Sunday, September 22, 2019

Three's a Crowd is Harry Langdon's costly masterpiece

Review by Doug Gibson

(This is our third original Plan9Crunch review this month of a Harry Langdon film. We are presenting these posts in recognition of the Harry Langdon Film Festival next weekend a the silent film history, Niles Film Museum in Fremont, Calif.)

There is a scene near the very end of "Three's A Crowd," 1927, that I find both heartbreaking and beautiful. Harry Langdon (No. 3) is about to lose No. 1, a beautiful young woman he has long pined for, and through a set of extraordinary events, managed to save the life of her and her newborn baby. For days she and the infant have recuperated at his meager tenement home up high above a long set of stairs. No. 3 (Harry) wishes for a fantasy. A charlatan has assured him that the young woman, who left an errant husband, will stay with Harry and both will raise the baby. But No. 2 (the prodigal husband) has returned, and No. 1 still loves him. They are leaving No. 3, and crushing a fantasy that deep down, he knows was impossible.

The minimalist comedian Harry Langdon, who ironically thrived in an era of slapstick, knockabout comedies, displays emotional chaos with his eyes, facial expressions, movements and other gestures. Once he looks down at the palm of his hand. The attentive viewer understands that is the palm the charlatan read before promising Harry romantic happiness with No. 2. Getting back to the crux of my point, just as the happy, reunited couple is leaving, with airy promises that No. 3 can visit them anytime, Harry clutches the sleeve of an overcoat draped over the woman. For just a moment, No. 3 caresses the wrist area of the sleeves. It's a fleeting moment, not noticed at all by the departing couple. But it's powerful, as it captures the deep reluctance and despair No. 3 has at losing what is literally his heart's desire.

Watch Three's a Crowd here.

I consider "Three's a Crowd" to be Harry Langdon's masterpiece silent film feature. He evolved his minimalist comic character -- who quietly through perhaps dumb luck and God's providence wins happiness and the girl in movies -- to a comic cipher who doesn't get the girl of his dreams, who doesn't find a place in the world, doesn't improve his financial means. In short, he is a survivor, who gets up every day and gets through it with a stoicism that only reveals emotion, and comedy appreciation, though gestures, both facial and body, and stubborn determination to both endure trials and create facsimiles of what he would like to have. (An example of this is found early in the film where Harry encounters a doll that looks a lot like him. Observing his boorish, bullying, and insecure, boss - Harry is an assistant to a trucker - playing with his young son, Harry imitates this by playing with his doll in the same manner.)

"Three's a Crowd" has a simple plot. No. 3, Harry, has a crush on a girl, No. 2, he has observed. Because she left her husband, No. 2, Harry is placed in a situation where he can both save her, get help for her when she gives birth, and provide her and baby space to recuperate. That leads to the climax previously discussed. There are greats bits of comedy in the film. Examples include Harry trying to get back through a trap door with a large curtain . Every time Harry tries to open the door to climb in, more curtain falls and he has to start over. More great comedy is Harry preparing a diaper for the infant. Daydreaming causes him to prepare it as a pie. There is a finale, epilogue scene that involves Harry returning to the false hypnotist's office. I won't give it away but it is laugh out loud comedy.

"Three's a Crowd" is a beautiful film to watch. The camera work of the surrounding area is perfect. As Gabriella Oldham notes in her biography, Harry Langdon: King of Silent Cinema, the star and director recreated a tenement neighborhood of three or four blocks on the studio, with 300 extras. Snow was realistically created in 90-degree California heat! The sights of tenement life, morning to evening, are captivating. I love the "snowstorm" scenes and individuals braving their way through the winds, bumping into poles, or the early-morning milk wagons, the busy late-morning afternoon streets, the lonely, steep staircase that leads to Harry's home.

I call "Three's a Crowd" a costly masterpiece. I acknowledge it has many detractors. It lost money and basically was the genesis of Harry Langdon's end as a leading features actor. Honestly, one can't blame First National Pictures for being angry with Langdon delivering a film so different from box office winners such as "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," and "The Strong Man." And who can blame audiences, long accustomed to Langdon "Little Elfing-ing" his way to winning the girl and success, being nonplussed that the protagonist's lonely, dour life stays that way at the end?

But Langdon was evolving his character, and I think he succeeded. I urge readers to buy the KINO DVD release of "Three's a Crowd," paired with "The Chaser," and listen to David Kalat's commentary. He makes a strong case against the fabulist (when it came to Langdon) Frank Capra's criticisms that were, unfortunately, picked up by scholars like Leonard Maltin and others. "Three's a Crowd" was a financial bomb, but so was "The General," "Duck Soup" and many other films appropriately revered today. The late James Agee tabbed Langdon as one of the four comedy greats, along with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. He merits that. Unfortunately, Langdon's silent features are virtually ignored by Turner Classic Movies. I've never seen a silent feature aired. Occasionally the Sennett shorts are aired, and some of his Hal Roach early talkie shorts. That indifference is a sin of omission by TCM that needs to be repented of.

"Three's a Crowd" is often described as a cloying attempt to duplicate Chaplin's "The Kid." I disagree. Langdon is not Chaplin's Tramp. He is a silent, ignored working-class cipher, with a dream that falls into his lap. Unlike Chaplin's Tramp, who is perceptive enough to understand the kid needs his mom, Harry assumes a fantasy -- with a palm reader's urging -- that can't realistically occur. Chaplin's Tramp also ends "The Kid" with a clear guarantee that he can have a relationship in the future. Despite promises from the reunited couple in "Three's a Crowd," there is no sense that No. 3 has a rewarding future with the couple and their baby. How can he? He's No. 3.

Also, despite Harry's hopes, there's an entertaining dream sequence by Harry where he is fighting the husband to protect the woman and child. Despite encouragement from the woman, Harry loses the bout. In his own dream, No. 3 loses. It underscores that "Three's a Crowd" is a sad tale of unrequited desires with comedy. It's hard to please audiences expecting slapstick to dominate.

Please watch "Three's a Crowd" above. Watch it more than once. Enjoy Harry Langdon providing great comedy in an understated, minimalist manner. And then e-mail TCM and urge them to show "Three's a Crowd" or another Langdon silent feature on a Sunday night. It's about time. As much as I love "The Kid," "The General" or "The Freshman" on TCM, they've probably played 100 times the past generation. Audiences merit a chance to sample Langdon's genius.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Long Pants – Harry Langdon Dreams of Romance

Review by Steve D. Stones

Long Pants, also known as Johnny Newcomer, is a 1927 silent era comedy directed by Frank Capra and starring comic genius Harry Langdon. This is the second and final collaboration between Capra and Langdon. (This is Plan9Crunch's second original Harry Langdon post this month, in recognition of the upcoming Harry Langdon Film Festival later this month in Fremont, Calif.)

In the film, Langdon plays baby faced Harry Shelby, a youngster who dreams of romance by going to the Oak Grove Public Library to check out reading material, such as Desire Under The Elms, to read in the privacy of his house attic. His parents hope that he will get married one day. His mother (Gladys Brockwell) says to his father (Alan Roscoe) “Short pants are keeping him off the street.” Young Shelby eventually grows out of the short pants and his life changes when he starts to wear longer pants.

One day, a beautiful femme fatale named Bebe Blair (Alma Bennett) gets a flat tire in front of Shelby's home. The driver of the car leaves to get help with the flat tire. Shelby sees Blair in the car and immediately falls in love with her. Shelby rides his bike around Blair's car in an attempt to get her attention and impress her. Eventually the two have a long kiss in the car just before the driver returns.

After Blair and the driver leave, Shelby finds a note on the ground that mentions getting married. Shelby assumes it is addressed to him from Blair and starts to dance happily in the street. Little does he know that Blair has no interest in him even though they both kissed. Blair has a boyfriend in the mob.

Although Shelby is to be married to his childhood sweetheart - Priscilla (Priscilla Bonner) and attend a Egg Festival with her, he dreams of being with Blair. On his wedding day to Priscilla, Shelby sees a front page headline in the local newspaper that Blair has been arrested. Apparently Blair is mixed up in a big crime racket.

Watch Long Pants here.

On that same day of his wedding, Shelby asks his bride-to-be to take a walk with him out into the woods. He takes a gun with him in order to murder Priscilla. Some of the funniest sequences can be seen during this part of the film. He asks Priscilla to close her eyes and count to five hundred as he slowly backs away from her in the forest to pull out the gun and shoot her. The problem is, however, that the gun keeps sliding down his pant leg, and he eventually backs into a barbed wire fence, then steps into a bear trap. Great comic, slap stick sequences during this part of the film.

The wedding is called off as Shelby comes to Blair's aide to help her escape from jail. After the escape, Shelby carries Blair around in a large crate on his back. A basket of light bulbs placed on the crate by a street worker begin to slide off the crate one by one as Shelby and Blair think gun shots are being fired at them. Some more great comedy sequences.

I find some of the more subtle images in the opening sequences to be the most interesting in the film, such as a shot of a swinging wood gate in front of a house, wrinkled long pants blowing in the wind on a clothes line, and the closing of an attic opening as young Shelby retires to the attic to read romance novels. These images help to symbolize Shelby's fate in the film.

Although Long Pants was a box office flop and signaled a downward spiral for the career of Harry Langdon, it is still required viewing for any Langdon fan. Kino Video released a DVD of Long Pants in 2000 with two other Langdon films included on the DVD – The Strong Man and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp with Joan Crawford. Don't miss this release if you're a Langdon fan. Happy viewing.

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.

Watch Piano Mooner here.

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.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Bert I. Gordon and grasshoppers! Beginning of the End

Remembering Bert I Gordon's Beginning of the End

Long before Peter Graves appeared in the hit 1960s TV show Mission Impossible, he began his acting career starring in a number of low budget science fiction films of the 1950s. Some of the low budget science fiction films that he appeared in include: Killers From Space, Red Planet Mars, It Conquered The World, and my favorite: Beginning of The End.

I have a fondness for insects, particularly grasshoppers. As a boy, I would hunt them down in the fields near my home and pull off their legs or place them in a milk carton and blow them up with Black Jack firecrackers. Sometimes I even liked to put them on anthills and watch the ants attack them.

As penance for my behavior, I have used them as a subject in many of my paintings. The large grasshoppers in Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of The End would likely get their revenge on me if they knew how badly I treated them as a child.

The 1950s ushered in a series of science fiction films with the theme of something growing large as a result of atomic radiation. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, a giant bird, giant ants, a giant colossal man and even a giant reptile from Japan named Godzilla were all popular forms of entertainment for post-World War II movie-goers. Director Bert I. Gordon was the master of the “giant genre.” In fact, his initials spell BIG, so he was often referred to as “Mr. Big.”

A small town named Ludlow in the suburbs of Chicago has been entirely wiped out without a trace. Pretty photographer and newspaper journalist Audrey Ames, played by Peggie Castle, is there to report on the town's devastation. The local authorities and the military are anxious to keep the story quiet, so they forbid Castle from taking pictures and printing any information about the devastation. Her newspaper editor suggests she investigate the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There she meets local entomologist Dr. Ed Waynewright, played by Peter Graves, who is conducting atomic experiments on plants. After being fascinated by Graves’ large plants, Castle convinces him and his laboratory assistant to look over the grounds of a recently destroyed warehouse near the Department of Agriculture. While investigating the grounds, they encounter several giant grasshoppers. Graves’ lab assistant is attacked and killed by one of them.

What I find so interesting about this film is the fact that actual grasshoppers are used in many of the scenes. Unlike so many giant insect films of the 1950s that use fake-looking paper mache or clay modeled insects, such as The Deadly Mantis, Monster From Green Hell or The Black Scorpion,

Beginning of The End manages to use the real thing, even if it is through a rear projection method on a screen. Even the giant ants in Gordon’s own 1977 film, Empire of The Ants appear to be very fake looking and unconvincing, unlike this film. Plus, the film is not dependent on the CGI effects that we see in so many films of today. This makes it much more authentic and interesting to me.

Like so many low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s, the film manages to use many stock footage shots of military men loading shells into cannons and running around with rifles. There are also stock shots of mass numbers of people running in the streets, similar to The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. One particularly effective shot is of a woman standing in her high-rise Chicago apartment combing her hair after getting out of the shower. As she combs her hair in a white bathrobe, a giant grasshopper appears at her window, She screams loudly as the grasshopper breaks the window and the camera quickly zooms up close to the grasshopper’s head. (Too bad Oprah’s HARPO Studios in Chicago wasn’t around in the 1950s for the giant grasshoppers to pounce on!)

Other effective shots are of Graves and military men combing through a small forest as they encounter a number of grasshoppers. The grasshoppers actually look as though they’re walking between the trees as the men run to avoid them. One of the grasshoppers even manages to chase the army vehicle as it quickly drives out of the forest. These are some of the most effective sequences in the film. For unintentional humor, there is a sequence of Graves trying to capture a giant grasshopper so he can record the sounds it makes into a recorder. Somehow the grasshopper manages to make its way into a cage in Graves’ high-rise building laboratory in Chicago. How it managed to get through the door and into a cage in the lab is anyone’s guess, but it provides some unintentional humor in the film.

Also for laughs is the end sequence when the military general, played by veteran actor Morris Ankrum, uses the grasshopper call to drive them out into the nearby lake like the Pied Piper. An aerial view of the grasshoppers reveals that they are obviously floating in someone’s bathtub or bathroom sink. This is an important ending to the film, but also a very funny one too.
Beginning of The End is a film that taps into the atomic fears that so many viewers had in the post-World War II era of the 1950s. I highly recommend the film to any fan of low-budget science fiction films, especially insect lovers!
-- Steve D. Stones