The Chaser (1928) was Harry Langdon‘s second directorial feature for First National studios. His third and final feature, Heart Trouble (1928) is considered lost. The few who did see Heart Trouble claimed that it could have restored Langdon to prominence. However, by then First National had written their star off, canceled his contract and punished his risk-taking by yanking Heart Trouble. In most likelihood the studio destroyed all the copies.
In his review of Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde’s book “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon,” Leonard Maltin writes: “Harter and Hayde are so pro-Langdon that they feel it necessary to disparage Frank Capra [who directed Langdon’s first film] at every opportunity… the authors take heavy-handed swipes at Capra at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that Langdon’s features did take a nosedive after the collaborators parted company. I remember sitting with an audience stunned into silence as we watched Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser when Raymond Rohauer first presented them theatrically in 1971. They are painfully unfunny. There were other factors that worked against these late-silent features aside from Capra’s departure, but Langdon was not destined to succeed as his own producer, as this book explores in detail.”
Maltin, in his turn, takes the tried and true route of putting Capra on a pedestal, while failing to grasp the nature of Langdon’s art as Langdon envisioned it. Neither of Langdon’s surviving features attempt to be typical period comedies. While Capra’s status as a consummate commercial filmmaker is well deserved, his numerous comments regarding European film, experimentalism, and film as an art form are embarrassingly sophomoric. Capra’s bourgeoisie elitism is so pronounced as to render useless his comments regarding Langdon’s aesthetic choices.
The European avant-garde and the Surrealists predictably had a better grasp on what Langdon was trying to accomplish. A revealing example might be found in Wheeler Dixon’s “The Films of Jean-Luc Godard.” Dixon writes that for the script of his film, Prenom: Carmen (1983) Godard cited Beethoven’s notebooks, Rodin’s sculptures and Harry Langdon as inspirations.
In his New Yorker review of The Chaser, Richard Brody writes: “as a director, Langdon was far more radical and original than Capra ever was, which accounts for the audience’s rejection of his films. Three’s a Crowd, from 1927, is a grimly Sisyphean comedy of a lonely man in quest of a family, and its slapstick brilliance is smeared with a mire of poverty that few dramas could rival. In The Chaser, Langdon’s directorial originality fuses remarkably with his unique performance style: he gives himself long, static, and obsessional closeups of a sort that wouldn’t be seen again until the rise of the overtly modernist cinema of the nineteen-sixties. It’s time to remember Langdon as a director, too.”
As with Three’s a Crowd, Arthur Ripley provided the story for The Chaser. The movie opens with wife (Gladys McConnel) berating Husband (Langdon) on the telephone. Husband claims to be at the lodge, but it is past 8:30! Wife’s Mother (Helen Hayward) joins her daughter in castigating Husband. Langdon’s camera lingers on Wife and Mother’s chastising for such an extended time, that it becomes progressively surreal, like a dissonant string duet. Langdon cuts to Husband, on his end, doing nothing for an elongated span of time. Eventually, Husband lethargically emerges from his lifelessness, but until then, the scene could almost pass for a still photograph. Actually, as we soon learn, Husband is engaging in voyeurism at a hedonistic party. Husband does not join in the activities himself. His lack of reaction on the telephone, coupled with his failure to join the party, strongly suggest an impotent character, an idea which will be reinforced later.
Wife and Mother go to court. Judge (Charles Thurston) denies a divorce and instead sentences Husband to 30 days of gender reassessment. Simply put, Judge forces Husband to be Wife for a month, while Wife gets to be husband. The inserts of newspaper headlines, announcing Judge’s sentence on Husband are intentionally childlike, as if culled from a dream.
From hère, The Chaser becomes postmodern.
Now parading around the house in a skirt, Husband (now Wife) sends Wife (now Husband) off to work.
A bill collector arrives, seeking a year-long overdue payment for a baby carriage. Wife calls Husband to ask. Absolutely not. We will not be needing it. The impotent Langdon is forced to return the familial dream.
After the amorous bill collector is sent a packing, the iceman cometh. After the iceman sneaks a kiss, Langdon decides on suicide. A long extended sequence on various methods of attempted self-destruction follows. When all else fails, go play golf with a buddy from the party.
Shorn of his skirt and adorned in his swashbuckling lodge outfit, Langdon reclaims his manhood with a near lethal kiss planted on a couple of bathing beauties at the golf course. This, of course, sends him back to Wife fully revived.
A sequence involving Husband mistaken for a ghost will later influence Stan Laurel.
A small slice of Langdon’s late 1920 audience had stayed with him. However, the site of the star in drag, mistakenly believing he has laid an egg and attempting suicide, rendered them aghast. The Chaser sent Langdon’s dwindling audience packing.
Posthumously, Langdon had his defenders . The critic James Agee was among them. In his Life magazine essay, Agee wrote: “Langdon had one queerly toned, unique little reed, but out of it he could get incredible melodies. Whatever else the others might be doing, they all used more or less elaborate physical comedy; Langdon showed how little of that one might use and still be a great silent-screen comedian. Twitches of his faces were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness. He was a virtuoso of hesitations and of delicately indecisive motions. He was as remarkable a master as Chaplin of subtle emotional and mental process and operated much more at leisure.”