Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Trouble With Harry

by Geoff Collins

Poor Harry Langdon. Through a lethal cocktail of ineptitude, stubbornness and arrogance he singly-handedly scuppered his own career at the end of the silent era, and was doomed thereafter to suffer the cruel indignity of appearing in cheapjack one-reelers directed by autocratic hacks who kept yelling at him "Faster! Faster!" Poor Harry. He was such a helpless, hopeless naif that he didn't even understand why he was funny, and he died in poverty and obscurity.

Do you believe this???

Neither do I - but this is the Authorized Version of the Harry Langdon Story, self-servingly trotted out by Sennett and Capra - especially Capra - in their books, and accepted by undiscerning comedy fans ever since. Joyce Rheuban put the record straight a few years ago in her book Harry Langdon: the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene, but copies of this are hard to find. (Hardly surprising, really; nice title, Joyce, but it's never gonna compete with The Three Stooges Scrapbook). Capra's version of his falling-out with Langdon is so vitriolic and bitter, putting the blame entirely on Harry, that it's quite appropriate to see this as belated revenge, a settling of scores.

All three of the "classic" Langdon-Capra features (Tramp Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man, Long Pants) are available in Great Britain on DVD if you search hard enough (I found my copies in a small shop opposite Waterloo Station). The first two are indisputably fully-paid-up Classics, exploring in detail the narrow yet subtle range of Harry's middle-aged-baby persona. Long Pants, in my humble opinion, doesn't work so well. We're asked to believe that (a) Harry, 42 but looking about 25 at a stretch, is being kept in short pants by his overbearing parents for his own protection and (b) when he eventually does get his Long Pants, he's prepared to take his bride into the woods to shoot her in order to get off with a disinterested floozie whom he's encountered (and been pointedly ignored by) for about two minutes. We, the audience, are expected to have sympathy for this chump - and Capra's supposed to have understood "Harry" much better than Harry did himself. This movie is clearly the parting of the ways between Harry and Capra; there was nowhere else to go.

Another Langdon Myth: Harry disappeared from sight when talkies came in because he was a Silent Film Comedian. Absolute nonsense: if talkies had been widespread in 1924 he would have made talkies in 1924. He was a vaudeville star who happened to break into movies when they were still silent. He was continually in full employment, five years in silents and fifteen in talkies. He starred in sound features (A Soldier's Plaything, See America Thirst, Misbehaving Husbands) as well as a multitude of shorts for Roach, Educational, Paramount, and Columbia - most of which, Mr. Capra, had his Name Above the Title. Poor Harry. What a failure, eh?

Not only was Harry comfortably employed, but he had enough awareness of the "Harry" character to enable him to recycle some choice material from his silent days (and before Capraphiles leap onto this, let me direct them to the talkies of Keaton, Fields and Laurel and Hardy; they did it all the time.) Cold-ridden Harry rubbing limburger cheese on his chest? The Strong Man, 1926; The Hitch-Hiker, 1933. Trying to distract a "cop" who's actually a dummy, by staging various imaginary crimes? Long Pants, 1927; Counsel on de Fence, 1934. Carrying an unconscious woman backwards up a staircase? The Strong Man, 1926; Sue My Lawyer, 1938. Being driven around town at high speed by a murderous maniac? His Marriage Wow, 1925; His Marriage Mixup, 1935; Here Comes Mr. Zerk, 1943.. And there are many more.

Harry's voice? Absolutely fine, high-pitched and wistful, just right for his character. His ability to create gags and original material? Exemplary; he was respected and admired by no less a gagsmith than Stan Laurel, and was amongst the writing team on several Stan-and-Ollie features - and check out how many of those late-Columbias have "story and screenplay by Harry Langdon".

Harry seems to have been happiest at the Roach studios, in congenial surroundings and appreciated by his peers. For a superb glimpse of "late Harry" in action, readers are encouraged to invest in the vast-but-cheap Millcreek "Classic Musicals" set. All-American Co-Ed almost defies description (I had a crack at it in an earlier article) but Harry's obviously having a wonderful time here in spectacularly perverse surroundings. Tears of a clown? Hardly.

Let's examine another Myth: that it's somehow demeaning for a star of feature films to have to go back to short subjects, those much-maligned "cheap shorts" churned out endlessly by Educational, Columbia and RKO. There is some truth here, in that Educational's bleak New York shorts usually did look cheap; but RKO's shorts are every bit as polished as their features, as we can all see from Aaron's recent batch of Bobby-and-Pauls. By the mid-1940s Columbia's shorts were indeed desperately threadbare, and worse was to come, but Harry, being dead, bless him, missed most of this. His decade at Columbia coincided with their most prosperous-looking period.

A goodly selection of Harry's Columbias is available from theshortsdepartment. Buyer beware! The picture quality on some of these is grim indeed - battered old home-movie prints projected onto a screen and then copied - but as these movies are now never shown anywhere it's worth risking permanent eyestrain to see what Harry was up to after "his career finished in 1928". There's no disputing that these shorts are a mixed bunch, and some are downright strange; Jules White's perverted delight in over-violent slapstick (demonstrated most effectively in the films of the Three You-Know-Whos) can be off-putting in the case of gentler talents such as Harry's, but even amidst all this Harry manages to bring in some unique, personal touches, aided no doubt by old working-buddies and Capra-rejects as Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards. There are, inevitably, glorious moments, many of them involving close-ups of Harry's reactions: to his girlfriend's rotten cooking in Tireman, Save My Tires; to a bucketful of sand slowly trickling down his neck in Blonde and Groom; and there's his slow, quizzical, smiley blinking as strong alcohol takes effect, in Cold Turkey.

Ah yes: Cold Turkey. This isolated 1940 Columbia is my favourite Langdon short (so far; haven't seen 'em all yet!) as he drunkenly takes home the live turkey he's won in a raffle at the office. As he staggers along, throwing birdseed over his shoulder, the rope becomes detached from the turkey and catches onto the handle of a go-kart. Without realising it, Harry's now taking home a small African-American boy and throwing birdseed at him. "Say! Wait a minute!" asks cop Bud Jamison. "Just whadda ya intend to do with him???" Harry replies, confidentially: "Gonna eat 'im!"

Del Lord directed this one, and Harry Edwards and Elwood Ullman wrote it; it's so full of delightful and unexpected visual gags that you just want to shout: forget Long Pants! This is the way to make the perfect Harry Langdon comedy. It's a high water-mark; yet even in the weaker Columbias there are stretches of brilliance, for example Harry's drunken (and extremely noisy) entry into his friend's apartment, in Carry Harry. Harry's physical skill with props is at its best here as he causes immense chaos with the electrical gadgets. In Harry Langdon World, if you plug appliances into each other's sockets, they take on each other's attributes, giving Harry a very hot telephone and the opportunity to say, most memorably, "Hey Arthur! You're wanted on the toaster!"

All of which brings us, inevitably, to Sue My Lawyer. Capra describes it as a cheap one-reeler in which Harry, looking "like a gargoyle", attempts a pathetic re-tread of "carrying an unconscious lady upstairs" while an irascible, unsympathetic director (this bit may have been true; it was Jules White!) pitilessly urges him to work faster!!! Once again, absolute tosh. Harry looks great and behaves exactly how "Harry Langdon" should behave, trying to impress as a would-be lawyer with his foot stuck in a bucket of water. The staircase scene is tighter and more compact than in The Strong Man but it's still a riot and there are some fresh gags; and, in true Langdon fashion, "God" helps him to catch the bad guys. With its excellent photography (evident in spite of the murky DVD copy) and sharp editing, Sue My Lawyer is far from the sad cheapie described with such malicious relish by Capra. Yet it's hardly been seen anywhere since 1938, unlike other Columbias made by the Three Whatever-Their-Name-Is: so Capra's version of events is the one in the history books. Shame!

Sue My Lawyer also has the credit line "story by Harry Langdon". Many other Columbias and Educationals were also written or co-written by Harry, and as we've already mentioned, his skills as a writer were put to full use at Roach's studio. He occasionally directed too: surely the most fascinating and elusive "Langdon" movie is the one he directed at Warners' British studio in 1937: Wise Guys, starring Nervo and Knox. It must answer all sorts of questions about Harry's grasp of timing and comedy technique. Does it exist anywhere? Can we see it, please?

Harry's life after 1928 was no tragedy. He was busy and fully occupied. As if to prove this, Hollywood On Parade A-12 briefly shows him at the Agua Caliente racetrack with a lovely female companion, and boy! is he having a good time! It's unquestionably a pity that he died when he was only sixty, but at least he was spared the horrors of Columbia's postwar treadmill and the humiliation of further work with pseudo-Swede El Brendel. Harry Langdon was a great comedian - did you get that, everybody? - and he's easily in the Top Six of all time. (Readers, Let's Argue about the other five!) If there is a tragedy, it's this: Harry's movies haven't yet been subject to the meticulous "full restoration" programmes associated with the output of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. Even Harry's "classic silents" are handicapped by crummy prints, unnecessary ugly "remade" titles and obtrusive "funny" music. We shouldn't have to go blind or deaf to see what Harry's doing. He's far too good for that.

Forget Frank Capra. Who actually wants to sit through more than two hours of It's a Wonderful Life? Watch something by Harry Langdon instead; it's much more fun. Or, better still, imagine Harry Langdon playing George Bailey, or Mr. Smith, or Mr. Deeds. He could have done it; he was much, much better than most people realise. Check him out.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous east side said...

"Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success" exposed the director for the blowhard that he was, making it clear that Langdon was a far more original, creative comic actor than Capra made him out to be. Te book's probably out of print, but worth searching out.

You forgot to mention Harry's wonderful role as the socialist garbageman in the Jolson movie "Hallelujah I'm a Bum." It's fun hearing him handle Rodgers & Hart's rhyming, rhythmic dialogue.

As for the other top 5 comics: Keaton. Chaplin. Lloyd. Laurel & Hardy (as one). And... well, I read Keaton and Chaplin thought highly of Larry Semon.

4:05 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

It's a crying shame that Capra's version of events persists. Langdon is far overdue for a major reappraisal. I love "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" myself and Egghead is still (so far) my favorite of Harry's speaking roles. Egghead's (shaky) political altruism is a natural for Harry's traditional character in ways you wouldn't expect. I'll post a clip on Friday.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an article on Langdon coming out in the Journal of Popular Culture late this year that pulls together the materials in support of him and adds some research of my own. I presented it at a conference attended by one of Capra's granddaughters and she said I was likely right in the criticism of her famous relative! Talk about a good sport!

11:33 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Wow! Please let us know when the issue's available!

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...have you seen Three's A Crowd? Pretty well undresses Harry.

11:41 PM  

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