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)
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.