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The Harry Langdon Mystique

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin October 29, 2012 at 1:00AM

If Harry Langdon is the neglected figure from the pantheon of great silent-comedy stars, Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde have done their best to rectify that situation in a massive, and exhaustive, new book. A whopping 686 oversized pages, it resembles a phone directory for a mid-sized city as much as a film book.
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Harry is riding high with Thelma Hill, Elsie Tarron and Gladys Tennyson in one of his first shorts for Mack Sennett, 'His New Mamma' (1924).
Harry is riding high with Thelma Hill, Elsie Tarron and Gladys Tennyson in one of his first shorts for Mack Sennett, 'His New Mamma' (1924).

If Harry Langdon is the neglected figure from the pantheon of great silent-comedy stars, Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde have done their best to rectify that situation in a massive, and exhaustive, new book. A whopping 686 oversized pages, it resembles a phone directory for a mid-sized city as much as a film book. Some of this heft is due to incredibly detailed synopses of every Langdon short and feature, but there is also a wealth of welcome and valuable new information about the comedian’s life and work. The man whom many regarded as “a second Chaplin” when he made his mark onscreen in the mid-1920s, and then saw his career crumble by the end of that decade, is an irresistible subject…and Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon (BearManor Media) is clearly a labor of love.

Harry Langdon Book Cover
BearManor Media

I am particularly impressed with the biographical portion of the book and found the section on Langdon’s vaudeville years to be especially enlightening. The authors have not only found vintage newspaper ads and reviews but reprint Langdon’s copyrighted scripts for his touring acts. No one has explored the comedian’s pre-movie career so extensively; finally, we can see how he prepared his material and come to appreciate his skill as a comedy craftsman.

Harter and Hayde are so pro-Langdon that they feel it necessary to disparage Frank Capra at every opportunity. There is no question that Capra took primary credit for Langdon’s success at the Mack Sennett studio in his autobiography (and, decades before that, in talking to James Agee for his landmark Life magazine study of silent comedy). Capra painted Langdon as a pathetic, simple-minded figure, which his vaudeville material would seem to refute. Fair enough. But the authors take heavy-handed swipes at Capra at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that Langdon’s features did take a nosedive after the collaborators parted company. I remember sitting with an audience stunned into silence as we watched Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser when Raymond Rohauer first presented them theatrically in 1971. They are painfully unfunny. There were other factors that worked against these late-silent features aside from Capra’s departure, but Langdon was not destined to succeed as his own producer, as this book explores in detail.

The authors are also kind to Langdon’s talkie comedies for Hal Roach, which are also (for the most part) a sorry lot. When they compare Langdon’s productivity in the talkie era to the other greats of silent comedy, they disparage Charlie Chaplin’s output in order to drive home their point. Do they really think that City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Monsieur Verdoux represented a diminishing of Chaplin’s talent?

Ad for Harry Langdon Film

But if they are guilty of anything it is an overabundance of enthusiasm. That can be forgiven as they have done a great service for comedy aficionados and historians, offering up a cornucopia of information on every one of Langdon’s screen appearances, rare photos, vintage magazine articles, and more. If you have any interest in Harry Langdon, this book is invaluable.

I can’t resist sharing some rare Langdon photos and ads of my own, along with an admittedly odd personal postscript. In 1970, when I was editing and publishing Film Fan Monthly, I came to Hollywood to interview as many veterans of the golden age as possible. One of my most enjoyable experiences was talking to that wonderful character actress and comedienne Una Merkel. We covered her entire career from the 1920s onward, but when I asked her what it was like to work with Harry Langdon in the Columbia two-reel comedy To Heir is Human (1944) she gave me a curious look and told me she’d never made such a film. Having screened a print of the two-reeler I knew she was wrong but didn’t want to be rude in persisting. She then added, sweetly but firmly, “I was a great admirer of Harry Langdon, so I’d certainly remember if I’d ever worked with him.” I dropped the subject.

Thinking about it afterward, it occurred to me that, for some reason, Merkel’s career had hit a snag at this time. She had been a major player at MGM in the 1930s, earning the second lead in many first-class films. Something went awry at the beginning of the next decade, and after appearing in The Bank Dick andRoad to Zanzibar she had trouble finding steady work in worthwhile pictures. At the time she headlined a pair of two-reel comedies for Columbia in 1943-44 she was at a low point and possibly wiped the experience from her memory. Those films took less than a week to film and were barely a footnote in her long career, which happily rebounded in the 1950s and 60s.

A short time later, one of my regular contributors to Film Fan Monthly asked if I’d be interested in an interview with vivacious entertainer Fifi D’Orsay, who was enjoying something of a comeback in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s musical play Follies. “Of course I would,” I replied, “but be sure and ask her about the short she made with Harry Langdon.”

You can already guess the punch line. She said she never worked with him. And that was that.

Images of Harry Langdon

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    Images of Harry Langdon

    A talented artist and cartoonist, Langdon often published his work.
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    Images of Harry Langdon

    Harry places his handprints in cement for the San Francisco Exposition on the set of the 1939 Hal Roach feature 'Zenobia.' A studio workman, Oliver Hardy, director Gordon Douglas and producer Eddie Sutherland look on.
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    Images of Harry Langdon

    Lew Kelly, Langdon, and (yes) Una Merkel in the Columbia short 'To Heir is Human' (1944).
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    Images of Harry Langdon

    Harry still projected his trademark innocence at the age of 54 when he appeared in the Hal Roach feature 'There Goes My Heart' (1938).
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    Images of Harry Langdon

    Langdon, fellow Sennett graduate Chester Conklin and (yes) Fifi D’Orsay in the Columbia short 'Piano Mooner' (1942).

This article is related to: Book Reviews, Bear Manor Media, Harry Langdon, Chuck Harter, Michael J. Hayde, Journal, Frank Capra