Tag Archives: Frank Capra

THE STRONG MAN (1926)

For 1920s audiences, The Strong Man (1926) showed the quintessential appeal of ‘s idiosyncratic child-man persona. It is easy to see why. Langdon was radically different than the hyperkinetic antics associated with high profile silent clowns such as , Keaton and Lloyd. Today, he is considered the “Forgotten Clown.” This is partially because Langdon died prior to 1950’s revival of interest in silent comedians. Another reason is his later ventures into blacker arenas: Long Pants (1927) and Three’s a Crowd (1927) which made (and still make) audiences uncomfortable. Still, Langdon’s risky choices were defensible. With sound around the corner, his stardom would most certainly have been short-lived anyway.

, in his directorial debut, invests his signature stylized charm onto Strong Man. It begins with cannon fire. Paul (Langdon) is a soldier on the WWI war front. Needless to say, he is an atypical soldier. He can’t even knock over a tin can with a machine gun. But, put a slingshot in his hand and he can make the big guy cry (yes, David and Goliath references abound). He gets letters from his penpal, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), who swears love to her long distance Belgian soldier.

After the war, Paul is employed by the German Strong Man, Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). As they enter several American cities, Paul looks for the elusive “Mary Brown.” He thinks he has found her in a gold digging pickpocket (Gertrude Astory). This “Mary Brown” is actually “Lily of Broadway.” When she tries to retrieve a stolen wad of cash, stashed in Paul’s jacket pocket, it foreshadows several Stan Laurel scenes to come in which a child-man resists being undressed by an aggressive female.

When Paul finds the real Mary Brown, he discovers she is a blind, saintly preacher’s daughter in a modern day Dodge City. Paul is no  version of Wyatt Earp. Instead, he dons the Strong Man persona and entertains the rowdy crowd.

Meanwhile, Mary’s pappy is playing the part of Joshua and soon, the walls of Jericho come a tumbling down, the movie ending just as it began: in cannon fire.  The Strong Man is an episodic film with a second half loaded with saccharine. The real climax of the film is in the interaction between Paul and Lily.

Still from The Strong Man (1926)Capra clearly preferred the Langdon persona to be innocent. Langdon’s child man was the only one of the major silent clowns who actually sported face powder. That, combined with chipmunk cheeks, sleepy eyes emerging from the face of a pear, ill-fitting clothes, and a toddler’s gait supported Capra’s vision of the character. It was putting that character in an awkward, pre-code erotic situation, however, that gave impetus to the film. In this vignette, director and actor work together beautifully. An endless staircase, an  imagined rape, and a shocking eyeful of a nude model sends Paul exit, stage left.

After this, the film often succumbs to a children’s book version of Biblical storytelling. Still, we do see the Capra touch in its genesis. Likewise, we witness the flowering of Langdon’s big risk. Buster Keaton took a similar risk with a film; not quite as edgy, but his loss was almost as dramatic, resulting in his contract being sold to MGM. MGM, seeing the “failure” of The General (1926), denied Keaton future creative control.

Of course, time declared Keaton the victor. Langdon also, seems to have exerted considerable influence, especially for someone still tagged with that underground, “forgotten” moniker.

LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION

This article was originally published in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.

 said he “only felt threatened by .” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.

Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.

It is easy to see why he appealed so readily to the Surrealists. His persona is dreamlike, subconscious, otherworldly. Langdon’s man-child seems an elfin id. Silence and make-up were existential turpentine for Langdon, removing him, layer-by-layer, from the world as we know it.

Of course, for many, turpentine is unbearable, and Langdon haters will pull out their hair, waiting for him to do something. Even his blink was lethargic. , Langdon’s one-time director and permanent detractor once bitched, “It takes him an hour to get started.” Langdon was the master of anti-reaction and he did more with less than anyone, Keaton included. That’s the magic of the Langdon persona. With the barest minimum, he was able to etch a c

haracterization so vivid, it is second only to Chaplin in identifiability. Langdon’s unique personality accelerated his stardom.

The cause of Langdon’s equally quick fall, after a mere three years, is debated. Certainly, that same personality, combined with his admirable risk-taking, ego, and poor business skills, was partially responsible. But, after he left Sennett for the fascistic First National, both studios released a plethora of his films; the result was an onslaught of Langdon product in 1927, and his considerable fan base went into massive overdose.

Still from All Night Long (1924)
“All Night Long” (1924)

This stands in direct contrast to Capra’s self-serving claim that he alone fashioned Langdon’s screen persona. Capra further claimed that the actor had no true understanding of his own persona and when Langdon ventured into edgier territory, over Capra’s populist-minded objections, the star simply imploded. With sound inevitably around the corner, combined with Langdon’s advanced age in comparison to younger rivals, his desire for rapid experimentation is understandable. The risks he took produced an artistic triumph, but a commercial disaster.

Steve Martin tried something similar with a brief series of films that pushed his own boundaries. When the payoff proved commercially lackluster, Martin predictably receded back into the safety of the mainstream. Langdon received no chance for reprieve with First National.

He alone was blamed for the disappointing box office results of Three’s a Crowd (1927) and The Chaser (1928). His third self-directed feature for the studio, Heart Trouble (1928), was never released and reportedly was destroyed. By most accounts, it would have proven to be his commercial rebound effort. Lamentably, the film seems to be forever lost.

Harry Langdon was and remains an idiosyncratic, enigmatic, minimalist “anti-clown.” For many a novice, he appears a sort of inexplicably surreal Continue reading LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION

LONG PANTS (1927)

Long Pants is the film in which that annoying breed known as “slapstick lovers” start their bitching crusade against the “weird” Harry Langdon. Long Pants is also the film that the collaboration between Langdon and Frank Capra came to a crashing halt, due to aesthetic differences which involved the development of Langdon’s character. Langdon and writer Arthur Ripley wanted to take the character into darker territory. Capra vehemently objected and was fired by Langdon, with Langdon anonymously finishing up directorial duties.

Slapstick, as an art form, dates badly and frequently induces more groans than laughs today. Chaplin‘s more ambitious efforts, with (balanced) pathos and dramatic story, telling are of far more interest than his earlier straight-up slapstick efforts for Sennett. Keaton‘s inventiveness and occasional forays into surrealism hold up as his best work and can, up to a point, prove fuel for those arguing for his superiority. Seen today, Langdon was right in his endeavor to make his on-screen characterization darker, more idiosyncratic, more unique, even if naive critics whine that Langdon simply “ceased to be funny” and just “got weird.” It is Langdon’s weirdness that set him apart from the beginning and, while I would probably not, overall, place him in the ranks of a Chaplin or Keaton, I would argue that Langdon etched an influential persona that secures his position as one of the great silent clowns and defies the “forgotten” label often attached to him.

Contemporary audiences, unable to relate to 1927 mores and customs, will certainly find the initial premise of Long Pants unintentionally bizarre in itself. Harry’s father (Alan Roscoe) feels it is time for his boy to grow up and buys him his first pair of long pants, initiating Harry into manhood. Harry’s mother (Gladys Brockwell) is very weepy eyed over the prospect, feeling her little Harry is far too young for long pants and wearing them will only bring trouble. She is correct, as Harry is, psychologically, still a boy. Once Harry loses his short pants (and stockings—an amusingly ‘creepy’ image) and then dons his long pants, he spies a beautiful, exotic woman in a broken down car outside. Mother’s predicted “big trouble” begins its course.

Actually, this is a bad boy habit already formed in Harry, even before his initiation into long Continue reading LONG PANTS (1927)