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The Harry Langdon Mystique

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
October 29, 2012 1:00 AM
8 Comments
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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).

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.

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?

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).
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8 Comments

  • frankebe | November 2, 2012 3:05 PMReply

    The audience probably didn't warm up to "Three's..." and "...Chaser" back in the 1970s because nobody got ANYTHING by Langdon back then. I find "Chaser" very funny, except for the girlie scene at the golf course. I have watched "Three's" MANY times and find it fascinating. Both films are highly entertaining, they simply were never finished. They both still need final editing. For instance, there are number of poorly done non-matching shots in "Three's", and some shots that could be reduced or eliminated. This can be very easily fixed and could result in a final film that is almost perfect. It's only a shame that before the film was released something was cut out of the exposition so the pigeon-thing comes out of the blue. Several shots in "Chaser" are unnecessary or go on too long (e.g., the end of his wife crying with the makeup running can be cut out along with the following scene about the judge). If you play around with your FF button you can try skipping a few things that interrupt the flow to see what I'm talking about. I find both movies engaging, enthralling, and yes even funny; they need to be re-evaluated. Like I say, finely edited and with appropriate musical accompaniment, instead of the mis-matching music currently available for "Three's Company".

  • Ed Watz | October 31, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    Wow, some 35 years ago I got the exact same response from both Fifi D'Orsay and Una Merkle when I interviewed them about working with Harry Langdon! But at least Fifi was gracious enough to autograph a still for me from her Columbia short with Harry, PIANO MOONER, albeit saying repeatedly, "Yes, it's me, but I don't remember zis, I don't remember zis..."
    I remember those days at the Elgin Cinema in 1971...and that the audience also sat in stony silence for Langdon's most popular Capra-affiliated films, TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP and THE STRONG MAN, as well as those Langdon-directed features! Following on the heels of a brilliant 4-week Buster Keaton festival, Harry's work may have seemed too personal "back in the day." It's great to see that today, in this MTV-accelerated world, Harry Langdon is at last being embraced by a larger and much more enthusiastic audience.

  • Michael J. Hayde | October 30, 2012 7:45 PMReply

    Thank you for this very flattering review! Both Chuck and I did consider this book "a labor of love," and we're glad that came through. I have to mention that, on another website, a prominent silent comedy historian took us to task for being too soft on Frank Capra, so I suppose thanks are in order for providing some balance!

    As for Mr. Chaplin, we do not believe the films you cite represent "a diminishing of [his] talent," but we do believe he was inclined to take himself and his work much too seriously. Those four features represent the output of nearly 20 years' effort. Chaplin himself, in his autobiography, states that during the filming of CITY LIGHTS, he'd "worked himself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection." On the other hand, he considered the 18 months spent making the 12 Mutual-Chaplin Specials to be "the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me." CITY LIGHTS is arguably an artistic triumph, and the three films that followed were less so to varying degrees, but in my view not one of them can hold a candle to any two of the Mutuals for sheer comedic brilliance.

    THREE'S A CROWD isn't funny not because Capra wasn't there to guide him, but because Langdon was taking himself much too seriously. THE CHASER isn't funny because it isn't much more than a reworking of every shopworn gag from everybody's two-reeler bag of tricks. Freed up from the responsibility of running his own company and living up to THE STRONG MAN's box office, Langdon was able to become funny again, not to mention turn out a lot more film than Chaplin did in those 20 years, which was basically our point.

    Thank you again. "The Great Movie Shorts" was the first "classic movie" book I ever owned, and forty years later, I still take it down and read it from time-to-time. That's the highest compliment I can pay any author. I hope you and others will feel the same about "Little Elf."

  • Walt Mitchell | October 30, 2012 6:29 PMReply

    I am not well-versed on Langdon, though I have seen some of his work. My reason for commenting here is simply to make an observation: In Image One of your photos, with his head cocked and his facial expression as he looks down at his own artwork, Harry looks a bit like George Gobel to me!

    I agree with Dave Kirwan's final point here. And like him, I also liked the Una Merkel/Fifi D'Orsay stories! (I know Una best for her major supporting roles in the Hayley Mills films "The Parent Trap" and "Summer Magic.")

  • Martin | October 30, 2012 4:34 PMReply

    I'd rather pay $50 for an extensive tome the size of a telephone book that covers everything and more than I could ever want, knowing it's a definitive one-stop source for anything Harry Langdon, than to purchase a $20 book that lacks information. I bought a copy of this book at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention recently and both authors signed my copy. It is even more than Leonard Maltin could describe and he is correct: "this book is invaluable." Do yourself a favor and order a copy. If the price is an issue, ask your loved one to buy you a copy for this Christmas.

  • Norm | October 30, 2012 3:58 PMReply

    Excellent review LM, so that was Langdons nom de plume, the "Little Elf"...looks like comedy is tougher to do...

  • Dave Kirwan | October 30, 2012 11:49 AMReply

    Can't wait to get my hands on LITTLE ELF. Nice write-up and I LOVE the Una Merkel/Fifi D'Orsay stories! The community of Langdon buffs has a pretty big chip on their shoulder as to Capra's version of things. I think they tend to overstate the case, but certainly have a point. If you haven't seen THE CHASER with a live audience in 40 years, you might surprised with how well it holds up today (especially when compared with the last Capra directed Langdon LONG PANTS, a very weak effort). The Roach talkies look pretty bad to me, but I really like some of the Educationals. He's always been a favorite of mine, but having said that, one can't ignore the fact that even Langdon's great stuff is something of an acquired taste. For many old movie fanatics, he is simply funny-peculiar not funny-ha-ha.

  • mike schlesinger | October 31, 2012 12:03 AM

    I agree. I walked into THE CHASER expecting the worst, and was surprised to find it quite amusing, with a few truly hilarious moments. (On the other hand, THREE'S A CROWD really is as dreadful as advertised.) As for the Capra thing, I would posit that he acted as a kind of governor on Langdon, keeping him under control and focused; without him, Langdon had no one to tell him he was doing something wrong, or that the costs were spiraling out of control.

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