Alfred Eaker has the week off. This column originally ran May 14, 2009.
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 The Strong Man 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 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 claimedthat 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 Crowdand 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.”
For 1920s audiences, The Strong Man (1926) showed the quintessential appeal of Harry Langdon‘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 Chaplin, 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.
Frank Capra, 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 Errol Flynn 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.
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.
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.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian Harry Langdon‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.
A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”
“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”
Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (Joan Crawford). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”
“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”
Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count.
Harry gets and loses a job working for a celebrity cross-country walker. Lo and behold, Burton Shoes is currently sponsoring a cross-country race. If Harry met Betty becomes when Harry met Betty. Hmmm. Billboard girl picture of girl looks like girl on bench. Oh my, let me look see under your hat, Betty. Oh my. Oh my. Same girl. Oh my.
Langdon was, and remains, an acquired taste. The subtextual idea of a Pee Wee Herman/Stan Laurel hybrid lusting after the future Mommie Dearest is the equivalent of nails meet chalkboard for suburbanites, soccer moms, and Curly Howard fans: reason enough for kudos.
Harry enters the race, hoping for the $25,000 grand prize, and putting Ma’s wedding ring on Betty’s finger. His trusty scissors come in handy: Harry’s hotel room is plastered with cutouts of billboard Betty. Harry sleeps with a billboard Betty, much to the chagrin of his competitor, his former boss.
Naturally, there’s trouble along the way, including a few days hard labor for poaching blueberries.
While influences of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton abound in some of the set-piece vignettes, most importantly Langdon perfects his set-apart persona. Langdon’s wide-eyed innocence, sleepy smile, and surreal pathos probably had a longer lasting latent influence than most of the silent clowns. Stan Laurel, Jacques Tati, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and Paul Ruebens are among those indebted to Langdon’s screen persona.
Clip from Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)
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