This article was originally published in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.
Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” 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. Frank Capra, 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.
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 forerunner to Stan Laurel’s child-like persona. Yet, unlike Stan, Harry’s character had an amorous nature, which became progressively dark-hued, reaching the breaking point, for early fans at least, when he fantasized about murdering his fiancée in the Capra directed Long Pants (1927), and in his own much maligned, masterpiece of existential pathos, Three’s a Crowd.
When Mack Sennett landed a contract with Langdon in 1924, formulaic slapstick had run its course. Sennett, ever the shrewd businessman, knew he desperately needed a breath of fresh air, and got it in spades with Langdon. Langdon was already forty, considerably older than the energetic, youthful Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd and already had an impressive critical and popular reputation from his vaudeville act.
Since several studios were vigorously courting Langdon, Sennett was lucky to nab him, and did not intend to waste his investment. This beautifully re-mastered and essential collection from All-Day Entertainment/Facets Video contains the surviving Sennett films, along with a good but repetitive documentary and a few random, painfully wretched, depressing sound shorts on a bonus disc.
The first disc in the “Lost and Found” collection shows Langdon’s persona quickly evolving; that characterization is richly molded within a mere six months. The second and third discs contain the treasure trove. Giving the lie to Capra’s claim that he originated the Langdon character, All Night Long (1924), directed by the underrated Harry Edwards, shows the character already firmly in place and is the first Langdon masterpiece. As one commentator states, these shorts, so detailed in personality and plot, seem very much like feature films. All Night Long pairs Langdon with his two best co-stars; Vernon Dent and Natalie Kingston. These two actors were perfect, complimentary foils for Langdon, and both remain horribly underrated.
Dent might be likened to an Oliver Hardy-type sidekick, except that Dent was a far more versatile actor than Hardy ever was (that is no swipe at Babe). Dent typically played Langdon’s burly Bluto-like bully, but resonated far more depth in his portrayal of Professor McGlumm in His Marriage Wow (1925). Dent’s pessimist professor is downright creepy, matching Langdon’s paused, minimal expressiveness with priceless, under-the-skin glances. Dent’s McGlumm bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and, at the end, he reveals himself to be none other than the infamous Barney Google of the 1920’s comic strip.
Kingston is equally priceless: tall, stylishly dark, incredibly sexy, and evoking true, expressionistic danger. She is both Jezebel and Delilah, seducing and attempting to murder Langdon in both Lucky Stars (1925) and Soldier Man (1926). Langdon, Dent and Kingston make for a unique trio in all of their films together. Kingston is Sgt. Dent’s girl in All Night Long, but only until lowly K.P private Langdon unwittingly steals her away.
For his betrayal, Langdon’s private is banished to the war front of the surreal No Man’s Land, only to triumphantly sift through the inexplicable circumstances he finds himself thrown into (he’s akin to Betty Boop’s Minnie The Moocher or Peter Sellers’ Chance the Gardener), and wins Kingston in the process.
Another, uncredited co-star might be the dummy in Feet of Mud (1924), which again co-starred Dent (as Langdon’s football coach) and Kingston (as the rich girlfriend). Through elongated, almost plastic, repetitive reactions ,Langdon interacts with a mannequin, mistaking it for a real person. It is a surreal bit of business Langdon explored time and again.
Along with All Night Long, Lucky Stars and Saturday Afternoon (1926) may be the best of the distinguished lot. In the richly plotted Lucky Stars, Langdon pursues his astrological sign and joins a medicine show. Little doubt, Langdon’s own background colored the tale since he
ran away from home to join an Indian medicine show at the age of twelve. Dent is marvelous here as Langdon’s seasoned, quack instructor. Dent is equally impressive in Saturday Afternoon (a precursor to many a Laurel & Hardy plot) as Langdon’s good-old-boy date buddy, ambitious to secure an afternoon with a couple of those “tomatoes with the gorgeous lamps.” Langdon’s charming, little boy lost reaction to a kiss shared between Dent and his date is sublime.
In the enormously popular Fiddlesticks (1926) Dent takes on two roles, as Langdon’s fragile fatalism soars the heights that would crystallize in Three’s a Crowd. Langdon propels the viewer deep into the discomfort zone when he dons drag in The Sea Squawk (1925). (Pee Wee Herman masturbating in an adult theater or wearing mirrors on his shoes to look up girls’ dresses has nothing on the disturbing sight of a transvestite Harry!)
The pristine His First Flame (1927) reunites Langdon, Dent and from in Langdon’s first feature, Capra’s The Strong Man (1926). The Strong Man remains Langdon’s most popular film and the one for which he is best remembered.
Langdon took Edwards, Capra, and writer Arthur Ripley to First National with him. The second feature there, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) went over deadline and over budget for which, unfortunately, Edwards was blamed and fired. All three of these features did well with audiences and critics alike, but it was in the third, Long Pants (1927) that the idyllic working relationship between Capra, Langdon, and Ripley became unraveled.
Capra objected to the film’s darker elements. His conception of the Langdon character was as an innocent child, inexplicably protected by God. But, Langdon, Ripley and Edwards, as seen in the pre-Capra All Night Long, had already developed that character concept. In Long Pants, Ripley and Langdon retained the wonder of Langdon’s man-child, but jettisoned innocence in favor of less sympathetic character flaws. Langdon was selfish, vain, obstinate, stubborn, and even contemplated murder. It was Langdon and Ripley’s two against Capra’s one. The result of the disagreement was Capra’s dismissal, for which the director never forgave the star.
Actually, Capra and Langdon, despite doing good work together, were aesthetically mismatched. Capra always filtered audience taste through his sensibilities, which, of course, helped him become enormously successful. Considering audience taste rarely, if ever, even occurred to Langdon, who simply forged ahead, despite the odds, much like his character.
In Three’s a Crowd, Ripley and Langdon pulled on another rug. Here, Langdon transforms into something resembling Charles Schultz’ perennial loser Charlie Brown and removed any hint of divine intervention. No matter how much we may root for Harry, his character walks away with absolutely nothing. No girl, no future, no promise of Eden. If there is a God, then God mocks Harry. Harry seems to realize this and the film ends with him sending a hurling rock through the storefront window of a local soothsayer, a bit like the unjustly cursed Saul. It was too much for 1927 audiences.