By Doug Gibson
One problem that film comic Harry Langdon had, throughout his entire sound career, was that his big-budget films with major studios bombed. The failure of the films were not Langdon’s fault, he performed well in all of them. And the films have gained in critical popularity in the 70 to 80 years after their release. Obviously, that’s little comfort to Langdon, who died 69 years ago. The one-time Sennett/First National silent star enjoyed his best success in the sound era as a comic lead in Hal Roach, Educational and Columbia shorts, and a few acting gigs in low-budget B films. Perhaps the best of these is “Misbehaving Husbands,” from Monogram. Nevertheless, his three A films, “A Soldier’s Plaything,” “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and “Zenobia,” with Oliver Hardy, were all flops.
The film I’m reviewing today is “A Soldier’s Plaything,” from 1930, produced by Warner Brothers. It’s one of those very early talkies that blends comic routines with musical numbers. The film involves Harry (Tim) and co-star Ben Lyons (Georgie) as U.S. soldiers in Germany during the occupation after World War I. Georgie is the lady’s man who falls for a sexy German girl/woman Gretchen, (Lotti Loder). Harry has some excellent scenes, where he plays the “little elf” character he honed as a silent star very well. He also gets to sing a song, and does so very well. He’s not the focus of the film but he’s the funniest one in it. He easily outperforms -- in comedy -- a burly, yelling Noah Berry as Captain Plover, who constantly makes Harry and Ben shovel manure; that’s a running joke in the movie.
Ben’s Georgie, Harry’s soldier pal, is carrying a secret that harms his romance with Gretchen. He thinks he killed a violent gambler/gangster back home in the USA. That’s why he joined Tim as a WW1 recruit. Naturally, this causes some harm to his relationship with the German beauty. Worried that he’ll be arrested, he tells her he’ll come back and get her. Gretchen, who wants to go to the states with him immediately, is naturally skeptical. It looks like their romance is kaput, until an abrupt ending wraps up the plot neatly.
“Abrupt” is an excellent word to apply to this Michael Curtiz-directed film. It’s only 56 or 57 minutes, and is over before you know it. There seems to have been extreme editing in the film. Example: like old silent films, titles, rather than scenes, are used to move action along. Also, when Georgie’s major dilemma with Gretchen is resolved (he discovers the man he thought he killed is a fellow soldier) there’s no reconciliation scene with his girl. She’s just with him, all happy, in the next scene. According to movie books, there is a 73-minute version of this film (now lost) that played in Europe. It’d be nice if it was found one day.
According to genre books, Lotti Loder was a European beauty that Warner Brothers was planning to groom for stardom. It’s clear though, that by the finished release cut, studio execs had abandoned those plans during filming. Although beautiful, she does not have screen presence and seems just another supporting player in the film. There is one memorable -- pre-code -- scene of her with Lyons by a creek where she shows off a pair of very attractive legs, however. According to film books, she only made a few more films before leaving the industry.
Harry Langdon, as mentioned, is the best part of this film. He’s funny and demonstrates good comic timing. The film, due to editing, is a B film that cost A money. Depression-era audiences had other films with more depth to spend money on. Curtiz uses an interesting double-exposure technique when portraying life in the USA from persons describing it in Germany. I recommend this film, particularly if you are a Langdon fan and for those interested in the evolution of the earliest sound films. Watch Langdon sing in this film below!