Harry Langdon … the fourth genius?

Harry Langdon … the fourth genius? – silent filmmaker

Frank Thompson

Ask anyone. If there were a Mount Rushmore of Silent Comedy, what four faces would be carved on it? The answer — if virtually every published history of film is any indication — is predictable: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon. No one would argue with Chaplin’s place there; not only the preeminent silent clown, he is also one of the primary figures of the cinema. Keaton has long since received his due — not only a brilliant performer but a formidable filmmaker. Even Lloyd, once neglected or patronized for the very accessibility that made him so popular in the Twenties, has been reevaluated in the past couple of decades. It’s now clear that he was as much of a force behind the camera as in front of it, and that his hilarious, often beautiful comedies deserve not only to stand beside the best of Keaton and Chaplin but to be classed with the Americana masterpieces of John Ford and Henry King.

But Harry Langdon? How did he get into this starting lineup? His films have mostly been out of circulation for years, and even those that were available have been largely ignored by repertory and film society programmers. Yet his name remains alive somehow, even to those who have only the vaguest notion of what he did. Maybe it’s because of his major supporters. James Agee, in his influential 1949 Life magazine piece, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” named Langdon as one of the “four eminent masters.” Earlier, in 1928, Mack Sennett (with, perhaps, an axe to grind against a certain Little Tramp), told Theodore Dreiser that Langdon was “the greatest of them all … greater than Chaplin.” And Kevin Brownlow called him “the fourth genius of screen comedy.”

Certainly his screen image was unique. Small and doughy, his pale round face was punctuated by darting, curious eyes and bee-stung, Lillian Gish lips. Just as Keaton was called “The Great Stone Face,” Langdon was “The Baby,” a nickname that scarcely does justice to the incredible range of emotion contained within that toddling body. Langdon created a screen persona that was beyond age. Indeed, it’s often, and deliberately, unclear just how old any of his characters are supposed to be; they can get their first pair of long pants on one day and prepare for marriage the next. But no matter what’s written on his birth certificate, Harry (and he was virtually always “Harry” onscreen) has retained all the innocence and optimism of childhood. Sometimes married, often in love (he’s even a father in one film), Harry somehow remains presexual. He looks at the world — one is tempted to say “the adult world” — with a beguiling mixture of trust and bewilderment. His gestures set him apart from every other silent clown: tiny, fluttering movements, a wide-legged run, an almost interminable indecisiveness. Like a child, he is constantly taking the temperature of the room, checking the mood of a pal or a wife by leaning over, hands on knees, and peering upward into their faces, smiling with satisfaction if all is well, casting a worried sideways glance if the horizon is stormy.

There’s no one else like him, and when that character is allowed to set its own pace, Langdon’s films can be both hilarious and charming. But how often, really, does that happen? Now we can at least begin to judge for ourselves, thanks — once again — to the enterprising Kino on Video. The company has just released crisp new prints, with only slightly annoying musical scores, of three Langdon features — Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (26), The Strong Man (26), and Long Pants (27) — each accompanied by a Langdon short: All Night Long (24), His Marriage Wow (25), and Saturday Afternoon (26).

Though this is but a sampling, three features and three shorts count for a lot in a career as brief as Langdon’s. He didn’t come to movies until 1924 — he was already 40 years old, a veteran of vaudeville — and starred in only seven features and some twenty silent shorts. He was a true movie star for a very brief time. Until his death in 1944, Langdon continued to appear in movies like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (33) with Al Jolson and Zenobia (37), in which he served as Laurel-Lite in Oliver Hardy’s only solo feature. But as a major force in comedy, Harry Langdon was finished by 1928.

The Kino releases reveal both why Langdon was so beloved during his heyday and why his appeal fizzled so soon. The films are often quite good and very funny — and just as often completely perplexing. Frank Capra, who directed The Strong Man and Long Pants and cowrote several other Langdon films, claims in his autobiography to have “invented” Langdon, that Langdon himself never completely understood his screen character. Obviously this isn’t true; the essential Langdon Baby was already there in the first films, pre-Capra. Indeed, it looks as though it was Capra, Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley et al. who didn’t fully understand Langdon’s unique appeal. For every moment in which Langdon’s quirky, minute gestures work their subtle spell, there are comic set-pieces that have little to do with him, that, in fact, highlight his deficiencies by placing him on turf already claimed by Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Harry is trying to save his father’s shoeshop by entering a cross-continent walking race. Separated from his fellow walkers, he finds himself adrift in a sea of sheep. As we await what we are sure must be a series of sheep gags, he simply wanders among them, doing nothing. In a title card, he refers to them as “cows” — that’s the closest thing the sequence has to a laugh.

To get away from the sheep, he climbs a tall board fence — which turns out to stand at the edge of a sheer drop, hundreds of feet above a road. Harry’s belt is caught on a nail and he fusses with it, not realizing that he is in danger of plummeting to his death. When he does see his predicament, he doesn’t try to climb back over the fence; that would involve action. Instead, he attempts to secure himself by nailing his sweater to the fence. Trouble is, the nails he’s using for this purpose are being pulled out of the join in the fence, so every one that attaches him more completely to the boards is actually weakening the structure. Eventually, it pulls loose and Harry and the fence fall. And he dies.

Well, of course he doesn’t die. Because a gentle slope now appears where we have repeatedly been shown only a sheer drop. Harry is seated on the fence, riding it like a sled. Why is he no longer nailed to it? Who knows? Suffice it to say that the sequence ends in an intercutting of longshots, clearly showing that Langdon is being doubled by a stuntman, and closeups of a leisurely slide down the hill.

Now, lift the sequence, from sheep to slide, and place it in virtually any other comedian’s film. What would Harold Lloyd have done, dangling from that fence? What incredible acrobatics and unexpected comic flourishes would Buster Keaton have wrung from that toboggan ride down a rocky mountain? Place Charlie Chaplin among a herd of sheep and see what gentle — or rude — gags would result. We can’t blame Langdon for not being an athlete, or for having a stuntman step in for the dangerous stuff. But we can point out that he and/or his handlers flunk the qualifying exam. The great silent clowns created situations for themselves; it rarely occurred to them to come up with a gag that they couldn’t do.

Long pants is probably Langdon’s most serious miscalculation of character. Only barely a comedy, the film is about a boy who thinks life is like the romance novels he reads. One day a beautiful criminal (Alma Bennett) is stalled by a flat tire just outside Harry’s house. Smitten, he tries to impress her by doing bicycle tricks. Finally, mockingly, she rewards him with a kiss, then leaves. Harry, naturally enough, wants to marry her. The trouble is, he’s about to marry his childhood sweetheart (Priscilla Bonner). He searches for a solution, then settles upon one. He decides, on their, wedding day, to take her out into the woods and shoot her.

Predictably, he can’t manage to do so, falling instead into a series of forest booby traps: he rolls in barbed wire, steps in a bear trap, gets dragged by a horse. But the fact remains that he wants to kill her, and only gives up the idea reluctantly.

These misfires are all the more frustrating because, in this Kino set, we see so much promise in Langdon, so many indications of what he might have become if only someone knew what the hell to make of him. In The Strong Man — easily his best film — there are moments of such tender, gentle beauty and gags of such explosive hilarity that one can only wonder how he went so wrong so often.

A female crook (Gertrude Astor) evades the cops by slipping an incriminating roll of bills into Harry’s pocket. Unable then to retrieve it, she must get him back to her place where, she reasons, she can easily get his coat off. But she doesn’t count on his pristine innocence. He won’t come up. So she has to faint, forcing him to carry her up the stairs. Once in her rooms, seduction won’t work, so she tries to force the jacket off. That failing, she comes at him with a knife, to rip the pocket. To Harry, it has been attempted rape and now, attempted castration. He gives in, delivering the kiss he thinks she’s after. She has the money now and, as he goes to the door he says, shamefacedly, “Don’t let this leak out.”

He wanders next door where a sculptress is working with a nude model. The sight of a naked female body sends him into a blind panic, tumbling down the stairs, running madly into the street. So far, it’s been business as usual for Langdon, confronting images and feelings of sexuality that he doesn’t comprehend.

But then, something wonderful I happens. He meets the girl (Priscilla Bonner) who wrote to him while he was fighting in the War, the girl he has been looking for ever since. She is blind, and when they come face to face she begins to cry, thinking he won’t want her when he finds out. He thinks her tears are from disappointment. But after a quick fade, all misunderstandings have been cleared up. Nothing more is made of her blindness; certainly he doesn’t care. And, most delightfully, she is laughing uproariously at his stories of searching for her. Seated on a bench under a tree, the two talk comfortably and quietly. She is the first woman in The Strong Man — indeed, in nearly the entire Langdon canon — who is totally at ease with him, who likes him precisely the way he is. Their sweet scene together should have been a signpost to Langdon’s writers and directors, and to Langdon himself, as to how he might retain the simple, childlike innocence of his character without descending into pointless caricature.

But it’s a lesson that nobody learned. Within a year, Langdon was directing himself, with disastrous results. A scant five years after his movie debut, the critics and the public pronounced him officially washed up.

Harry Langdon deserved a lot better than he got, both from his collaborators and from posterity. If we can find little reason to keep him on that Mount Rushmore of I comedy, the three features and three shorts now available to us should at least inspire a small, delicate statue to a modest but singular talent: silly, sweet, and — at its best — inspired. 6)

Frank Thompson’s recent books include I Was That Masked Man, with Clayton Moore, and Lost Films. The Langdon tapes can be ordered from Kino on Video at 1-800-562-3330.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group