The Rapid Rise and Fall of Harry Langdon

We’ve talked on here before about silent comedy stars, and the fact that they may not have gotten as much notoriety as they deserve today. Most recently, we looked at the importance of Harold Lloyd, who seems to get credit as the “third guy” most notable in silent film comedy. But the fact of the matter is that there were dozens of comedy stars who were huge in the silent era, most of which who have been somewhat lost to time. They may have been big blockbuster stars at the time, but history has not recognized them much as time has gone on. The list could on for ages: Ben Turpin, Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton etc. But today, let’s look at one star who made particularly great work. Not only was the work great, it was also partially helped by one of the great filmmakers of all time. His meteoric rise came later than most, and also ended quicker than most. Let’s talk about Harry Langdon.

Much like nearly all of his counterparts, Langdon had a distinctive on-screen persona. And like many others, he came up through vaudeville originally. In fact, he stayed much longer that most who made the transition to the big screen. It’s easy to understand why. He was wildly successful on the stage, performing and altering his well known “Johnny’s New Car” sketch for the better part of two decades. This continued stay on the stage ended up making Langdon somewhat unique. More than likely, he is the last “new” mega comedy star to hit the screen in the silent era. He was certainly not new to the world of comedy, but 1924 was a rather late start compared to other contemporaries. By that time he was also 40 years old.

Langdon began work on Mack Sennett shorts in 1924. In the first couple of shorts only does he not play the character he would become familiar with. Very quickly the character developed: a wild-eyed innocent man child. With white makeup on to give a younger appearance, Langdon perpetually acted the role of a child trapped in a man’s body. It was that innocence that led to the central conflicts in Langdon films– the innocent man stuck in situations where he is over his head and must try to get his way out. With that character, the nature of the comedy differed from that of some of his counterparts. It allowed for a slower pace than some others, with less rapid fire physical comedy. And that also made him less than an ideal choice for the frenetic Sennett Keystone pictures, something that can be seen in a few of us his earliest shorts.

But success in shorts came quickly for Langdon, and it wasn’t long before the rising star was onto feature films. The Ottawa Citizen wrote on the final day of 1926:

“Harry Langdon has in a short while risen from the ranks of the makers of two-reel comedies to that of a feature length comedy, and with the possible exception of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, is probably the most popular comedian on the screen today.”

By the time Langdon left Sennett to go out on his own, he brought a young Frank Capra with him. Capra had also been working on Sennett films, and would later take credit for Langdon’s character and success. Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that the two made a great duo. Capra wrote but did not direct Langdon’s debut feature Tramp, Tramp, Tramp in 1926. His feature length debut was not only very funny, but was a big success as well. It’s also notable now for one of the first roles of Joan Crawford’s career, but at the time it was simply noted for how funny it was:

“Hats off to Harry Langdon. The one time Milwaukee boy, who only a couple of years ago made a speedy name for himself on the Orpheum circuit, then tried pictures and was an instantaneous hit in two reel comedies, has come off with flying colors in his first full length feature–Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.

Not only is Harry Langdon, with his funny, wistful face, one of the cleverest comedians of the silver sheet, but Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is easily one of the best comedies of recent vintage.” -Milwaukee Sentinel (6/07/26)

Capra directed Langdon’s second 1926 feature, The Strong Man, which was also another big hit and success. One paper hailed it as “not only the funniest role he has ever played; it is probably the funniest role of the year.” The next Capra/Langdon collaboration in 1927, Long Pants, proved to be an even bigger smash. Critics called it an “epochal laugh classic,” “comedy sensation of the age,” and even lauded by one paper as “one of the greatest farces ever filmed.” The Sarasota Herald-Tribune perhaps expressed best the appeal of Langdon at this time:

“Unlike many comedies of feature length, Long Pants tells a story. The plot is definite, well-knit, easily followed and intensely interesting . . . As the film unfolds it reveals a world of ‘gags,’ but they are natural developments of the story thread and require no forcing.”

With strong character and story driven films, Langdon was riding high through 1926 and 1927, just a couple of years into the film business. It was later reported that he was making around $7,500 a week at this period, which comes out to over $5 million a year when adjusted for inflation. Long Pants was also the beginning of the end. The star would fall very quickly from there.

The fall was precipitated by Langdon getting rid of Capra later on in 1927. After the falling out, Langdon sought to direct the films himself, and conventional wisdom was long held that taking the reigns from Capra led to the end of his peak. Capra, for his part, spoke negatively Langdon immediately after the split. The first solo Langdon project was Three’s A Crowd that same year, which marked a poorly received shift to more Chaplin-esque pathos in his films.

1928 brought about a very early end to the experiment of Langdon as a director. The Chaser proved to be even darker than the previous film, including his character contemplating suicide but finding himself unable to go through with it. His wife, believing that he had done the deed, breaks down at his presumed death in one scene. Heart Trouble, now a lost film, cemented the end of him as a director and the final note in his time at the top of comedy.

Life wasn’t very kind to Langdon in the time that followed. Through numerous divorces, he found himself sued by ex-wives on more than one occasion. By 1931, he filed for bankruptcy. All of this led to less than flattering stories and gossip about him in the press.

Langdon tried his own transition to sound in 1929 through a series of Hal Roach shorts. Those proved unsuccessful as well, but Langdon never stopped working. Through small parts and very low budget shorts, he continued to work right up to his death in 1944. His later work never getting much attention, most reports of his death at the time told the similar tale: one who made great work but fell fast.

Langdon’s visibility and peak was indeed much shorter than his contemporaries. He spent much less time making shorts than others, going from his debut to features in a two year span. And from that point, within two years he had experienced both great success and a monumental fall from features. Combined, his hot debut to his final directorial role, only four years combined his time of great visibility. And of that time, most would argue only two and half to three of those years were quality.

All of that said, Langdon’s career is still notable. For one brief period, he was right at the top of the comedy world and produced some fantastic films along with Frank Capra. And in that time, his unique character allowed for films unlike any others. It is just a shame that the fall from grace happened so soon. One can only wonder if Capra had stayed on board if there would have been at least a couple more great films from him.

There are two Langdon DVDs worth picking up: The Forgotten Clown, which includes all three of his classic features, and Lost and Found, which collects many of his shorts.