exceedingly out-there guy is set down in THIS world, without explanation and without any acknowledgment that he is as different as he is. It’s hard to have patience with that.
And yet, many a comedy short has lived and died on such weirdness. I may sound cynical and decadent to some, but I’ve long learned to jettison such concepts as “good” and “bad” in relation to my enjoyment of aesthetic objects. There are a rarified few (Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy) who made comedy shorts which could be called unambiguously “good”. As for most of the others, the goodness and badness are mixed, and the badness often strikes my funny bone as camp, sliding it over into the “good” column. The shorts of the Three Stooges, Edgar Kennedy, Clark and McCullough – come on! Let’s be frank. Langdon’s talkies aren’t any worse than these, and if we were never to get to see these comedies again our lives would be much, much gloomier.
The initial phase with Hal Roach, was shortest, a mere eight shorts between late 1929 and 1930. The lore has it that Langdon’s head was as big as it had ever been (he’d been a huge star two years earlier). You can smell the trouble brewing in a promotional film made with Langdon to announce his signing to exhibitors. Most ominous is an announcer’s bright claim that Hal Roach has “every confidence” that Langdon will be an asset to the studio. Yet the very existence of that apology is evidence that Roach DOESN’T have such confidence. Otherwise he wouldn’t need to pacify his exhibitors by saying it. They’d already know!
And yet these movies are worth watching. Yes, Langdon hasn’t solved his character yet, but plenty of individual bits and gags are rewarding in and of themselves. Skirt Shy (1929) has several. A boxing glove placed on a springy tree branch keeps punching him in the face. A fruit tree keeps plopping another piece of fruit into his hand every time he throws the previous one away. In The Shrimp (1930) a mad scientist injects him with the fighting spirit of a dog. In The Fighting Parson (1930), as he does in too few of his talkies, he gets to show off his vaudeville skills: singing, dancing and playing the banjo. And in many of the Roach shorts, he has the opportunity to co-star with the great Thelma Todd, most memorably in The King (1930).
From 1932 through 1933, Langdon made shorts for Educational. Surprisingly, Langdon’s shorts for Educational look slicker than the ones he’d made for Roach, which looked far shabbier than that studio’s Laurel and Hardy product. Furthermore, the Educational shorts reunited him with his old silent co-star Vernon Dent, so there are echoes of the more successful Sennett era. Still, Langdon makes the mistake of retaining the infantile mannerisms.
Yet The Hitch Hiker, made for Educational in 1933, is probably the most perfect of all his sound shorts, with a zaniness and wild circular structure that one wants from a two reeler. Seeking a lift, Langdon’s hitch hiker gets a literal one – in an airplane. He annoys Vernon Dent so much the latter puts a parachute on him and throws him out of the plane. He lands right where he began at the top of the movie. In The Hitch Hiker Langdon also revives a hilarious bit from The Strong Man, mistaking limburger cheese for camphor and spreading it on his chest, to the distress of all around him. His coughs, wheezing and sneezing are one way sound actually enhances the comedy in this movie. Knight Duty (1933) is another funny one from this period, in which Harry, a bunch of curators, crooks, security guards and cops run amok at night in a wax museum. There is a routine early in this film that reminds me of his silent work. Harry’s hat has fallen off near a lawn sprinkler. Battling the water to retrieve it seems to take him a century (in a good way, if you’re a Langdon fan).
Though the Educational shorts were better than the Roaches, they don’t seem to have done much better with audiences. He parted ways with the studio after a year, then was with Paramount from 1933 through 1934. Whereupon he went over to the last chance studio for many a comedian, Columbia, where he remained for the last decade of his life.
Langdon’s lot at Columbia seems almost identical to Buster Keaton’s. Both Langdon’s and Keaton’s shorts for Columbia are far inferior to the ones they’d made at Educational. You’d think the larger studio would get them better scripts, direction, etc. Nah! Langdon, like Keaton needed to take his time, to find the humor. That was not Jules White’s way. Also, as had happened in several Keaton shorts, Langdon gets upstaged by the presence of the egregious, not-even-remotely-funny Elsie Ames, whom White seemed to stick in his films as some sort of punishment for his comedians. In at least one of these films, What Makes Lizzy Dizzy? (1942) Langdon is definitely playing second fiddle to Ames. And that, my friends, should never happen.
On the plus side, during the Columbia years, Langdon has seemed to abandon the baby characterization. He has tweaked the character. Still wishy-washy and blank, but without the childish mannerisms. By now another real issue has come up in Langdon’s talkie shorts. He’s 50-ish in the earliest talking films, and on the cusp of 60 in his very last films. Almost everything he does in a lot of the shorts is wrong for a man of that age. Dating? Being a groom? Being a ground floor aspirant at some job (e.g. cub reporter), let alone a baby man???
But like I say he adjusted. The faults of the Columbia shorts are mostly not Langdon’s. The scripts are hoary and uninspired. As he had with Keaton, White seems unable to think beyond having Harry be a nitwit, which is something all clowns needn’t be. The effect of an aging, solo Langdon playing the goof in these seedy surroundings is not unlike the solo comedies starring Joe Besser. There is a kind of sadistic voyeurism in watching these films, but that “bad” we talked about does indeed outweigh the good. Several of them, much like the terrible late features of Laurel and Hardy, are saddled with the additional task of being WWII propaganda films, their plots revolving around civil defense, conserving rubber and the like. One of these, Tire Man, Spare My Tire (1942) is chiefly interesting for being a riff on It Happened One Night.
And in some of them, Harry is paired with bona fide stars, who (much like Harry) have a hard time transcending the material. In To Heir is Human (1944) his co-star is none other Una Merkel. Piano Mooners (1942) gives him the former greats Chester Conklin, Fifi D’Orsay and Betty Blythe for support, and it’s still a turkey! And his last couple of Columbia shorts team him up with El Brendel, as if shoring up this talented comedian with a much weaker comedian were the obvious response to the studio’s weak scripts and direction. (On the other hand, I’ll watch any film that has Christine McIntyre in it, for reasons having nothing to do with comedy).
The best of Langdon’s Columbia shorts (and one of the best of all his shorts period) is one of the earliest ones, I Don’t Remember (1935), written and directed by Jack White, about an amnesiac in search of the lost half of his lottery ticket. Here, he plays the adjusted character we talked about, the henpecked husband. In addition to having a much better script and direction it works with Langdon’s strengths and the reality of his changing (aging) identity. But it was a lesson lost on Jules White who was still casting Langdon as an accident prone janitor in Defective Detectives (1944) nearly a decade later. It was the only recipe he knew.
But here’s the real meat of the point I wanted to make about Langdon, and it’s too little known or stressed. It’s the fact that Langdon consistently worked in features throughout the sound era, often in major studio films, and he was always great. It’s among his best work. And most of it has scant to do with his silent film persona. He’s just an excellent comic actor.
Three of these turns are fairly well known, but I’ve recently encountered a bunch more that have opened my eyes. First, the well known stuff. He’s the cherubic communist in the sui generis all-star ensemble comedy semi-musical Hallelujiah, I’m a Bum (1933) with Al Jolson and Frank Morgan et al. Then, there’s his paring with Oliver Hardy (and an elephant) in Zenobia (1939). And then, one of his last roles, opposite the East Side Kids in Block Busters (1944). The last performance is his most interesting, for it demonstrates his range. He plays a snooty, uptight property manager, out to evict the kids and replace them with more desirable tenants – and he does it well.
But there’s some amazing other stuff.
Above all, this! Did you know (as I didn’t) that in 1930, Langdon co-starred in a feature length comedy for Warner Brothers directed by Michael Curtiz??? You might think that this is a big deal. And it is. People write and talk about Harry Langdon as if he died in 1927. And maybe his career in shorts during the talkie era doesn’t offer up much evidence to the contrary. But this??? Is a big deal. Granted, this is 1930 when they are trying out everybody as potential movie stars. Chester Morris and David Manners were big marquee names, after all! Still, this is a FAR cry from being dead. It’s called A Soldier’s Plaything, and in it, Langdon and Ben Lyons play a pair of buddies who go off to serve in WWI. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a demonstration of what might have been possible. I’m guessing the film didn’t do so well at the box office. It’s a little mutilated, several musical numbers were cut out. But it’s a rare chance to see Harry starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.
I am DYING to see the film he made after this, See American Thirst (1930), made for Universal, and co-starring Slim Summerville and Bessie Love. A print exists! The people have a right to see it!
But I did see Atlantic Adventure (1935), a Columbia feature in which Harry is third-billed as “Snapper”, the photographer sidekick to city desk reporter Lloyd Nolan… in which Harry again acquit himself admirably playing a character not too distant from his little elf.
And then there’s the Leo McCarey film There Goes My Heart (1938), starring Frederic March, in which Harry is hilarious as a flustered minister.
And the ensemble musical comedy Stardust (1938) where Harry’s co-stars are Lupe Velez, Wallace Ford and Ben Lyons!
At any rate, there’s a tendency to think that Langdon sort of disappeared down into shorts in the talking era, but the reality is he was in no less than 16 features. Granted, many or most of them were for Poverty Row (Monogram, PRC). The best known today might be Misbehaving Husbands (1940), directed by the prolific William Beaudine, in which henpecked Harry is accused of infidelity after being seen wrestling with a department store mannequin. Another one I liked was the swing era musical Hot Rhythm (1943), in which Harry played a character way out of his supposed type, a very highly strung uptight radio station manager not miles away from Franklin Pangborn.
My point is, Langdon had range. It seems like he was only beginning to discover what he was capable of towards the end, when he was very far from being a baby-man indeed. A cerebral hemorrhage stole him without warning at the age of 60. If not for that, he might well have had another decade or two of great performances left in him.Special thanks to Tim Greer and Nicole Arciola, who made this article possible.