Marcel Perez: International Man of Mystery

No matter how far one dives into silent comedy, there’s always more comedic actors to unearth. Inevitably, they all seem to be talented actors who were box office hits. And yet, a number of factors make their stars not burn so bright now. Not the least of this is the lack of availability of films. Another one of those stars is Marcel Perez, a Spanish writer/director/actor with an incredibly impressive career. Thanks to the DVD release The Marcel Perez Collection, some of his films (ten in all) now have a wide release. Before we look at a couple of those films in particular, just who was this guy?
Although born in Spain, Marcel Perez’s career stretched across several countries and genres. Given his penchant for using different names often, he was almost like an international man of mystery. And perhaps that, it’s been speculated, is one of the reasons why his name has not lived on as strongly. Many of comedy shorts were done as a character called Tweedy/Tweedledum, and Perez’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits. Tweedledum is just credited as “himself.” His wife, Dorothy Earle, playing Tweedle Dee in the shorts.

Perez began making the Tweedie shorts in Italy in 1910. Amazingly enough, by 1912 he was already operating as a second character named Robinet. He ended up making far more films as the Robinet character, and the popularity was such that he was apparently widely known by that name instead of his real one. And yet, Perez didn’t even limit himself to comedy. In 1913 he starred and directed in the sprawling sci-fi epic The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farnadola (in fact, Perez directed essentially all of his work). It wouldn’t be his last time jumping genres.

In 1916, Perez headed to the United States and created yet another character, this one named Bungles. His co-star in this series was none other than Oliver Hardy. The Bungles shorts didn’t last long, instead opting to revive Tweedledum. In total, Perez churned out dozens of Tweedledum shorts, while all the while doing other directorial work.

Rubye De Remer, a brief big box office smash in the late teens and early 20s, worked under Perez twice: The Way Women Love and Luxury. Perez also became a regular director of Westerns, working on several over the span of many years. How many people directed westerns, mysteries, dramas and sci-fi films while also starring in popular comedies? Marcel Perez is probably the only person that fits that description.

Perez’s work slowed down in 1923 when his leg was amputated from cancer complications. While that mostly ended his acting career, the prolific filmmaker continued to direct in the years that followed. He eventually a short time later in 1929, at just 45 years old. That marked the end of a particularly remarkable and unique career in film, even if many then and now didn’t know just how incredible it was.

Can his anonymity and frequent shape-shifting be attributed to his lack of recognition? It’s very possible. After all, he regularly switched between often uncredited characters. Depending on which country you lived in, you probably knew the man by a different name than in other countries. And at the same time, he was doing even further work behind the camera. One of the most prolific and impressive careers of the time just happened to be a kind of shape shifter.

So what were his films like? Let’s take a look at two of the films from the collection.

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A Busy Night (1916)

While it’s true that Marcel Perez kept his name off the credits often, this film is a very notable exception. In fact, Perez’s name is all over this one, thanks to the entire premise. Perez plays nearly every character in the short, an oft-used element in comedies. That he is playing all the characters is proudly announced at the start of the film, even showing Perez posing with tiny versions of his other roles on his arm:

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The gag goes on throughout, with the fourth wall being broken a number of times. More than once, credits interrupt the film, just so the audience can know these people coming up are also all played by Perez.  The intertitles even reference Perez as fighting “himself” on different occasions. It’s a remarkable overarching through-the-looking-glass film.

It is also very funny, along with being an impressive technical feat. Buster Keaton did something similar later in The Playhouse, but Perez takes it to another level by constantly interacting with himself. He chases himself around, fights with himself and has all kind of normal human interactions. It must have required a lot of cutting, and it ends up being quite the funny and wild sight.

You’re Next (1919)

The latter half of You’re Next is good but rather run of the mill fare: Perez’s character ultimately ends up causing hijinx on movie sets, a rather common silent comedy backdrop. But before he reaches that, Perez throws in some pretty out there and hilarious comedy.

The film opens with the news that a ton of tenants are being evicted from their apartments, including Perez. Unfettered by this, Perez decides to just make the street his apartment: after blocking off traffic he sets up everything just like it’s his normal home. He even hosts a poker game with his buddies, having a grand old time in his new outdoor home. The police soon stop him and throw him in jail, but he’s released after entertaining hardened criminals with his piano work. Even if from there it’s relatively unremarkable, Perez’s opening apartment is something to behold.

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These two films, along with the other eight, show off just how strong the man’s comedic sensibilities. You owe it to yourself to check out Marcel Perez’s work. Few people were uniquely as talented as a comedy star and director. Just be careful that he doesn’t disappear before your eyes.

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Review: Harry Langdon as a Director

After making Long Pants in 1927, Harry Langdon fired director Frank Capra and set out to direct his own films. What happened next is well known to film historians. He directed three films over the next two years, none of which replicated the critical and commercial success as his work with Capra. His major Hollywood star burned out fast, ending a very quick run at the top. It should be noted, though, that Langdon never stopped working even after his run as director flopped. Although he was never a major box office star again, Langdon worked right up to his death in 1944.

All of this leads to the conventional wisdom that Langdon failed on his own because he needed Capra, that he didn’t have the right vision for the character that Capra did. Capra himself even said so. We’ve been left that general description, even though there have been Langdon supporters to say otherwise. Luckily, we have a chance to find out what his work without Capra was really like.

Langdon’s first two directorial ventures, Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser, are now available on DVD. His third and final one, Heart Trouble, is a lost film. So while we cannot see his entire output on his own, there is enough out there to form a good enough opinion.

So, is the long held conventional wisdom true? Was Harry Langdon lost without Frank Capra? Let’s find out.

Three’s a Crowd (1927)

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Langdon plays a man who desperately longs for a wife and child to be with, especially after falling a bit too heavily for his boss’ spouse. He finally does get a chance to change all that when a he finds a woman sleeping outside his apartment building. She has left her husband and is pregnant, leaving Harry ready to jump in and take on new responsibilities.

Three’s a Crowd contains many elements that are true to Langdon’s other work: he is the same oblivious man-child, and much of the humor is surreal and odd (he takes a shower through pulling a string on a plant waterer). In fact, the whole opening scene of Langdon getting ready in the morning gives the impression of a typical comedy for him. But as the film goes on, everything very much changes. It becomes much more of a drama with a spice of comedy thrown in, akin to the pathos of some of Chaplin’s work. The subject matter is indeed very serious and it is played in such a way. Even though Langdon is a buffoon, his more understated approach plays into the seriousness of the whole situation.

Whether trying to help with the birth or change a diaper, Langdon haplessly tries to assist his new female friend. While this is played for comedy throughout, the seriousness never leaves. Part of it is the way Langdon plays everything: he so genuinely wants to be there for the mother and child, and the tenderness is touching. Langdon manages to pull at the heartstrings and create tension while also making laughs, something that is no easy task.

To be sure, the film does have some flaws. The editing could stand to be a bit tighter at a few points–the penchant to linger on Langdon is even stronger here. And there a couple plot elements that could have been tied up or handled better. But to say that Langdon didn’t know how to handle his character or that he didn’t have the chops to direct seems totally off the mark. Visually, the film is something to behold. The apartment, from the wacky room he lives in to the immense number of stairs, creating a striking visual that Langdon uses to great effect. And while it is a generally more serious film, the gags that are dropped in throughout deliver laughs.

While a little rough around the edges, Three’s a Crowd is a stellar mix of comedy and drama. The story is one that easily plays to a number of emotions, providing laughs and harrowing moments along the way. When all of that is told in an artistic fashion, what you’re left with is a captivating and memorable film.

The Chaser (1928)

This time around, Langdon is married to a wife he usually ignores. Since he’s usually out at a club, his wife and mother-in-law want a divorce. The judge, however decides to rule differently, making a wacky ruling that gains publicity: Harry must switch places with his wife for 30 days, doing all her duties. This even includes wearing each others clothes, leaving Harry in a skirt while his wife wears a jacket and tie.

The premise is all really very silly, but it’s all done to set up what is (at least for a little bit) a typical battle of sexes comedy. For Langdon, this plays to his strengths well. His failure to handle domestic tasks falls perfectly in line with his usual slow and subtle realization of his gaffes. Most of this centers around him trying to prepare breakfast, and it’s a very solid sequence of Langdon-style comedy.

But since it’s a Langdon film, some less than typical elements to creep in. For starters, the debt collectors and milkmen that come to the house somehow don’t notice he’s a man. As a result, Langdon gets hit on by both, much to his dismay. That not one but two characters would believe this is all very ludicrous, but Langdon saves it enough with some killer facial expressions.

Most infamous in the film is Langdon’s prolonged attempt to commit suicide. Dark comedy is clearly not for everyone, but there’s not much to fuss and complain about: it’s handled in a light way and is pretty hilarious. Midway through the sequence, an obvious punchline is set up. It pays off eventually, but Langdon does take a bit of time to get there. That’s just his slow style, which isn’t for everyone. For my part, it is a just great bit of dark comedy.

The film also ends with a very clever bit of strange comedy, but the problems arise before we reach that point. Rather randomly, Langdon escapes and ends up at a golf course with plenty of women around. This leads to some run-of-the-mill slapstick that isn’t unfunny, but doesn’t fit in at all with anything that comes in before or after. The film gets dragged to a halt before finally picking up again for a nice ending.

Just like with Three’s a Crowd, editing is the main culprit of any trouble. The Chaser is pretty funny, taking a common concept and throwing in some bizarre and dark elements. With the sidetrack taken out, it would probably be a gem of a comedy. As it stands, it is a solid and enjoyable feature.

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 So what conclusions can we draw about Harry Langdon as a director? Even among contemporary reviewers, there can be sharp divide over the quality of the films. As mentioned, there are most definitely flaws in both of these films. Some more careful editing could have served both films, and perhaps that could be attributed to Langdon being a novice. There were some obvious growing pains.

But in my opinion, the assessment that he was woefully inept and didn’t know what he was doing is ludicrous. Langdon’s comic timings are still present, as he knows how to work his different slow-paced style. In that regard, the same kind of quirkiness can be found in both films. Langdon even pushes the envelope a bit further, going for strange and sometimes dark ideas.

With The Chaser, he takes a somewhat tired and obvious plot premise and puts a Langdon spin on it. Meanwhile, Three’s a Crowd shows that he was capable of going beyond just a typical comedy. It was a lofty goal, combining the comedy with Chaplin-esque pathos. And in many ways, it does work. Three’s a Crowd manages to be both amusing and touching, something that is no easy task and that not many can pull off. Small hiccups aside, it shows what Langdon was capable of behind the camera.

Nevertheless, it is true that Harry Langdon’s films as director just weren’t popular. Why was that? There are few possible explanations that stand out. It is very possible that Langdon’s character had more of short shelf life than others, given his odd style. His comedy was always different, his pacing odd. The expiration date may have passed, or more people got turned off when his ideas got even more wilder (trying to kill his wife, suicide attempt etc.) And they just might not have had an interest in Langdon taking a more serious turn. It’s also possible that that these editing problems are about a bigger issue: he was better suited for shorts and not features. While he does have very good features, all the runtimes are short, and by The Chaser he seemed to be very clearly padding out the plot.

To me, it does seem like Harry Langdon has been misunderstood all these years. He didn’t nosedive his career because he had no talent as a director or didn’t know how to use his character. Harry Langdon was an immensely funny and unique comedian. He stayed that way with the films he directed, and it’s too bad he didn’t direct more.