At first glance, the rise and fall of comedian Harry Langdon reads like a Hollywood script: a nobody from vaudeville gets a lucky break in pictures, rises to the top with behind the screen help, gets big-headed and fires his help, then crashes and burns trying to do it on his own. For years that's the way the scenario was played out. However, revisionists are getting around to re-evaluating Langdon's career and are coming up with a different perspective on his story.
At the forefront of the Langdon revision is Floyd Bennett, president of the Harry Langdon Society. An outspoken and eloquent defender of Langdon and his silent and sound career, Bennett has impressively fleshed out the previously vague Langdon canon with an informative web site and quarterly newsletter. Both tools are a fascinating clearinghouse of information on Langdon, and provide impressive listings of books and videotapes of Langdon lore.
Bennett makes a good case for providing evidence of Langdon's comic genius in the silents and the talkies. However, he seems to blame director Frank Capra (a driving force in Langdon's success) for Langdon's fall from grace. The universally loved and admired director of such classics as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE comes across as the villain of the piece, and Bennett and his members storm the Capra legacy like the torch-carrying villagers attacking the Frankenstein castle. To Bennett's credit , however, he publishes and encourages opinions (including mine) opposed to his own, and refrains from using his forum as a "bully pulpit" to squash opposing views. He is articulate and passionate in his defense of Langdon, and has displayed a wonderful sense of humor in his communications with me. In spite of our difference regarding Capra within the Langdon legacy, Floyd has not let that interfere in my efforts for information about Langdon. He has graciously supplied me with valuable information via newsletters and e-mail about this unjustly neglected comedian.
Returning to Langdon himself, there can be no question regarding his on-screen talent. His fluttering movements, his hesitant gracefulness, his child-like demeanor, all add up to an intriguing persona. As James Agee wrote in his landmark article in LIFE about silent film comedy: "Langdon had one queerly toned, unique little reed. But out of it he could get incredible melodies..." The Langdon persona was unique, bordering on bizarre. He appeared to be a child trapped in a man's body, but with adult urges. He was, and remains to this day, hard to define, though easy to laugh at. But there was something disturbing about him as well. As Ephraim Katz put it: "At times, especially when confronted with an erotic situation, the babyish character assumed an eerie, almost depraved, quality...." Yet people laughed, though perhaps a bit uneasily.
However, the keystone of the argument regarding Harry Langdon's greatness centers around authorship of his character. Certainly there is no question over the auteur status of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Langdon, however, has no such lock on his character. Perhaps the genesis of this assumption is Frank Capra's claim that he, Harry Edwards and Arthur Ripley (Mack Sennett's Keystone brain trust) solidified, embellished and established Langdon's screen character. There can be no doubt that Langdon's career flourished under the guidance of these three men. His rapid rise at Keystone, coupled with his three great triumphs within a year (TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP, THE STRONG MAN, LONG PANTS) add weight to Capra's argument. Add to that the sudden failure of Langdon's post-Capra features (THREE'S A CROWD, THE CHASER, HEART TROUBLE), and this most damning evidence supports Capra's assertion. Additionally, Capra's post-Langdon career flourished, an Oscar-studded directorial career during the Golden Age of cinema that validated the fact that if anyone had a right to being hailed as an auteur, it was Frank Capra.
To be fair to Langdon , there are some extenuating circumstances. Most importantly, Langdon's post-Capra films were released during the sound revolution, when audiences abandoned silent features in droves, no matter how good they were. Langdon biographer William Schelly also makes a good case for the backlash of over-exposure of Langdon, with seven features (the aforementioned six, plus an older Sennett feature film (HIS FIRST FLAME)) released within two years. Certainly, timing played some part in Langdon's fall from grace. Additionally, Arthur Ripley, one of the Sennett brain trust, stayed on with Langdon writing the three post-Capra films, and must take part of the responsibility for their failure.
However, Langdon must ultimately assume the major responsibility for his own downfall. Capra had obviously produced a winning combination for the character from the Ripley stories. Even with the Ripley stories, Langdon could not produce a successful picture. Langdon's technical inadequacies ill-served his direction on THREE'S A CROWD, which was condemned as amateurish... Langdon obviously learned from some of his previous mistakes, as his follow-up (THE CHASER) is better directed. However, the script is erratic and not always consistent with Langdon's character. On the plus side, Langdon moved away from the ill-served pathos of THREE'S A CROWD to more of a straight comedy for THE CHASER. Langdon's next feature, HEART TROUBLE, was even better than the previous film, although receiving mixed reviews. Langdon seemed to have turned the corner, and appeared to have finally gotten a grasp on his screen character. Unfortunately, his First National contract had run out, and having three failures in a row, Langdon had no credibility with either his audience or his studio, which refused to renew his contract.
In conclusion, regarding the issue of Langdon's authorship of his character, it is essential to analyze his three directorial efforts today, in a time vacuum, away from the sound revolution and on their own merits. Were these films as bad as critics of that era claim, or were they better in retrospect? Unfortunately for film scholars, THREE'S A CROWD and THE CHASER are not very accessible, and HEART TROUBLE officially a lost film. Until these three films are available for viewing, it would appear that Langdon's claim for authorship of his character can never be decisively settled, which is probably the biggest tragedy of Harry Langdon's career. . .
(Author's note: Since writing this article in December 1997 I have had the rare opportunity to view very good copies both THREE'S A CROWD & THE CHASER. Viewing both films supports historians' contention that neither film is something for Langdonites to use as proof positive of Langdon's authorship of his character. While there were a couple very nice scenes in THREE'S A CROWD, there was no sense of sustained competence as a filmmaker in either film to anoint Harry Langdon as an auteur, or to be held in equal rank of Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd. Given Langdon's apparent learning curve from his first two directorial efforts, it seems unlikely that his 'lost' film HEART TROUBLE would provide any evidence of a cinematic masterpiece.
Was Langdon underrated as a comedian? Most definitely, & the Landon revisionists (such as Floyd Bennett) are providing a valuable service in restoring his legacy as a great screen comedian. He was a masterful comedic performer with a unique (some would say too unique...) screen persona. But that's where it ends. He was a great comedian when performing material written by others & directed by others. Even his three directorial efforts were not written by himself, but by others. While Langdon may have originated his character for vaudeville skits, when it came to providing the vision for his cinematic persona it was the Sennett 'brain trust' who developed that for the movies. When left to his own devices (even with aid from Arthur Ripley...) Langdon comes off like a ship without a rudder, sailing around in circles.
Once again, Langdon was a marvelous film comedian, but not in any sense an autuer of his character, despite his aspirations to become one. Of course, the rabid Langdonites (excluding my fairminded friend Floyd Bennett...) cannot accept that rationally. They must have it all: great performer & 'genius auteur.' They continue to re-frame situations & provide a myriad of excuses for Langdon's shortcomings. So be it. Were it not for their narrow-mindedness & inability to hear opposing opinions one might admire their tenacity in defending Harry Langdon. But as they stand now one can only feel sorry for their inability to argue & reason fairly....)
(Copyright 2000 by William D. Eggert)
Silent Film Society of Atlanta Executive Director Bill Eggert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
copyright 2000 by William D. Eggert. All rights reserved.
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