Saturday, April 22, 2017

Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy best as a familial biography

Review by Doug Gibson

It's been a long wait for a new biography, "Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy," (University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Author Gabriella Oldham began work on the project generations ago, with Langdon's wife, Mabel, who died in 2001. There was always talk of a biography from Mabel -- and indeed she is listed as a co-author, although the writing belongs to Oldham, a researcher of the silent film genre.

As noted early in the biography, an attempt is made to go beyond Langdon the showman and explore the businessman, the artist, the family man. And also his more "mature" years, after a career fall, that Oldham tells us produced a more humble man, able to plead for loans from friends, be closer to his family, and still thrill over a steady paycheck in front of or behind the camera. As Oldham notes, the book cover photo of Langdon (above) underscores her wish to present him in this serious light.

To be frank, the biography's main strength is in its familial tale of Harry and Mabel. The best parts of the book start when the pair are matched for a date. Their life anecdotes, clearly garnered from Mabel's recollections, convey a tale of two people who needed each other. He, impoverished by two divorces, worked hard for her and she, without a yen for the film industry, offered her husband a happy home and eventually a son, Harry Langdon Jr., who writes forward to the biography. (Harry Langdon Jr., now in his 80s, has enjoyed a successful career as a photographer.)

It's bittersweet that Langdon had to die with his son only 10 years old. As Oldham notes, having a wife and a son together with him was probably the happiest era of his life. Particularly enjoyable are accounts of Langdon, Mabel and baby Harry heading across to Australia where Langdon appeared in the play "Anything Goes." From there the family would eventually arrive in England where Langdon would act in one film and direct another.

There was a cheerful spontaneity to the family. When Harry wanted to make an effort to be on the stage in the  East Coast, Mabel quickly agreed to sell the house and leave, even if it meant leaving the piano with the new owners. The best parts of the book are accounts like this, including the very early years of Harry as a youngster in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he would put on plays, try to get into playhouses for adults and eventually, by his early teens, be a traveling performer.

Although I've read often of Langdon's death at age 60 in 1944 -- he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a long day of soft shoe dancing for his final Columbia short, "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," the drama of the lingering days before his death is captured. As Oldham notes, he first thought he had a toothache. His descent must have been rapid because he was soon bedridden and unable to speak to his son or wife. Even then, as director Ed Bernds' notes reveal, his contemporaries were surprised he died.

I rarely am moved to tears, but Mabel's recollection of telling Harry Jr. that his father had died deeply touched this father of two sons, one deceased, the other 12. "He turned around, went to his room for over an hour, then came out as if I hadn't said anything at all." My heart breaks for the boy who began processing deep grief in that hour.

So, how does "Harry Langdon: King of Comedy" compare with two other biographies of Langdon, "Little Elf," by Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde, and William Schelly's "Harry Langdon: His Life and Films." This new book finishes third. There is, however, valuable information. The vaudeville years and his life with first wife, and acting partner, Rose, are covered quickly, but success with Mack Sennett and First National, followed by the fall, and the on-again off-again successes in sound cinema are not ignored.

The Frank Capra/Langdon  drama is interesting because Oldham, while certainly appropriately critical of Capra's less-than-truthful later observations of Langdon (the guy never seemed to get over being fired), also seems to infer that Langdon did indeed disrespect his gag man-turned-director. Anecdotes include Langdon's future second wife, Helen Walton, arrogantly sitting in Capra's director's chair, and an unpleasant scene where Langdon humiliates Capra for trying to get the star out for an extra shot in a scene.

Langdon had a swift fall at First National, and apparently it was ugly enough that Hal Roach verbally told Langdon he'd take none of the First National nonsense at his studio. Indeed, Langdon only lasted a season with Roach before moving to movies and shorts at other studios. He later worked a lot with Roach's studio behind the scenes and even starred with Oliver Hardy in "Zenobia."

Oldham is very critical of the Langdon-directed "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," both flops. Langdon was also critical of "The Chaser" and the lost "Heart Trouble," his final First National film (and one film I dearly, desperately want found). Personally, I think the films Langdon had control over, "Long Pants," "Three's A Crowd," and "The Chaser" are more unique, cultish films than the hits, Harry Edwards' "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and Capra's "The Strong Man." But there's no denying that the first two films, fine movies, were more appealing to audiences.

Langdon was trying to take risks, to explore facets of his Little Elf character. Certainly a darker perspective was influenced by collaborator Arthur Ripley, but Langdon was the star, the director, the man responsible for the money. He lost First National several hundred thousand dollars with the final four films. I do agree with the assessment that Langdon was trying too hard to perfect individual parts of his movies at the expense of the overall success of the whole film. Audiences wanted underdog stories of the Elf overcoming adversity and getting the girl. They didn't want tragic and loveless endings for the Elf. Neverthless, "Three's A Crowd" is a surreal, dreamlike set masterpiece and it's an outrage that it's never aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Langdon was far more successful professionally than many might be aware of in the sound era. He made at least 30 shorts (several are lost), a lot of movies, including the big-budget "Zenobia" and "Hallelujah I'm a Bum," was on the stage a lot (as was Buster Keaton, another sound-era success), was a gag man with Roach, worked overseas, and was still headlining shorts and appearing in B movies until he died. Though most of his shorts were with Columbia, his best overall work was with Educational Pictures, with independent producer/director Arvid E. Gillstrom, of Mermaid Pictures.

These shorts, and some can be found at YouTube, are very strong. They often co-feature Langdon's close friend, Vernon Dent, who had worked with him since his silent Sennett days. Two I highly recommend are "The Hitchhiker" and "Knight Duty," but about all the Gillstrom films are great. (One can see Charles Chaplin's "City Lights" street sets in Gillstrom/Langdon/Dent's "The Big Flash.") Eventually Paramount released Gillstrom's shorts, which was a boon for Harry and Dent, who were almost becoming a team. But Gillstrom died, so the series ended and alas, today the Paramount Gillstrom shorts are lost. Most feature Harry and Vernon in roles similar to what Laurel and Hardy might do. One can only hope these Paramount shorts are one day discovered. What we do know is that there were no serious future efforts to co-star the two stars, although they appeared in films together often.

Late in his life, Harry, with good humor referred to his Columbia shorts, heavy on slapstick, as 'O Ouch O" comedies. Some are still pretty good. I enjoy "Tireman Spare My Tires," with Louise Currie, "To Heir is Human" with Una Merkel, and "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," with El Brendel, with whom Harry made several shorts. Harry also starred in a few low-budget comedy programmers for Monogram and PRC, the best of which is "Misbehaving Husbands," produced by Jed Buell, who ironically was the first filmmaker to sign vaudeville star Langdon almost 20 years earlier.

I've spoken very positively of the new biography. Overall, I like it. But there is one flaw that must be corrected in a Kindle version or future editions. I discovered several factual errors that are embarrassing. I'll mention a few here. (The fact I found several just through my read of the book worries me that there are other errors I did not catch). I urge University Press of Kentucky to fix this. Errors include:

Writing that Vernon Dent was a co-star in "Three's A Crowd." It was Arthur Thalasso.

Claiming that Raymond Rohauer, the admirable film scholar, bought and restored "Plain Clothes." He didn't.

Writing that "His New Mamma" is a lost film. It is not. I watched it yesterday.

Writing that "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" was a big monetary hit. It was not. It's a fine film but it went way over budget. The film was a major financial flop.

The Langdon short "Skirt Shy" is compared to "Saturday Afternoon" because Harry is dressed as a woman. I believe the author intended to use "The Chaser" and not "Saturday Afternoon."

And the writer implies that the Langdon Jam Handy film short "Sitting Pretty" still exists. It is, unfortunately, lost.

These are errors easily corrected, like typos in a newspaper, and they shouldn't take away from what is an enjoyable biography worthy of a spot in a bookcase. Like my other Langdon books, I'll read it often, but I hope the errors are corrected.

Langdon was a marvel of an actor; a minimalist genius, able to bring laughter and pathos to the smallest gestures and eye glances. He appropriately joins Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the four greatest silent comedy stars. His silent shorts, with Dent, "Saturday Afternoon," and "All Night Long," are among the best made. This biography has many photos of Langdon, his family and peers, as well as much of his artwork; he was a talented artist. (In fact, I just got a copy of The Harry Langdon Scrapbook, with lots of photos and text from Langdon Jr. It was released last fall and we will review it soon at Plan9Crunch).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter brings the best giant killer bunnies movie

By Steve D. Stones

If I didn't know any better, I could have easily mistaken “Night of The Lepus” for a Bert I. Gordon movie. Gordon, aka “Mr. B.I.G.,” is known for low-budget 1950s and ’60s science-fiction films that explore the theme of gigantism — giant grasshoppers, ants, mice, spiders, teenagers, and even a giant 50-foot man in a diaper, which is “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957)

But in 1972’s “Night of The Lepus,” Rory Calhoun stars as Cole Hillman, a rancher whose property in Arizona is being invaded by a herd of rabbits. Hillman calls on the help of two zoologists — Roy and Gerry Bennett, played by Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman — to control the rabbit population.

Roy and Gerry suggest controlling the population of rabbits through hormone injections instead of poisoning the herds. Their daughter Amanda switches one of the hormone-injected rabbits with another rabbit. The hormone-injected rabbit gets free and grows to a giant size. The rabbit's offspring also grows to a giant size and takes over the Hillman ranch.

Animal rights activists should steer clear of this film. Many scenes show the impact of gunfire on rabbits when it hits their bodies, even though it is fake. An opening sequence shows stock footage of ranchers with shotguns chasing after and rounding up herds of rabbits.

“Night of The Lepus” was filmed in Arizona with domesticated rabbits set against miniature sets and actors dressed in rabbit costumes. The film fails to depict rabbits as scary or threatening in any way. The furry critters come across as cute and cuddly, just like the Easter Bunny.

Enjoy an offbeat Easter by catching this flick tonight, April 15, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies at 9:30 p.m. MST.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hurray for 'Hollywood Hotel'

Review by Doug Gibson

I love the opening scene in "Hollywood Hotel," 1937, in which a perky, cute, girl next door type of hotel operator brightly says, "Hollywood Hotel!" The unnamed actress, in a few scenes, captures the innocent energy of this ensemble musical.

"Hollywood Hotel" is best known as the film that first featured the iconic song, "Hurray for Hollywood." The Busby Berkeley-directed film, lots of songs and Benny Goodman's band, is one of the type of films that were popular in the first decade after talkies replaced silent -- the upbeat, girl and guy makes good musicals with literally dozens of stars, billed and unbilled, in the cast. These films likely cheered up Depression era audiences, allowing escapism.

The plot involves handsome saxophonist Ronny Bowers (Dick Powell) who gets a 10-week contract from All-Star Pictures. He gets a great send off and once in Tinsel Town is shuffled aside. After Ronnie is used to be the escort of a stand in actress (Rosemary Lane) impersonating a temperamental star (Lois Lane) who won't go to her premiere, he's fired and paid off  by the studio after the angry star learns of the deception.

"Hollywood Hotel," however, is one of those films in which you know all's going to turn out well in the end. Ronnie becomes a singing waiter. He and the stand in are already falling in love, and a plan is hatched to make Bowers a star. He's allied in this by wisecracking, often disparaged photographer Fuzzy Boyle, played by the great Ted Healy, who tries his hand at being an agent to help Ronnie. 

Eventually, the path to stardom for Ronnie begins with an appearance at a popular radio show called Hollywood Hotel, hosted by Louella Parsons. Hollywood Hotel was a real show with actors recreating scenes. Parsons plays herself in the film.

I won't give away the rest of the plot except to say that at the end, Ronnie is re-signed by All Star Pictures at a higher salary! As mentioned, there are guest appearances galore by stars. I enjoyed seeing a pre-star Ronald Reagan as a radio broadcaster and veteran comedy character actor Hugh Herbert, with his "woo woos," as the temperamental star's father.


But my favorite character in the film, and the reason I'm reviewing it, is Ted Healy's Fuzzy Boyle, celebrity photographer turned celebrity agent. His comedy relief is more appropriate in this type of film than his still talented turn in the truly horrifying pre-code horror "Mad Love." He's wonderful in the role, with crackling dialogue and strong comic timing. An example is an early scene where photographer Boyle uses his wit to con his way past a guard who wants to keep him away from a celebrity shoot. The scene is as polished as any comedy team's best work and I wonder if Healy had honed such a scene long ago on vaudeville. Scenes of Healy loyally working the waiting tables with Bowers and trying to boost his career are very entertaining. So are his scenes as an unenthusiastic potential romantic partner of the strikingly odd but funny actress Mabel Todd. Attractive blonde Glenda Farrell also has a small role.

The one drawback is that Healy, still a young 40, looks 10 years older. He would die soon after his 41st birthday in December 1937. He was beaten badly in a brawl while out on the town. For years it was suspected that his injuries killed him. However, it is more likely that years of hard living and neglected health contributed more to his death. Healy biographer Bill Cassara noted in his recent biography that kidney failure was a major cause of his death.

UPDATE! Bill Cassara, in a mention on a Facebook post, has provided the answer to who plays the Hollywood Hotel operator: (she's actually in the credits).

"And now the "mystery woman" of the opening seconds can be revealed: It was Duane Thompson who also started off the radio program of "Hollywood Hotel" with the same cheerful opening. For Vernon Dent fans, she used to be Vernon's little leading lady when he starred in the Folly Comedies back in 1921. Her stage name then was 'Violet Joy.'" ... ME: I wasn't looking for the name Duane.

Below, watch the opening scene of "Hollywood Hotel, along with the pretty telephone operator.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Deadly Mantis - Giant Mantis Breaks Free From Frozen Arctic

By Steve D. Stones

Here we have another entertaining giant insect movie of the 1950s - released in 1957. The Deadly Mantis is certainly not the best of the giant bug movies, but it's still a fun, delightful science-fiction film, despite its many flaws.

Producer William Alland wrote The Deadly Mantis. Alland is best remembered as a reporter who investigates the meaning of "rosebud" in Orson Welles' 1941 film - Citizen Kane. Alland also produced a number of other 50s science-fiction cult classics, including -  This Island Earth (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956) and The Colossus of New York (1958).

The opening of The Deadly Mantis treats us to a boring classroom-like lecture about the three radar stations in Canada - the Pinetree radar line, mid-Canada radar fence and the Dew line. Much like the opening of Alland's - The Mole People (1956) which opens with a boring lecture about the layers of the earth, this opening sequence seems a bit unnecessary, as if to pad out the length of the movie.

A volcano erupts in the South Seas, causing the polar ice caps to shift. A giant praying mantis, frozen in the ice for millions of years, breaks free from a melting iceberg at the North Pole. The giant mantis eventually makes his way to Washington D. C. and New York City by the end of the film.

A weather shack outpost on the dew line in Canada spots a blip on the radar detection. Something large attacks the shack, leaving no trace of the two men inside. Colonel Joe Parkman, played by Craig Stevens, investigates the attack, finding large skid marks leading up to the shack - as if something giant crashed into the shack.

Parkman is later called to look at a crashed  C-47 jet plane near the site of the wrecked weather shack. A large green colored wedge shaped object is found lodged in the plane. Parkman takes the giant wedge back to the Pentagon in Washington D. C. to be examined.

The Pentagon calls in Paleontologist Ned Jackson, played by William Hopper, to examine the wedge object. Jackson concludes that the object could not have come from an animal, but is most likely the giant spur from an insect leg. This conclusion is later verified when a giant praying mantis attacks a military barracks in the Arctic. The rest of the film is an attempt by the military to track down and destroy the giant mantis.

What puzzles me about The Deadly Mantis is why the producers of the film decided to have the giant mantis make a loud roaring sound like King Kong (1933) when it attacks its victims. This sound effect is very laughable. The Deadly Mantis also makes a loud, mechanical vibrating sound when it flies. These sound effects are not effective, to say the least, and could have been made much better.

Most close up shots show a rigid, slow-moving mantis, with little movement from its legs and body. Perhaps the most effective shot of the mantis is in a sequence in which a real mantis is used to climb up a miniature model of the Washington Monument at the National Mall in Washington D. C.

In 2008, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released The Deadly Mantis on DVD as part of a two volume box set of Universal films from the 1950s. This is a great set to have for any fan of 1950s science-fiction. The set contains The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) , The Leech Woman (1960), The Land Unknown (1957), Cult of The Cobra (1955), and six other titles. A must have for any serious fan of science-fiction cinema. Watch the trailer here. Happy viewing.