Friday, May 25, 2007

Love, Honor and Respect (the Langdon!)

by Geoff Collins

It's a particular joy to hear of the recovery of a long-lost movie by one of the great comedians. In recent years several Buried Treasures have turned up: Lupino Lane's The Lambeth Walk (with French subtitles!), a couple of Max Miller's Warner features, some early Arbuckle/Keatons, and several of Bill Fields' silent Paramounts. Equally intriguing is the discovery of an unlisted appearance, one that's escaped the standard filmographies. Such a movie is a 1935 two-reeler somewhat clumsily entitled Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!), now available thanks to theshortsdepartment. It's an "industrial" film, made on behalf of the B. F. Goodrich Company, presumably to promote their product and encourage awareness of road safety. (Actually it does neither!) Perversely, there's no director credit and no cast list. The only name mentioned, apart from B. F. Goodrich, is the star, who's mentioned twice - and quite rightly so, for the star is Harry Langdon.

The bad news is: the print quality is appalling. But there's nothing we can do about that; we're stuck with it. So let's concentrate on the comedy. The fact that Columbia Pictures is mentioned briefly (Harry appears "by special arrangement" with them) would suggest that Columbia may have made this rarity and allowed Goodrich to release it as a promo film for their tyres. Although it's credited to Audio Productions Inc. - whoever they were - it certainly looks like a '35 Langdon Columbia; and his uncredited costar is Columbia regular Monty Collins. Who was the director? Collins? Langdon himself? (probably not at this period, but he may have written it.) Arthur Ripley? Harry Edwards? The smooth on-location photography, which would look splendid in any print other than this, suggests Del Lord. Perhaps we'll never know.

In Harry Langdon World, and in the best Langdon pictures, there are Certain Rules. Frank Capra (what does he know?!) has defined the main one: Harry achieves his goals through some sort of divine intervention. Here, his impending marriage to the Police Chief's daughter is in jeopardy because he got a ticket. The old guy's a stickler for the Law, and if Harry gets one more ticket, the wedding's off. Harry's "best pal" Monty Collins, entrusted with the job of delivering hung-over Harry to the ceremony on time, is actually his love-rival and despises him; he puts the clock back to make Harry late, and goes to considerable effort devising cunning ways to get Harry "ticketed" by the cops - for speeding, illegal parking while purchasing an unnecessary canary, bad driving, in fact anything - to get the wedding cancelled and put himself back in the running. Collins is superb in his role as the oily hypocrite, all smiles when Harry's around and weasely double-dyed villainy when he's out of sight. Needless to say it all comes monumentally unstuck for Monty, as Harry is "protected by God" and misses getting a ticket every single time. Harry gets the girl, the cat gets the canary, and Monty gets a spectacular beating-up by several policemen. A Road Safety film!

Aaron's not too keen on this movie, but personally, I love it; and I'd love it even more if I could see what the heck is going on. But we must be grateful that it exists at all, even in such a degraded old print. Film preservation is a funny old business; the worst rubbish often survives in the best condition, and vice versa.

....which brings me neatly to Insufficient Research Syndrome, the dreaded IRS, from which I seem to be suffering lately (see my articles on Sam Dalton and Dan Leno). In my previous piece on Harry I stated that he directed a movie in England in 1937 for Warners, starring Nervo and Knox. To my annoyance I've since discovered that Wise Guys was made by Fox British, and starred another two members of the three-double-act Crazy Gang, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold. Not that this matters much now, I suppose, as this movie probably vanished long ago, but I still feel an obligation to put matters right.

Film preservation in England is even more precarious than it is in the States; in 45 years of avid movie-watching I've never seen anything by Fox British. Gainsborough and Gaumont-British have the highest survival rate, it appears, but there must be huge losses from the smaller outfits: Warners' Teddington studio was hit by a doodlebug in 1944, so any extant British WB movies have only survived thanks to collectors. God knows what happened to the Fox British output. Although Naughton and Gold are usually regarded - by me too, let's admit it - as the lesser lights of the Crazy Gang, on the periphery of the action with their heavy-handed slapstick and barely-comprehensible Scots accents, legend has it that as pantomime clowns they were unsurpassable, hilariously slapping gallons of whitewash about. You know the sort of thing. I'd love to know what they did with their rare chance at a starring vehicle, and how Harry handled the direction. Come on, readers, find Wise Guys. This one is the Holy Grail.

Another scarcity is Stardust, with Lupe Velez and Ben Lyon, also made for a small British studio and subject to various reissues, cuts and re-titling. Harry plays "Otto". The first reissue title is Mad About Money; the US title is He Loved an Actress. At least this one seems to be available, although you may need to hire a private detective to find it. Try; and the best of luck!

How unfortunate that both examples of Harry's work in British studios are in the netherworld of obscurity; and this is also true of most of his American output. It all comes back again to the Curse of Capra. Thanks to this conceited man's personal vendetta, Harry's been denied his rightful place alongside Keaton, Stan and Ollie and - you know the others. It's not fair; but it's not too late to put it right.

Excerpt from Love, Honor, and Obey (the Law!)

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