Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book review: Harry Langdon: His Life and Films

Review by by Doug Gibson

I'm overdosing on Harry Langdon the past couple of weeks. Besides reading William Schelly's excellent biography of the silent comedy star, "Harry Langdon: His Life and Films," (from McFarland) I've watched about all the films I can find. There's a lot on YouTube (I'm listening to one of his talkies as I pen this review) and Kino offers a DVD with three of his best silent films, The Strong Man, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and Long Pants. (I've snuck in a YouTube of Tramp ... above).

As Schelly notes, Langdon -- and his first wife Rose -- honed skills in the first-decade plus of the 20th century as a comedy burlesque team, and later a top vaudeville act. One of Langdon's specialty acts was a Night on the Boulevard, where he was a timid, comic driver. Langdon was a talented artist, and used his art in his acts. He even had a comic strip for a time. He was big as Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd ... But today, while their works appear often on Turner Classic Movies and casual film fans know their names, Langdon still often draws a blank stare. It's past time that changed. We need to lift Harry Langdon back into the film history spotlight.

 Langdon and  Rose made it to the top in vaudeville, appearing in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. This is important to note because as Schelly notes, both Frank Capra and Mack Sennett, who both worked with Langdon during his rise as a comedy star, later wrote autobiographies that contained inaccurate accounts of Langdon, claiming he had garnered very little acclaim prior to working in silent comedies. They also claimed that Langdon's career had completely collapsed with the advent of sound, and that he was a failure afterward. Again, completely false, and those accounts -- which many believed -- speak more to Capra's and Sennett's inability to forgive and forget after their highly publicized splits with Langdon in the 1920s.

Langdon honed his silent comedy skills working with the greats, Sol Lesser and then Mack Sennett, usually in shorts and sometimes in two reelers. While at Sennett, he managed to create a unique comic persona -- the little elf. A mild character whose comedy is created from his reaction to the world around him, the elf was not a physical character, or a natural brute. He usually got the girl in the end, one of his co-stars was a very young Joan Crawford, but the little elf, with his powder-white gentle face, could be considered asexual. He was a fantastic caricature for the silent star, who used bewildered expressions and a dogged, quiet, slow determination to achieve his goals. He could do physical slapstick when the script occasionally called for it.

As Schelly notes, one of the best Sennett/Langdon efforts is "Saturday Afternoon," which can be seen via YouTube here. As Schelly notes, Sennett was not a producer that stars stuck with forever and eventually Langdon moved to First National Pictures, where he established relationships with directors Frank Capra and Harry Edwards. Capra, of course, later achieved fame with a series of dramas starring Jimmy Stewart. He also developed a relationship with a writer named Arthur Ripley.

While at First National, for a couple of years, Langdon achieved super-stardom, earning several thousand dollars a week. His first two films, "The Strong Man," and "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," were very successful. "The Strong Man" carries much of the themes of Capra's later films, with honest reformist folk overcoming greed that has created anarchy and riotous lifestyles. The first was directed by Capra, the second by Edwards. Langdon's third film, "Long Pants," was directed by Capra but it was during the production of that film that the two split, with  Langdon wanting to direct his future films.

During that period Schelly notes that Langdon's marriage to Rose had collapsed, which no doubt contributed to the pressure of constantly staying a star. As Schelly notes, First National wanted two films a year and constant film success would be tough for anyone to maintain. Langdon's next two films, "Threes a Crowd" and "The Chaser," produced mediocre box office returns. Another film "Heart Trouble," was little publicized by First National and in fact is now presumed lost. During the second half of Langdon's rise and fall with First National, Sennett, who held rights to earlier unreleased Langdon shorts, released them to coincide with the release of the First National films. That act likely siphoned some of the box office proceeds from Langdon's new releases.

Now, if one believes Capra and Sennett, when his First National contract ended along with the start of the talkies, Harry Langdon's career essentially ended, and he spent 16 bleak years before he died at age 60 in December 1944. But, as mentioned, that's not true. The last 16 years of his life Langdon was constantly working in show business, films and the occasional stage act. He married twice more -- the third time being the successful one that produced a son. Until the end of his life, Harry Langdon still saw his name at the top of the credits in films he starred in. It matters little that the starring roles were for poverty row studios such as PRC and Monogram or for Columbia Studios comedy shorts department. For any silent comedy film star, that was frankly the best to be hoped for. Langdon's talkie career -- until his death -- can arguably be tagged as more successful that Keaton, Lloyd, Ben Turpin, Andy Clyde, Charlie Chase, Billy Bevan and others.

In the talkie era, Langdon made comedy shorts for Hal Roach studios, Educational Films, RKO, and Columbia's dominating department. Edwards directed many of them. He was paired often with Vernon Dent, a frequent comedy antagonist. Late in his life he was paired with the comic El Brendel. He made 47 shorts and starred in several films, directed a few, and also had small parts in bigger-budget A productions. He had money problems, usually as a result of having to meet financial obligations for his earlier failed marriages. However, the final five years of his life, Langdon appeared in 24 films, many with Columbia, which demanded physical comedy. The last five years of his life, Langdon began to age and it was no longer practical to attempt the "Little Elf" persona. It's a tribute to his skill that he was easily able to adapt his talents to the "harried businessman/husband" or "inept employee" or "unlikely, oafish hero" roles.

Langdon was good friends with Stan Laurel, and frequently wrote for Laurel & Hardy. In 1939, while Laurel was having a tiff with Hal Roach, Langdon received his last big-time. It was a great opportunity. He co-starred with Oliver Hardy in the big-budget "Xenobia." Langdon is great in the film, as the owner of an elephant that falls in love with Ollie. Harry's character sues Hardy, and it's resolved in a funny court scene. It's a funny film and is well reviewed, but the film tanked at the box office. It seems movie-goers only wanted Hardy with Laurel. Langdon, who idolized Laurel, had been told that he would get a second starring role with Hardy, but the poor returns for "Xenobia" killed that. It was a disappointment, but as Schelly notes, Langdon never had any intention of trying to break the team of Laurel and Hardy and a second film would have been his last.

After "Xenobia," and the move of Laurel and Hardy to a bigger studio, Langdon seemed to have started a frenzy of acting and writing in Columbia shorts and poverty row films. As Schelly notes, he also made many "soundies," musical numbers that played at arcades in which viewers paid a small fee to watch the act. In 1943 he toured the country in the stage act, "Out of the Frying Pan." And he earned money as a gag writer for RKO in 1944. It seems his financial situation improved for his young family, but it must have been a physical strain for the aging star, in his mid-50s. Langdon's father had died of a cerebral hemorrhage and in early December, after working on a physical, slapstick comedy for Columbia, "Pistol Packin Nitwits," Harry came home and complained of a very bad headache.

His doctor put him to bed but his conditioned worsened. He had suffered the same malady that had killed his father. He died on Dec. 12, leaving his wife, Mabel, and their son, Harry Jr., who had just turned 10.

As Schelly notes, in his later career Langdon's fate was that his great talents, creating very funny comic scenes, were too often surrounded by dreary long, plotting hacked out by mediocre talents in an assembly-like atmosphere. Langdon was a perfectionist, and that caused rancor in the 1930s as the former big star, who had taken his time setting up comic scenes, was told to get it done and quickly by budget-conscious low-budget directors. But he seemed to finally adapt to it, and even became a fixture at Columbia. It was no doubt gratifying for him to be on the top of the movie poster for the shorts and the PRC and Monogram films. In many ways, Langdon's career echoes Bela Lugosi's. Both enjoyed a short time on top, floundered for a while trying to maintain a starring role in A films, and eventually settled down to starring in lesser productions with occasional A roles.

As Schelly notes, it's unfair to target Langdon as a failure in the 1930s as many other comedy stars, including Keaton, were having lesser success trying to adapt to a new form of talking cinema comedy, with heavy emphasis on dialogue (think the Marx Brothers or Hepburn and Tracy) and more emphasis on physical slapstick (think the Three Stooges). Langdon's "The Little Elf" was heavy on quiet characterization, a sometimes melancholy personality and eager yet timid expressive eyes. Although Langdon's voiced matched what would be an appropriate tone for "the little elf," his type of comedy had passed.

A bigger question is why does Langdon remain obscure today. Just watch the film above and you'll see a master on par with Chaplin's "The Kid" or Lloyd's "The Freshman." Schelly opines that besides the public criticism from Capra and Sennett, Langdon's relatively brief time as a super-star in the 1920s makes his era seem like a blip, rather than the consistent success during that decade of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton. It's true Langdon made too many films to quickly. Another reason may be he died before the 1950s and 1960s, where television and future acting opportunities would have brought him newer, and younger fans. That was a positive development for Keaton, for example.

In any event, Schelly's book is a treasure; well worth the steep price. Harry Langdon needs to have his comeback. I'll be pestering TCM to have a Langdon night on Silent Sundays. Hope the rest of you will, as well.

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