Too much has been written about Harry Langdon that is negative - that he was one of the most tragic figures of his time; his large ego led to decisions that ruined his career; without (then gag writer and later famous director) Frank Capra, he was incapable of making successful films, and so on. In his book "Harry Langdon, His Life and Films" (second edition), William Schelly sets the record straight - no, not by denying all of these claims, but, rather, placing them in a less "black and white" perspective so that we have some insight into the reasons for the course his career and life took. For example - did he have talent, or was he simply the creation of gag writers and others who set him on the road to stardom in the movies? A very significant fact that many overlook is Langdon's success in vaudeville for about 17 years before entering the movies in 1923 - and Langdon was a "headliner" who was extremely popular and in high demand. Certainly there is a difference to performing on the stage and in the movies, but, as Schelly points out, Langdon had created the "Little Elf" character long before placing himself in the hands of Hollywood's directors, writers and publicists. The author makes it clear he is a fan of the comedian, and that's probably one of the reasons we have a refreshing account of Langdon's career instead of an over-emphasis on his personal life. About the worst that could be said of Langdon, anyway, is that he went through two divorces with the former husband of the second claiming alienation of affections. Schelly keeps it all in proper perspective, though. While giving us an appropriate application of personal data, he ensures that the focus of his book is on Langdon's film career. There are interesting assessments of what led Langdon to be included among the "Big Four" comedians of the silent era with some outstanding comedies at the Sennett studio, then the success of his First National features like "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1926), "The Strong Man" (1926) and "Long Pants" (1927). But then he goes on to look at a variety of factors that may have led to the sudden failure of his next three features, "Three's a Crowd" (1927), "The Chaser" (1928) and "Heart Trouble" (1928). The claims made in Frank Capra's autobiography "The Name Above the Title" (The MacMillan Company, 1971) that have, over the years, led to some of the misconceptions about Langdon are addressed, as well. Schelly doesn't totally discredit Capra's comments, but he does attempt to bring the comments into perspective by presenting them within the context of all the factors that impacted the comedian's career at the time. Few are familiar, too, with Langdon's sound career - making two-reelers with Roach Studios, Educational Films, and Columbia, and his feature film output during this time. As Schelly points out, Langdon made many more sound films than silent. The comedian did struggle financially during these years, but he proved he could endure the changing of the times and, by doing so, continued to find work up until he passed away in 1944. Schelly is an accomplished writer with 14 other books to his credit that he has either written or edited. "Harry Langdon, His Life and Films" is a top-notch book that the reader will find interesting, well-written, and a worthy tribute to one of the silent era's most lovable and enduring personalities.
Return to "Recommended Reading" page