Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Harry Langdon Scrapbook captures the feel of vintage comedy

Review by Doug Gibson

Harry Langdon Jr., whose father, film comedian Harry Langdon will be dead 73 years this December, recalls as a very young child visiting the set of "Zenobia," (1939)  in which his dad starred with Oliver Hardy. As Langdon Jr. recounts, he was given a handful of double-headed nails by a stage worker. Perplexed at the oddly shaped nails, his father explained to Junior that they were used to make it easier to tear down sets.

"Nothing on a stage is permanent," Langdon senior told his son.

That phrase is the title of a book released last year from Walker-Anthony Books, "Nothing On a Stage is Permanent: The Harry Langdon Scrapbook." It's available from Amazon, and you can buy it from the publisher here.

The stage anecdote is from the book's introduction. Langdon Jr. is the narrator of a scrapbook that offers photos, artwork, press clippings, promotional clippings, film posters, letters, pay stubs, and more.

The narration is appropriately understated; the scrapbook is what the book's about, but it appropriately moves the reader through the life of Langdon and his career. The book serves as a well-done illustrated history of his life.

Some of the early photos, when Langdon was in vaudeville, in blackface, with "lightning sketches" he performed on the stage, and scrapbook items from his later hits "Johnny's New Car" and "After the Ball ..." will be priceless to fans. The recent publications of photos capturing Langdon's vaudeville days finally draw to a deserved close the Capra-inspired myth that he was a simpleton who had to be taught to be a film star.

I love the scrapbook additions of the Principle Pictures films that are mostly lost, as well as the contract. We learn in the book that one unreleased film, and lost, his very first, "The Skyscraper," was in a Pathe catalog in 1925 under a different title, "Mail and Female."

The book is full of tidbits that are of great interest to Langdon fans and all vintage comedy fans. There is a two-page promotional sheet for the lost film, "Heart Trouble," that is worth the cost of the Scrapbook.

Langdon Jr. notes that his mother, Mabel Langdon, carefully preserved these items. She survived her husband's death for well over 50 years. Langdon's highly talented art is in the scrapbook, including newspaper comic strips he did.

His personal life has a role in the book too. One pay stub for a film, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," shows that two thirds of Langdon's about $20,000 salary went for alimony. Another pay stub shows Langdon, in his own handwriting, noting a portion that goes to alimony.

The book is divided into sections, taking the reader through Langdon's life. His death is as sadly abrupt in the Scrapbook as it must have been in December of 1944. It's ultimately pointless to ponder how a Langdon in his late 60s, 70s, and later may have fared in TV. But it's hard not to.

Fortunately, his reputation was installed by critic James Agee, who in the late 1940s, tabbed him as one of the Big Four of silent comedy, along with Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In regards to Capra, the book doesn't shy away from that fact that Capra was correct that Langdon's move into more personal films, after "The Strong Man," hurt his career. It would be silly to refute the obvious. Also, Langdon took responsibility for those box office failures, and even criticized the later First National films.

I find beauty in "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," but understand why they may have perplexed audiences 90 years ago. In his narration, Langdon Jr. doesn't flinch from pointing out the disaster Langdon's second marriage to Helen Walton was. The Scrapbook takes us through the lean years of the 1930s, when work was scarce, and trips around the world were required to make money. It also captures the happiness of Mabel and Harry's union, and Harry's joy to have a family with a son. Langdon Jr. notes that one reason he remembers his father so well is because the family revolved around Harry's life.

I hope this scrapbook sells well. It's a gem, easily worth its cost. I like that fans and others were involved in its creation. Film historian and author Ed Watz is credited for his contributions, as is former magazine publisher and writer Michael Copner. So is Cologne-based artist Birgit Kreps, who provides absolutely gorgeous hand coloring to many of the Scrapbook items. Finally, two of my dearest Facebook friends, super Langdon fans, Jessica Carlson and Nicole Arciola, are among those credited for their assistance.

It;s been a good year for Harry Langdon, heck a good decade-plus, with three biographies, some DVD releases, and this Scrapbook. What can we do to get Turner Classic Movies to air a Langdon First National Feature. How about accompanying it with an interview with his son featuring this scrapbook?

Sounds like a great idea to me.

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