By Camille Scaysbrook
In the early 20th century, Australia’s theatrical circuit was one of the largest in the world, and no player in it was more formidable than J.C. Williamson, the production company known simply as `The Firm’. Representatives regularly toured to London and New York to keep up with international trends, and identify plays and talent that could be brought to Australia.
It was on one such tour in 1935 that J.C. Williamson impresario Frank Tait engaged Harry Langdon to appear in Australia’s first production of `Anything Goes’, the Cole Porter hit which had just ended a successful Broadway run.
The peppy marine-themed comedy married a book by British humorist P.G. Wodehouse and regular collaborator Guy Bolton with some of Cole Porter’s most memorable tunes, several of which (`I Get A Kick Out Of You’, `You’re The Top’, `Blow, Gabriel, Blow’) became standards for leading lady Ethel Merman. Langdon was to take the role originated on Broadway by Victor Moore – that of `Moonface Martin’, a baby-faced fugitive disguised as a man of the cloth.
Langdon regarded the job as something of a working holiday – a welcome respite from several hard and thankless years in Hollywood. Nevertheless, he must have been painfully aware of the showbiz axiom that you only toured Australia twice: once on the way up, and once on the way down. .
Local media somewhat dismissively remembered Langdon as a star of the silents, if they remembered him at all:
“He was then – and presumably still is – a clever knockabout comedian, who relied on an appearance of profound stupidity as the basis of his humour,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald. “Only recently, he has made a re-appearance on the screen in “My Weakness.” But, in general, the stage has claimed him. It is said that he was a member of Mack Sennett’s original gang of “crazy comedians,” who made cinematographic history in the pie-throwing era.”
Co-starring with Harry was another American, Lillian Pertka, who was widely – though somewhat vaguely – publicised as a major actress of the stage and screen. Though her resume does not bear this out, she became a celebrated figure while in Australia, and her Jean Harlow-like beauty much commented on. For many Australian women, she was the first real platinum blonde that they had ever seen.
Langdon arrived in Sydney on the Mariposa in December 1935 with his wife and young son in tow. Though photographs taken onboard paint an idyllic picture, Harry spent most of the journey in the throes of acute seasickness. There was little time to recover. Rehearsals began almost immediately, as the Sydney season was due to premiere in little over a month, before moving to the other major capitals of Brisbane and Melbourne.
Director Fred Blackman, actress Lillian Pertka and Harry Langdon during rehearsals.
The play debuted at Sydney’s Theatre Royal on the 8th of February 1936. Early reviews were tepid, suggesting that the hastily convened company had not quite found its feet. “The present incarnation of “Anything Goes” will probably have its admirers, but, somehow or other, a subtle something seems to have evaporated from the production during its trans-Pacific voyage,” said the Sydney Morning Herald. “Approached in too cautious a spirit, the fun simply went off the poll.”
Langdon was singled out for the most praise: “Mr Langdon looks exactly as one remembers him in his diverting series of silent films. To pantomime, in which he still luxuriates, he now adds a thin, mournful little voice, which exactly matches the visual aspects of his personality. It is a voice entirely without accent; and the queer, helpless gestures were what drew most of the laughs on Saturday night.”
Several personal appearances were to accompany the season, the most touching of which was the company’s visit to students at the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute at Darlington. To the delight of all, the company crafted a special performance that pantomimed for the deaf students but included plenty of wisecracks and music for the blind. “Judging by the way in which [the company] threw themselves into the difficult task of entertaining the children, one might have imagined that it was a premiere”, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Sydney season concluded on 20th March, and the company travelled to Brisbane by train. The company settled in to the Hotel Cecil, and Langdon found that the northern capital’s slower pace agreed with him.
After three months in Australia, Langdon’s observations on the country were good-humoured and incisive. The architecture reminded him of Pennsylvania, and the climate of California, though the people dressed as warmly as if they were in Britain. He was impressed by the laid-back atmosphere, though he found local taxi drivers no less alarming than at home. He spoke glowingly of the burgeoning Australian film industry, and of the depth of local theatrical talent.
Whenever Langdon spoke of his own film industry, it was with a somewhat heavier heart, and frequently in reference to the past rather than the future. Bitterness can be read into his comments on director Frank Capra:
“Good old Frank – a fine guy if there ever was one. Wonder if he has time these days to remember the way the two of us worked together when he was starting off in the business as a gag man, and I was everything from director to cutter to emergency scenario writer … maybe he’s too busy, although I hardly think so.”
He happily recounted his friendship with the likes of the young Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, but bemoaned the breakneck pace of Hollywood, its high level of competition, and overwhelmingly, the pressure of matching past successes. “It’s go for the lick of your life all the time, and take care that the man on the next rung doesn’t step on your face”. After eighteen years working at this pace, he said, the idea of a few years’ rest in Australia was an attractive prospect.
Reviews for the Brisbane season of `Anything Goes’ were noticeably stronger, suggesting that the production had hit its stride: “Amid the exiguous texture there is the sheen and sparkle of sumptuous settings as a brilliant backing for the synthesis of comedy, dancing, music, costume and lighting … adroit management of high-speed dialogue dulls any double edges.”
Reviews recognised not only Langdon’s talent, but his generosity as a performer. “Mr. Harry Langdon holds the stage almost throughout … he seems to get as much fun out of his role as the audience, and in the suggestion of spontaneity is not a little of his success,” said the Courier Mail. “His part is the figment of a playful conception, cunningly conveyed with a droll drawl … There is fine team work among the cast, and while he is the central figure in the fun, Mr. Langdon refrains from overshadowing those whose function also it is to amuse.”
The company travelled to Melbourne at the beginning of April for their final leg of the tour. Audiences there prided themselves as the most discerning in Australia, but reviews were nothing short of spectacular. “For the first time a musical comedy has been written and composed for adult audiences,” wrote the urbane editor of the Melbourne Argus’s drama section. “Not for [Langdon] the boisterous horse play of the knock-about comedian, nor the hand springs of a red-nosed clown. “Tread the step lightly, my pretty Louise” is a good enough motto for him. His impersonation of the gangster masquerading in clerical garb is a comic masterpiece of understatement.”
The Melbourne season ended on 25th May, and, after nearly half a year’s solid work, the company broke up. The Langdons departed Australia on the 5th of June, travelling via the Western Australian capital of Perth. After a visit to Europe to pursue film prospects, Harry returned to Hollywood. He might well have made a lucrative career in other such tours, but the way he doggedly pursued film opportunities to the end of his life suggests that it was in this medium that his heart lay.
Australians have never suffered fools gladly, and have long considered the practice of `cutting down tall poppies’ – or making fun of people who are too full of their own importance – as something of a national sport. International artists were particularly fair game. Were they `dinkum’ (genuine) or just another brash Yankee or posh Pommie? Harry Langdon passed their judgement with flying colours. Here was no flashy movie star but a humble, gentle and talented fellow – and, in the judgement that would have meant the most to him, `unquestionably a fine artist’.