Sunday, July 28, 2013

An interview with "Little Elf: A celebration of Harry Langdon" authors Michael J. Hayde and Chuck Harter

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, on Sunday, July 28, 2013, I had the opportunity to have published in the Standard-Examiner a review of two biographies, "Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, and "For Art's Sake: The Biography and Filmography of Ben Turpin," by Steve Rydzewski. Both books are from Bear Manor Media. Over this next week, Plan9Crunch will supplant the review, found here, with interviews with the authors. The first is with Hayde and Harter of "Little Elf ..."


Q. Harry Langdon was an accomplished vaudeville star, with “Johnny’s New Car,” etc., prior to gaining stardom with Sennett. How prepared was he after his stint with shorts, to step into features? 

HARTER: Langdon had performed in various aspects of live entertainment for 20 years and knew how to make an audience laugh. He had also written much of his own material. The different approach to comic acting in movies would have been new to him but he quickly adapted to film acting in the Sennett shorts. After a few years in the two-reel field he was certainly experienced and ready for features. Langdon was a great pantomimist and observer of comic performances, plus he had a core group of collaborators that helped mold his comic persona in very successful films. So he was definitely ready in a talent sense.

HAYDE: What hurt Langdon while doing the features was the pressure of running his own company. He was no businessman, but the most successful comedians in those days were their own producers and status demanded that he follow that model.

HARTER: He was also under various personal pressures including a “Yoko Ono”-type paramour. Reviewers had called him “The Next Chaplin” early on and this, along with the personal issues, gave Langdon a false sense of superiority. Yet despite all that, he quickly adapted and did some excellent acting in the silent features.

Q. I’m amazed at Langdon’s ability to convey emotion, and produce humor, just from his facial expressions. Yet he seems to need a good team around him. In your opinion, who were the biggest assets to Langdon -- Capra, Harry Edwards, Vernon Dent, Ripley ...?

HARTER: Langdon's biggest assets were his many years of experience in live performances along with his varied skills in writing, performing, musicality and desire for artistic growth. His core team of Director Harry Edwards and later Frank Capra, scriptwriter Arthur Ripley and co-stars such as Vernon Dent caused Langdon to shine when he applied his talents.

HAYDE: I don’t think any one of them was more important than the others. As we said in LITTLE ELF, Edwards, Ripley, Capra and Langdon were all pieces of a puzzle that combined to shape and refine Harry’s quirky stage persona into something that really came through on the silent screen. Vernon Dent was a very capable co-star and there are moments that imply they could have made an effective team, but Langdon made many memorable films without him.

Q. I think “The Strong Man” and “Threes a Crowd” are masterpieces that should be considered alongside “The Kid” “The Freshman” and “The General” as silent comedy classics. But they are not. They do not get played on Turner Classic Movies and revival houses don’t play them as much. He has not joined Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd as iconic figures. Is this due to the negative influence of Capra, or the short rise and fall of Langdon as a features star in the silent era? 

HARTER: Langdon died in 1944. At that time silent movies were not the revered, analyzed and cherished art form that flourished in later years. As a result, due to his being relegated to short subjects and small supporting roles in the last years of his career, Langdon's death was barely noticed. He never appeared on television in the 1950's, which would have brought a whole new audience for his vintage films.

HAYDE: Exactly: he wasn't around to promote himself. For years, the “old guard” of silent comedy authors and historians called “The Strong Man” Langdon’s only masterpiece. That kind of put him in the category of a “one trick pony,” limiting his appeal. Moreover, Frank Capra took a lot of credit for its success, with the consequence of denigrating Langdon’s importance to his own film! Certainly Chuck and I expect that LITTLE ELF will help change these perceptions.

HARTER: As far as his best features not being revived, Langdon is a very acquired taste and must be really viewed in depth to appreciate his skills. His character is multi-varied, strange, sometimes eerie and is on the whole a bizarre persona. He is always interesting to watch, and like Keaton he’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, but a fascinating actor nonetheless. Langdon's initial huge success in the 1920s was in part due to the fact that he worked much slower than other comedians and was such a revelation in context to the more hurried pace of the ‘20s comedy films. Langdon’s artistic peak was only for the years 1925-1927 while the other comedy greats had a longer time span of artistic and commercial success.

HAYDE: There are also rights issues with the classic features. They’re no longer owned by Warner Brothers, who sold them to Raymond Rohauer in the late 1960s. The same company that owns all the Keaton silents owns Langdon’s First National features, but the demand for the latter isn’t on the same level. It’s fortunate that Langdon did some excellent work for Mack Sennett. Most of those films have been restored and the best of them have played on TCM. His Hal Roach shorts, which are not the disasters of legend but mostly surprisingly good showcases for his character, have also turned up on the network. This can only work in Langdon’s favor.

Q. Langdon, due to personal decisions, was broke through most of his life in the 1930s and on. However, a careful look at his post-silent career shows an actor/director/writer who maintained a busy schedule. He certainly worked more than Keaton, Lloyd, Turpin, Chaplin ... It seems that he managed to make a living in an era in which comedy had moved to dialogue rather than expression. How resilient to adversity was Harry, in your opinion?

HARTER: Harry Langdon was a survivor, with varied skills and talents and had a great work ethic. He was always pursing any possibilities for employment in show business. He did tend to live in the moment and spend freely but was always optimistic that other opportunities would present themselves. They always did and Langdon rebounded many times from apparent failure and worked regularly up until his death in 1944. He literally died in harness, had a comfortable living and owned a house. So he went out doing what he loved, had a happy marriage and a young son that he adored.

HAYDE: There was still a place for physical comedy and sight gags in the talkie era, and Langdon was right there with the best of them. Plus, having worked on the stage for so long in a succession of acts in which he talked and sang, he was not flummoxed by sound, as were many of his colleagues who didn’t have that training. He and Keaton didn’t let the status of having been major stars in the silent era keep them from accepting jobs that might seem unworthy of their talents from a latter-day perspective. They both enjoyed working and, since they lacked the excessive financial security of a Chaplin or Lloyd, needed to work. Do Langdon’s later films measure up to the standards of his greatest silents? Of course not; neither do Keaton’s, but many of those films have some marvelously funny moments that could have originated with no other comedian. Other than a handful of Columbia shorts, there are no out-and-out disasters among Langdon’s talkie films. Working at low-budget places like PRC and Monogram actually benefited Langdon: he got a level of creative freedom that other comedians, like Laurel & Hardy, did not enjoy at the big film factories.

Q. What is Langdon’s best talkie work, and why?

HARTER: Of the four great silent master clowns, Langdon had the best voice that suited his silent screen persona. When he had a positive and creative environment to act in talkies, he always delivered comic performances that entertained. Unfortunately, much of his later work suffered from inferior scripts, lackluster direction and low budget production values. However, there are scattered comic gems throughout his talkie career that display his talents in a fully intact manner. His best talkie work included: Hal Roach Studios Two Reel Short Subjects 1. “The Big Kick” (1930) – A great short that showcases Langdon’s gift for pantomime with dialogue at a minimum but effectively used. 2. “The Shrimp” (1930) – His best short for the Roach Studios which contains fine acting and dialogue. Educational Pictures Two Reel Short Subjects 1. “The Hitch Hiker” (1933) – A great Educational short that features an exquisite lengthy pantomime sequence and snappy dialogue. 2. “Knight Duty” (1933) – His best talkie short that is a gem in every way and fully convinces that Langdon could achieve the same quality as his silent film performances. Talkie Features 1.“A Soldier's Plaything” (Warner Bros., 1930) – Langdon co-stars in this early War comedy and delights with great dialogue and sings a cute musical number in which he accompanies himself on piano. 2. “Hallelujah! I'm A Bum” (United Artists, 1933) – An all-musical experiment that stars Al Jolson. Langdon co-stars and sings his dialogue to great effect. 3. “My Weakness” (Fox, 1933) – Langdon plays a Cupid like Greek Chorus who comments on the various action. This may be his best talkie appearance and sadly the film is not available. A print resides at UCLA and one hopes that it will be released on DVD in the future. 4. “Misbehaving Husbands” (PRC, 1940) – A low budget feature that emerges as a charming showcase for Langdon’s skills. His portrayal of a timid husband is genuinely funny and he has several great scenes throughout.

HAYDE: I agree with my partner with all of those, but would also add another feature: “Double Trouble” (Monogram, 1941), in which Langdon partners with Charley Rogers. The two make a good team, playing a pair of innocents similar to Laurel & Hardy, yet without evoking them. Harry revives his original “Elf” character for this film, and it’s a worthy and very funny showcase, especially when he impersonates a woman against his will. For more details pick up a copy of “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, published by Bear Manor Media. Thanks Michael and Chuck.

By Wednesday, July 31, Plan9Crunch will publish an interview with Steve Rydzewski, author of the Turpin biography, "For Art's Sake ..."

 Again, here is a link to my Standard-Examiner review of both books. Thanks for reading, Doug Gibson.

Headline: Books on silent stars Turpin, Langdon, an example of small-press thoroughness

By Doug Gibson, Standard-Examiner, July 28, 2013

Silent film comedy stars Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin inhabit the middle tier of fame. They’re not among the silents’ A-list — Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd — but they’re above Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, Larry Semon and a host of others. Turpin, by virtue of his crossed-eyes, is an iconic character, even if many who recognize the face can’t place the name. Langdon, who rivaled Chaplin in his ability to produce emotion, pathos and laughs with a mere shifting of his eyes, was directed by Frank Capra, and co-starred with a very young Joan Crawford in his salad days. ...

The entire review is here.

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