Sunday, September 8, 2019

Aging Harry Langdon still carries comedy short Piano Mooner

Review by Doug Gibson

Harry Langdon certainly did his best comedy shorts work in the first half of the 1920, silents such as "All Night Long" "Saturday Morning," "Fiddlesticks, "Boobs in the Woods,"and many more. He made some above-average early sound shorts with Hal Roach's studio and with Educational and Paramount studios, often paired with Vernon Dent.

The last decade or so of his life, though, a healthy percentage of Langdon's screen acting credits were with Columbia making two-reel comedy shorts. Into the 1940s, the actor began to show his age. He still acted as the "Little Elf," but the face was puffy, with age lines and a paunch. I have a fondness for some of his late shorts though. He gamely carries on with low budgets, quick schedules and by-the-numbers plot. He brings magic to these films.

That brings us to "Piano Mooner," released by Columbia in December 1942. Although it has the chaos and ultra slapsticky dosage of the Columbia shorts, it's an enjoyable 16-plus minutes, with a surprisingly concise plot. Harry plays Harry, a Little Elf-type piano tuner who really wants to marry his fiance, Mildred, (Gwen Kenyon) but only if he can do it with a proper set of dress tails. In the opening scene, Mildred is explaining this to her menacing, pistol-toting brother (Stanley Blystone) who threatens to use his pistol on Harry if the marriage does not occur by 3 p.m.

Harry put an ad in the paper, he'll tune a piano for a suit of tails. In a funny scene where he waits for a call, Harry sits on a couch and pushes springs back in the seat that keep springing out. A Mrs. Gibson (Betty Blythe) calls and says he can tune the family piano and she'll give him a suit and tails.

At the Gibson home, a wedding is being prepared for the family's daughter. Harry gets to work on the piano, which offers another funny scene of him discovering it's infested with birds. Although scenes in the short are helmed haphazardly by the director (Harry Edwards) Langdon adds to their value by underplaying the role. In the manner he made famous as a silent star, he uses his face to express befuddlement and mild emotion.

At the Gibson home is a marriage-obsessed maid (Fifi D'Orsay) who gets it in her mind that Langdon, who announced that he's getting married, plans to marry her. Employing a lot of physical comedy (which in the Columbia sense means she falls down a lot and generally takes a lot of lumps) she tries very hard to keep Harry from keeping the suit and tails that Mrs. Gibson has given him.

Orsay was a big star in the early days of talkies and obviously her wattage had diminished by late 1942. But she is a unique co-star for Langdon and does a good job in an obviously stereotypical role. (She has the kind of role that generally would have been played to less effect by say, Columbia comedy shorts regular Elsie Ames).

Interludes at the Gibson home include Harry and the bride-to-be at the Gibson place walking down the aisle as a practice role, only to be discovered by Mildred's violent brother, who goes after Harry with pistols blazing. Other comedy interludes involve Harry setting off a sprinkler, and losing his suit and tails (temporarily) to a man from the mission collecting used clothes. Another has Harry learning from a guest at the Gibson house that he's late for his own wedding. Another involves Harry taking back his suit and tails from a scheming Fifi; and finally, Harry and Mildred escaping from a chaotic wedding scene at the Gibson home on a motorcycle with sidecar.

Betty Blythe was a silent movie screen siren around 1920. She and Langdon co-starred in a very entertaining Producers Releasing Corp. 1940 film, "Misbehaving Husbands," They had excellent chemistry as a married couple dealing with the wife's suspicions that Harry was unfaithful. The film, I have read, was a successful B movie. It would have been interesting to see if Harry and Betty could have made a series of domestic comedies for PRC, but it was not to be.

Director Edwards, who among other credits, directed "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," Langdon's first feature, was at the end of his career. Some say that alcoholism had damaged him professionally. The Three Stooges, and Vera Vague, refused to work with him on Columbia comedy shorts. Perhaps because of their long association, Edwards' best late Columbia work seems to be with Harry Langdon. Harry's signature brand of restrained comedy tempered any haphazard, sloppy directing work by Edwards. Soon after Langdon's death in late 1944, Edwards was let go by Columbia.

It's easy to find a lot of Langdon's Columbia shorts on the Internet. However, until someone produces a DVD of his Columbia shorts, what's available are ragged, choppy, faded prints. Nevertheless, watch Piano Mooner (above) and get past the tattered print and already-old slapstick and watch Harry Langdon elevate a one-week two-reeler by working well with an old movie-making partner, Harry Edwards.

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