Harry Langdon was one of the oddest comets who burst across the silent screen, briefly but blindingly, a comic genius hailed as the next Charlie Chaplin and then forgotten almost as quickly. His legend has had to be periodically rescuscitated, beginning with James Agee’s landmark 1949 essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era”, which crowned Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Langdon as the four kings of silent comedy.
Langdon’s schtick was his babyface and childlike demeanor, and his secret weapon was an understanding of the comic potential in qualities totally opposite to his colleagues and rivals. When other comedians were frantic and forthright, he was still and tentative, frozen in place, hoping that perhaps his problems would go away if he closed his eyes. His silent comedy was “silenter” than anyone else’s. After Langdon, say fans and scholars on this box set, his rivals, too, began to slow down and put weight on reaction over action.
Agee says: “Whatever else the others might be doing, they all used more or less elaborate physical comedy; Langdon showed how little of that one might use and still be a great silent-screen comedian. . . . Twitches of his faces were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness. He was a virtuoso of hesitations and of delicately indecisive motions. . . . He was as remarkable a master as Chaplin of subtle emotional and mental process and operated much more at leisure.”
Langdon’s most famous and available works are his first three features for First National in 1926-27, the first two of which were big hits: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants. These show the fully developed Langdon, a creature perhaps less infantile than otherwordly. This Langdon can and does put many people off, for reasons Agee tries to summarize: “There was also a sinister flicker of depravity about the Langdon character, all the more disturbing because babies are premoral. He had an instinct for bringing his actual adulthood and figurative babyishness into frictions as crawley as a fingernail on a slate blackboard, and he wandered into areas of strangeness which were beyond the other comedians.”
Langdon, then, has something to do with the long descent of comic man-boys in Hollywood: Stan Laurel (influenced directly by Langdon), the Three Stooges, Lou Costello, Jerry Lewis, even Adam Sandler, a whole innocent-irritating retinue that irks certain viewers who don’t want to see adults behave like that. But as Agee implies, Langdon already went beyond them into the human condition at its most uncomfortably id-like, its most unconsconsciously confrontational, a world where the imperatives to sleep and eat meet a constant, thwarting hostility.
The nascent Langdon is now on display in this wonderful four-disc showcase, which unearths and restores, as much as possible and from many sources of varying but often excellent quality, his apprenticeship at the Mack Sennett studios that first made him a film star and paved the way for his great features. Sennett specialized in frantic motion, Keystone Kops, Bathing Beauties, and surreal animated gags. This isn’t Langdon territory but Sennett understood this and gave Langdon the space to develop rapidly.
The first Langdon release was Picking Peaches in February 1924. He’s a husband with a wandering eye, a character the later Langdon doesn’t resemble, and a ladder-out-the-window gag is more appropriate to his friend Harold Lloyd. But even in the random knockabout comedy of this and “Smile Please” (which was actually filmed first) are already glimpses of what might be oxymoronically termed mature Langdon. The scene where he accidentally eats a powder puff is taken slowly and without alarm, as Langdon merely shows discomfort in mastication. This is the germ of what, according to David Kalat, Langdon would boast about: an ability to draw out a joke longer than anyone else.
Indeed, in later films the joke is the drawing out. Nothing in particular, or at least nothing spectacular, may be happening, but Langdon will quietly register something, perform the slowest double-takes in the business, begin to respond, stop, begin again, stop, walk away, hesitate, come back, and walk away again, often while someone else stands waiting for him to get on with it.
Sometimes the viewer simply wonders how long Langdon can pull this taffy, and sometimes we squirm to observe all this energy dissipated in sheer oblivion of oncoming cataclysm: a lit fuse of dynamite, or a stiletto hovering above the head. Then the joke becomes how long Langdon can go without noticing the crisis. In the climax to Saturday Afternoon, our hero happens to be stretched between two speeding cars. Noticing the hypnotic effect of the road flashing under him, his instinct is to curl up and go to sleep. Only Langdon can combine the exuberant and lethargic.
In Luck o’ the Foolish from September 1924, suspense is generated by the simple tactic of having Langdon shave with a straight razor on a jostling train, looking toward the camera as into a mirror, while a passenger looming in the foreground watches with unease.
At any rate, very quickly these two-reelers slow the pace and become a rich collection of incidents and characters that, as Kalat observes, make them seem like feature films. The first outright masterpiece is All Night Long from November 1924, directed by Harry Edwards and written by the uncredited team of Vernon Smith and Hal Conklin.
While countless films emphasize the epistemological (or is it phenomenological?) connection between dreaming and movie-watching by ending with a character waking up to reveal it was “all a dream” (and so does one of these, in fact), there’s also an interesting subset of films that begin with a character waking up. All Night Long is an example; in fact Langdon wakes up in an empty, darkened movie theater, having been abandoned by his wife. The movie is over, yet it’s just beginning.
After some handsome compositional spookiness and a bit where Langdon plays with his own reflection, he comes upon burglars, one of whom recognizes him as an old anti-buddy from the Great War. In seamlessly handled flashbacks, they remind each other of the rocky steps in their relationship, from Langdon’s re-introduction in a breathtaking tracking shot (excellent tracking shots show up all over the place in this set) to lengthy scenes of dinner with a French family whose daughter seems to fall for Langdon, to battle scenes in No Man’s Land with eerie spotlights and gruesome gags. The ending is wonderful wrap-up of both narratives.
The French girl is played by Dorothy Kingston, the tallest and most striking of several female leads in these shorts, as well as the sexiest and most dangerous. She actually tries to stab Langdon in Lucky Stars and again in Soldier Man. The ex-buddy is played by Vernon Dent, a constant co-star who often plays a burly rival in early films but branches out into an array of roles showing great versatility.
That Dent can be more than a lug becomes clear in His Marriage Wow (March 1925), which opens with a scene at the same church used by Buster Keaton in Seven Chances. Langdon has a sweet routine where it finally dawns on him that he’s in the wrong church, but the show is almost stolen by Dent’s Professor McGlumm, a pessimist of balding pate and mesmeric eyes. To paraphrase one of the commentarians, he’s like a parson crossed with Dr. Caligari. For a change, his stillness matches Harry’s, and watching the two of them trade glances is priceless enough without any further comic business.
In Fiddlesticks (April 1926), Dent plays two roles so brilliantly that the viewer may not realize it. He’s also a double-dating buddy in Saturday Afternoon (January 1926) and a travelling snake-oil salesman in Mexico in Lucky Stars (August 1925). The latter is a dark little piece of comic fatalism that may be a comment on Langdon’s career; certainly he did have experience in medicine shows.
In these items, Dent’s relationship with Harry resembles Laurel & Hardy, at least physically if not exactly comedically, while Langdon’s brush-headed, childish simplicity, if not stupidity, clearly anticipates Laurel. In fact, Stan Laurel was paying attention and began developing his classic persona soon after this period, finally hooking up with Oliver Hardy in 1927. Langdon later wrote gags for some of their features.
Plain Clothes (March 1925) is in rough shape but notable as the first Langdon with a writing credit from Frank Capra. Capra gave himself a lot of credit for shaping Langdon’s persona and career, and the commenters take pains to debunk his self-aggrandizement by showing that Langdon’s persona was well in place and that he was already working excellently with director Edwards and writer Arthur Ripley, who were also crucial contributors, before Capra was on the scene.
This set provides a necessary corrective to the Capra version, although it must be admitted that Capra’s central conceit seems naggingly true: Langdon achieved his briefly spectacular success with the Capra/Ripley/Edwards team responsible for his biggest triumphs, for he took them with him on his six-picture deal at First National, and he didn’t handle his career well after letting them go. Alas, we can’t evaluate his post-Capra failures on their own terms until they show up on video, as we fervently hope they will (though at least one seems to be lost).
From April 1925, Remember When looks like a parody of Chaplin. Langdon’s tramp is even seen walking away down the road with a bundled stick. The plot, which in some ways anticipates Chaplin’s The Circus, indicates why Langdon was briefly touted as “the next Chaplin”.
The marvelous Soldier Man was shot as a four-reel feature, put on the shelf and finally released in this three-reel version to cash in on Langdon’s new feature career in 1926. It begins as another WWI farce, albeit after the war is over and Harry is the only one who doesn’t know it. Then it develops into a Ruritanian tale in the Prisoner of Zenda mode, as Langdon plays a second role as the drunken king to Dent’s prime minister and Kingston’s imperious queen.
It’s interesting to note that even at three reels, it’s only a few minutes longer than Saturday Afternoon Both are lovely and sublime, with Langdon’s characteristic riffs lending many privileged parentheses within the action. Both also have particularly good comments from Ken Gordon, who links them to previous and future Hollywood comedy, including Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and The Honeymooners. In fact, the opening conceit of Soldier Man was repeated in Laurel & Hardy’s Blockheads, co-scripted by Langdon.
His First Flame was Langdon’s first feature, made for Sennett but not released until 1927 to cash in on his First National hits. Its central feature is a romantic triangle between rich idiot Langdon, his golddigging fiancee Kingston, and his woman-hating uncle Dent.
In a segment of very dark humor on the joys of domestic violence, Harry witnesses two simultaneous donnybrooks in neighboring houses, one in the foreground and the other in deep focus in the background. This is one of the set’s clearest examples of Langdon’s tendency to exploit humiliation and unease, an area of comedy that crosses into an audience’s discomfort zone. Among these early works, this daring sequence is perhaps the clearest application of Agee’s warning (or celebration) about Langdon’s strange territory, though Agee was probably thinking most of the homicidal feature Long Pants.
Kalat says Langdon foreshadows Larry David and Ricky Gervais in the exploration of discomfort; I’ll suggest that the clearest link may be through Preston Sturges, whose characters skate over ice that constantly threatens disaster and humiliation (think of the Eddie Bracken films) and who worked with Harold Lloyd.
The film climaxes with two fires that prove Harry’s utter uselessness as a hero, subverting the convention of other silent comics who always find the pluck and resourcefulness to come through when they must.
It was after this work that Langdon was lured to First National, quickly became a feature star and just as quickly fell, yet he continued to work until his death in 1944. Disc 4 has ragged copies of two talkie shorts he and Dent made for Educational Pictures in 1933, but even pristine copies would make these cheapjack efforts seem sad in comparison with the lavish Sennetts. Nevertheless, Langdon remains amusing in various promotional talkies that shown an old Vaudeville trouper still toiling away in material beneath him. The new documentary Lost and Found is a typical talking-head appreciation that would be satisfying on its own but seems a bit repetitive to those who have gone through the whole box, especially since it has access to almost nothing that isn’t already here.
As a labor of love to restore the honor and reputation of a much-eclipsed comic pioneer, this box is welcome. Its best films make the case for Langdon with his own silent eloquence.