Approaching Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd is a loaded task. This film, possibly more than other from silent cinema, comes with an almost legendary amount of vehemently negative appendage. One time collaborator Frank Capra played the self-serving spin doctor in film history’s assessment of Langdon and this film. He characterized Langdon’s directorial debut as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster.
That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism.
The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.
Capra’s statements are frequently suspect. As superb a craftsman as Frank Capra was, he also made amazingly asinine, disparaging remarks regarding European film’s penchant for treating the medium as an art form as opposed to populist entertainment. So, likewise, Capra’s inability to fully grasp Langdon’s desired aesthetic goals and intentions is both understandable and predictable. Samuel Beckett and James Agee are considerably far more trustworthy and reliable in regards to the artistry of Harry Langdon.
Capra credited himself for developing Langdon’s character through several shorts, along with the features Strongman and Long Pants. Actually, Langdon had thrived as a vaudeville act for twenty years and had appeared in over a dozen shorts before he and Capra began their brief, ill-fated collaboration.
Aesthetically, Langdon was Capra’s antithesis and the surprise is not that the two artists would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.
Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged and it’s existence is almost a miracle.
Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly,static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.
The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura. A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost as if a still photograph. Harry sits up in bed, half asleep,a long stillness envelops the scene. The street outside is now bustling with activity. Back inside the apartment, Harry still sits in that state between sleeping and waking. The alarm clock continues to vibrate. This establishes the character as one who is apart from the world around him. His face barely registers at all and only the slightest of gestures even indicates Harry is actually alive. An eyebrow is arched, the corner of his mouth oh so slowly curls upward.
Harry’s boss, Arthur Thalasso, is outside, yelling, trying to wake his tardy employee. Soon, Thalasso’s family is introduced, then poetically contrasted, with Harry’s solitary existence and all consuming loneliness.
Harry discovers a beaten up rag doll; a metaphoric symbol for the sense of family which cruelly evades him.
Capra described the development of the Langdon persona as an innocent,who triumphs because he is protected by God. Langdon takes away the divine safety net and took great risk in re-casting his character as a sort of dark-hued, sexually repressed, perennial loser Charlie Brown, alternately attractive to and rejected by women. Despite doing everything right and having the most noble of intentions, this Voltaire-worthy Harry completely fails, as the Divine has a sadistic last laugh at his pathetic creation’s futile attempts.
In addition to inanimate objects (the rag doll), Langdon uses nature’s animals and references to animals to metaphorically compound the salt rubbed into the wounds of his much put upon character. A pigeon brings an anonymous love letter to Thalasso’s wife. Thalasso is convinced it comes from Langdon and a chase ensues. Later, when Langdon discovers a nearly dead half-frozen girl, who he believes to the woman of his dreams, he deduces she is pregnant and ready to deliver. He looks up at her, lying in the safety of his bed, then at the booties in her blanket, then back up at the woman, then at the booties again. His face is still frozen, much as she was frozen, for what seems like the longest moment, as he is methodically taking it all in. Finally, he registers a slight twitch and drops the spoonful of medicine he is about to give her. He flees his apartment, down the long, warped stairway that is shown repeatedly throughout the film. He opens a window and yells inside, “Help, Storks!” An army of women and doctors swarm his apartment, keeping him outside, standing so alone, unsure what to do next.
He has a toy rifle, a drum set, various toys, all for this miracle gift of a holy child, but stands there for half an eternity in complete confusion and bewilderment.
Like Saul consulting the soothsayer, Harry consults a palm reader, to assure him this is all going to turn out all right, that the woman’s husband will not return to claim the wife and child who are, for the moment, Harry’s dream of a family finally personified.
However, like Saul, Harry is at the mercy of God’s humor and, indeed, the husband does indeed return to claim what is his. A surreal dream, a boxing match between Langdon and the husband refereed by Thalasso is only witnessed by the prized woman and child, encased in an opaque, blackened world. Harry wears an over-sized boxing glove, looks at this dream family with the slightest of smiles, points to his glove, then to the husband, slow blinks as the husband strikes a highly theatrical battle pose and…
…Naturally, Harry loses and his dream family is taken away. When the woman of his dreams embraces her husband, Harry looks ups at them, in complete silence, looks at his palm, reminded of the oh so cruel, oh so wrong prediction, then back at this real family, utterly helpless.
Harry returns to the palm reading shop. He raises the brick in his hand to smash the windows, thinks better of it, raises his hand again, decides not to after all and discards the brick, only to see it fly into a wine barrel, which goes crashing into the shop window. Harry retreats up the long winding stairway to disappear into the safety of his lonely home, his dreams as smashed as that window.
The bleakness of Three’s a Crowd is worthy of Beckett, rivals the best of Chaplin, and stands apart as THE unjustly maligned, hopelessly misunderstood, dark horse masterpiece of silent cinema. Fans of silent comedy have often expressed disappointment in this film, citing that it is simply not funny. Similarly, Tom Hanks fans initially resisted his venturing past the expected comedies. Three’s a Crowd defies genre. It is not a comedy, but the purest expression of Langdon’s standout art,which refuses to be pigeonholed. Langdon got his start in film at a much later age than his contemporaries and he always seemed the antithesis of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd; so his evolution into something even starker, less definable, was the most predictable outcome of Langdon’s career, and then only in retrospect. It is unfortunate that Langdon was not permitted to develop his art and character, but it’s almost a miracle he was allowed to in the first place and this resulting film is his testament. Many of his earlier films for Mack Sennett, while uniquely different, still seem very much expressions of their time, as do the Capra films, but Three’s a Crowd went further and, consequently, stands out and alone as an original, modernist misfit work. It’s, and Langdon’s, time has come.