Friday, March 14, 2014
An interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Silent Films of Harry Langdon: 1923-1928
At the newspaper I work for, The Standard-Examiner, I have posted a review of two books, "The Silent Films of Harry Langdon: 1923-28," by James L. Neibaur, and "Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual Chaplin Specials," by Michael J. Hayde. The review can be read here at StandardNET. It will be published in print on March 16, 2014.
Here is an interview with James L. Neibaur, author of the Langdon book, from Scarecrow Press (link here), who was kind enough to answer these questions.
1) How did Harry Langdon go from a silent comedian eager to take direction from Mack Sennett and content to slowly develop his comic persona to one who felt strong enough to make out-of-the mainstream films such as Three's a Crowd and The Chaser?
Neibaur: When Harry Langdon was new to movies he accepted the scripts and direction and did what he could with them based on his years of experience on stage. When he made Pluck of the Irish, he found that director Harry Edwards would ask for his input and ideas, so Langdon used the elements of his established character more discernibly in this film. That character was even further honed in subsequent movies.
2) What elements of Harry Langdon's edgy vision are in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and The Strong Man?
Neibaur: In Tramp Tramp Tramp , once he is convinced to enter the foot race that is the body of the film, his absolute focus on the task despite all obstacles there are surreal coincidences that compound to ultimately turn out in Harry's favor. Perhaps the edgiest scene is when his rival convinces him to consume enough drugs and alcohol to kill him. On the surface this is merely a setup to the next scene where a groggy Harry must be awakened the following morning to compete in the race. But the idea of this child-man innocently and trustingly swallowing what amounts to a potentially fatal overdose is a good example of Langdon's edgy approach to his character. A lesser comedian could not have pulled such a scene off as effectively.
In The Strong Man, there are many instances where Harry focuses on one thing despite surrounding dangers. In the battle scenes toward the beginning of the movie, Langdon is shown concentrating on a bothersome "cootie" so completely, he ignores the fact that enemy gunfire is whizzing about him. When does realize he is under attack, he confidently pulls out a slingshot and fires back at them, never understanding the futility of such an action. He is ensconced in his own surreal world where a child's toy from a child-man is an effective counter-action to bullets in the midst of a war.
3) Critics of Harry Langdon have referred to Three's A Crowd as a pale attempt to imitate Chaplin's The Kid. I personally disagree but what is your response to those critics?
Neibaur: It is interesting that these "critics" do not also believe that City Lights is a pale attempt to imitate The Strong Man. I am sure Langdon was influenced by Chaplin's success with blending comedy and drama for greater depth, but Langdon's approach was far less romantic and far more edgy and surreal.
4) Do you think that elements of Harry Langdon's personal life. The end of his marriage, his battles with Frank Capra, influenced his desire to make darker, edgier films that he must have known would lose money?
Neibaur: I don't think so. From my perspective it would appear that Langdon's vision simply clashed with Capra's. Langdon was more interested in surrealism and Capra more interested in folksy sentiment. As Langdon enjoyed greater success and was allowed more creative freedom, he wanted to explore these ideas. Capra was put off by them, but Arthur Ripley appears to have encouraged them. I don't think he believed these would lose money, however. I think he felt there was an audience for his more radical and original ideas. There was, but not within the massive throngs of the mainstream.
5) How many years of training and other experience did it take for Harry Langdon to perfect his unique form of silent comedy that relied on long pauses, gradual realization, and scenes that took longer to get a punchline across? Did he learn it in vaudeville or was it learned with Sennett?
Neibaur: I believe the character was already there, and Langdon honed it as he started making more films and was allowed increasingly greater creative input. The idea that he was a simple minded guy who was guided through every movement by others, and he had essentially no creative will or input of his own, is a long held story that is completely false.
EXTRA QUESTION: If you have time. How does Long Pants serve as a bridge between Langdon's Capraesque films and the later silent ones? And I'm haunted by Harry's expression at the end of Long Pants. What do you think his character is saying?
Neibaur: Capra wanted to continue with the more sentimental approach that had occurred in The Strong Man, while Ripley enjoyed exploring more offbeat ideas. Langdon's vision was more similar to Ripley's. He wanted to place his childlike screen character is more offbeat situations (like being court ordered to assume the female role of the household in THE CHASER, or attempting to murder his fiancee in LONG PANTS). More interested in art than artifice, Langdon followed his creative vision without regard to box office success. I don't think his character at the end of LONG PANTS is saying anything, actually, I think it is just a simple expression of remaining mired in a surreal world that would continue in the same way as his life went on.