The career trajectory of Harry Langdon has been discussed here before. Depending on which camp one may fall into, He could be considered a comic genius, someone propped up by Frank Capra’s genius, or somewhere in between. What led to his quick fall after become a big star can be answered in different ways, but there is no doubt for a brief time this unique comic was a huge deal. We’ll attempt to sort through both periods of his work, when he was with Capra and when he was directing his own films. This post will focus on the three films generally considered to be his peak, with the next post reviewing two films he directed afterwards (a third directed by him is now lost). While opinions will always differ, this will serve as good primer of Harry Langdon’s work, and just how good it was.
A general note with all of these reviews: Langdon’s character is unique, and generally lends itself to a different style and pacing of silent comedy. Langdon usually plays a boyish man-child, wide eyed and innocent to the world around him. The films usually also work at a slower pace less reliant on slapstick.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)
Harry Langdon’s first feature was directed not by his well-known collaborator, but by Harry Edwards. Capra, however, did serve as a story writer. Langdon stars as the son of a poor shoemaker, in desperate need of money so they won’t be evicted. Although Langdon is initially more worried that he won’t be able to buy a bike, he eventually understands the situation and vows to get the money. The solution he finds: become the winner of a cross-country walking competition, with a big prize for the winner. Along the way, he seeks to win the love of a woman he’s smitten for (Joan Crawford).
Langdon’s child-like charm plays a role in his love for Crawford, including a note where he simply writes “I love you” over and over again, before asking her to feel the same way. It also allows him to act in ways that could be seen as creepy by other characters–like adorning his walls with giant pictures of his crush. With him, it all seems normal.
Slow-paced throughout, the film largely relies on Langdon’s ample charm. There are, however, two big moments of inventive and impressive comedy. One involves Langdon nailed to a fence over a cliff (okay, so it’s not very realistic) and a home hit by a cyclone. The cyclone scene especially is a technical feat, as good as anything you’ll see in a silent comedy climax. It’s something to marvel at.
Also interesting is the way the story is framed as a news event. The race is a major story to the general public, and at various points the story is told through faux news reel footage–as watched by Langdon’s father in a movie theater. Not only a unique way of framing the story, it also adds a bit more gravity to what Langdon is trying to achieve. There are a few other minor oddball parts of the film that won’t be mentioned as they are spoilers. There are certainly “different” elements to the film, though.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp can be uneven with pacing at times, but it is a fun breezy comedy. It is a story that relies strongly an engaging character, which Langdon supplies. Along the way, there are a couple big time blasts of comedy and some off the wall moments.
The Strong Man (1926)
Often heralded as Langdon’s finest film, it’s easy to see why. This is a film that very well captures what made him memorable. Langdon plays a solider returning from war who looks for his love when he returns home. His love is someone he’s never met, having only exchanged letters and a picture. But once he’s home, the hunt is on for the woman who helped get him through the war.
There is, once again, a great deal of focus on the innocent lens of love Langdon looks through. This is most hilariously on display when he falls in line with a less than innocent woman, culminating in a fantastic scene where he attempts to carry her up the stairs. It serves as a moment to really highlight Langdon’s gifts as a physical comedian. His innocent puppy love of Mary Brown (the lady from the letters) adds to his charm, and makes for an endearing love story.
Along the way, Langdon works for a strong man, leading to him taking center stage in front of a crowd. This builds to a raucous and wild finale that is another amazing achievement, both remarkable visually and in it’s comedy. It is wild frenetic comedy still framed around Langdon’s innocence, and it is a closing sequence that could be watched endlessly.
Overall, this is the best overall package of Langdon. It combines all of his charm and appeal with some side splitting comedy. A classic, this is one of those films where pretty much everything works.
Long Pants (1927)
Langdon’s final film with Frank Capra, Long Pants marks a bit of a departure in style for him, one which he would further explore once directing his own films. He once again still plays a child-like figure to an immense degree. In the film’s opening scenes, his parents finally allow him to wear long pants for the first time, even if there’s disagreement about if he’s ready for them. With his newfound adulthood in pants, Langdon falls for a criminal girl who winds up in prison. Meanwhile, he’s expected to marry someone else who is much nicer.
Of great controversy is the dark tone of the picture, one that does absolutely catch the viewer off guard. Desperate to stop his wedding and get with the inmate he’s in love with, Langdon decides he should murder his fiancé. His fruitless attempts to get the job done are all played up for comedy, even as he quite literally is trying to shoot someone. And yet, even in this scenario, Landon’s innocence is still played up: a “NO SHOOTING” sign spooks him from doing the job at one point. It is an overall funny scene, but the sudden insertion of black comedy is a bit a jarring (and bound to turn off some viewers).
His association with the infamous criminal (including her escape and other exploits), get Langdon tied up in more dark and criminal activity. The tone can be a bit uneven in the latter stages, where he almost takes a backseat to dramatic criminal actions. All of that does, though, lead a funny moment in the latter stages of such darkness.
It’s not a surprise that this brought about the ending of the Langdon/Capra union. There were obvious creative changes being made, and Langdon was heading in a different direction with his character. Long Pants does still have some funny moments and the dark comedy works in spots, but it’s less of a complete package than the prior two features. It’s still a worthwhile Langdon endeavor, if only for those spots and the intrigue of the style.
Legend has it that Langdon fell off the proverbial cliff once he started directing his films. Did he really drive this darker vision over the edge? Without Capra, did his quality of work drop off that badly? We’ll take a look at his next two films later in the week and find out.