Posted by David Kalat on July 16, 2011
The comments section to last week’s post developed a thread regarding the legacy of Harry Langdon, a comedian dear to my heart. Some of y’all said what I was going to say already, but nevertheless I feel it incumbent on me to step forward and explain my own position more clearly in this space. I haven’t really written about Langdon here in part because I wanted my work on the Harry Langdon DVD box to serve as my word on the subject, but also because I realize that Langdon is a love-him-or-hate-him performer, and I don’t like to argue about opinions. If you don’t care for Langdon, that’s not something that’s open to debate.
The comments thread was initiated by Jeff H. who asserted this position:
Langdon relied more on his team of people like Frank Capra and Harry Edwards, without realizing that the character that made him so beloved was created for him, not by him. If you want proof of that, watch THE STRONG MAN, with Capra and his team then watch THREE’S A CROWD, which Langdon made after he fired Capra-there is no comparison.
That’s more a question of fact, not opinion, and it’s worth digging into it in more detail.
I’m not looking to gang up on Jeff H., so let’s start by stating that he’s in good company. The argument he puts forth is basically the same one Walter Kerr advances in The Silent Clowns, quite possibly the best book ever written about movies and certainly my personal favorite. It is also the claim of Frank Capra himself, and has been repeated by other luminaries in the field such as Leonard Maltin. Anyone who argues others is going up against giants.
But having said that, even before we get into the merits of the claim, there are a couple of important details to note. The first is that Kerr and so many of the writers on silent comedy subjects throughout the 20th century were working from a limited menu of available films from which to draw conclusions. A great number of Langdon’s films were not readily accessible. This didn’t seem at the time to be a severe hindrance, because the ones that could be viewed were the ones most popular and successful, the ones that emerged from his most productive period. But that logic only gets you so far–you would be on shaky ground trying to draw grandiose conclusions about the totality of Charlie Chaplin’s career on the basis of just his Mutual shorts.
In Langdon’s case, the problem is that if you only review those films that Capra most strongly influenced, you will inevitably come away with an inflated sense of Capra’s importance. Capra, and Kerr and Maltin, put forth an interpretation of Langdon’s screen persona that is fully consistent with his work in Saturday Afternoon and The Strong Man, and then claim that his earlier and later works are the outliers. But if you sit down and watch his entire output, what becomes clear is that he had a consistent set of comic ideas that remained in place throughout his twenty odd years of films, and that if anything the Capra material is the outlier.
Now, you can still say you prefer the Capra iteration of Langdon, that’s a matter of opinion and a popular one at that. But that is a very different position than claiming that Capra created Langdon’s persona for a comedian unable to articulate his own comic identity effectively.
For example, let’s take Langdon’s alleged man-child baby-ness. Kerr in particular asserts that Langdon’s personality was a sexless boy in a man’s body, and that much of his comedy came out of this sexual confusion. His prime examples for this are Saturday Afternoon and The Strong Man--two exceptional films, but still just two films. Buster Keaton played a rich man in two exceptional films, The Navigator and Battling Butler, but I wouldn’t go around saying that was essential to his Keatonness.
In fact, far more prevalent in the films of Harry Langdon is an aggressive sexuality. His kisses cause women to swoon in Soldier Man and The King; he is a skirt-chasing womanizer in Picking Peaches, His First Flame, and The Chaser; sexual misadventures on his part drive The Hansom Cabman; and in the vast majority of his films (including Saturday Afternoon) he is a married man. The central gag of Tied For Life is a blue balls joke about a man unable to get his wife alone on their wedding night–when he finally does get some privacy with her, he’s so potent she gives birth to quadruplets!
I’ll admit that Langdon’s portrayal of this Lothario is absurdly asexual and childlike, but that fits his overall comic approach of inappropriate juxtapositions. (As I mentioned last week, in Langdon’s films the simple act of cross-dressing, no matter how poorly done, is treated as a fully effective gender-role-reversing disguise. The implausible womanizer is another joke in the same vein). The idea that his character had no business showing interest in women is simply unsupportable.
The Kerr analysis of Langdon placed such priority on his sexlessness as perceived in Saturday Afternoon and Strong Man, that the central premise of The Chaser (Harry’s faithless wandering in punished by a judicially imposed gender role reversal) seemed to come out of nowhere. But seen in the larger context of his whole career, The Chaser is the one that more easily belongs, and it’s The Strong Man that seems a misfit.
The Strong Man is also the film that most obviously depicts what Capra said was his intention with Langdon. Capra claimed that Harry needed to be a decent soul in a corrupt world, whose essential goodness saw him through hard times. In other words, Capra described the very basis of more or less all of his subsequent work–he would shape Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart into identically-shaped characters in films like Meet John Doe, Mr Deeds, It’s a Wonderful Life, and so on.
Capra was an artist who would have gotten along famously with Sarah Palin. They both believe in a “genuine” America, a small town realm of values threatened by the cynicism of city slickers and intellectual phonies.
The problem was that Harry Langdon was one of those cynical phonies! He was a merry prankster who took great joy in sending up the very infrastructure of the movie comedy form in which he worked.
Note that when Langdon was allowed to both write his own short films, later in the sound era, he had an attraction to stories about actors trying to perform in a poorly made play: Goodness a Ghost and The Stage Hand both. He was drawn to that extra layer of artificiality, the meta-meanings of inept poseurs struggling to fit in amongst other phonies. But what sells these shorts are small, isolated moments in which Harry’s bizarre, inhuman line delivery makes a joke of something that shouldn’t be funny.
For example, in what universe is the line “I like beer” a joke? Well, in this one:
Or, for another example, Harry’s attempt to rehearse the line “Did anybody call an officer?” in Goodness a Ghost devolved quickly into absurdity. Each subsequent attempt is farther off the mark than the one before–the more he rehearses, the worse it gets (ignore the ghost cop at the end of the clip and just focus on Harry’s inability to sound like a normal human being):
This is not the kind of stuff Capra was ever going to find funny. But it was what Harry was best at. The two men were fundamentally different in their conception of what made a movie work. Capra built great stories, with carefully drawn characters intended to illustrate his moral principles; Langdon frequently indulged in the 1920s and 30s equivalents of “blue” material.
To my mind, the defining characteristic of Harry Langdon, the thread that ties him together across the decades, is his indecisiveness. Give him a task, and he runs in every possible direction. This is what “going nowhere fast” looks like:
In the sound era, he found a way to turn that from a visual into a verbal gag.
Before I play the next clip, I need to describe it, because I want you to savor every little piece of this densely constructed performance. This is a scene from the Hal Roach short The Head Guy. Thanks to some awkward and implausible sitcom style shenanigans, Harry’s girlfriend mistakenly believes he was flirting with some chorus girls and dumped him (there’s that sexual side of Harry again!). In despair, he “cries.”
I had to put that in quotation marks because his sobbing isn’t real, or realistic, it is a simulacrum. He knows he is supposed to cry in this situation, but isn’t sure how, so he imitates, poorly, what he thinks it’s supposed to sound like. (and there’s that phoniness aspect again!)
He starts babbling. “If Nancy don’t want me, then I want to die.”
As soon as the words are out of his mouth, his eyes widen in fear. Someone has just threatened his life!
Now, of course it was him, but he spends the rest of the film acting as if he is two people, arguing with himself. He even tries to explain his tortured logic to himself: if Nancy doesn’t want me, than I don’t want to live… But he gets tangled up in his own words and can’t quite make it to the end of the sentence. So, it’s back to “sobbing” because that’s a simpler expression of despondency.
He tries again, and this time manages to express himself more succinctly: “I scrub for Nancy, and I work hard for Nancy. Nobody else would I work hard for. Nobody but her. And if she don’t want me, then I’m gonna die. I will die, I will die!”
And he pounds the table for emphasis, but. . . just before launching this speech, he picked up a nail file and started cleaning his fingernails. It’s possible that this physical distraction was what enabled him to marshal his thoughts into such coherence. Without the nail file he couldn’t finish the sentence. But now when he wants to pound his fist on the table as a rhetorical flourish, he has to first set the nail file aside, and that fumbling act causes his fist-pounding to miss punctuating his words by a few crucial seconds.
He resumes cleaning his nails, but the interruption completely derailed his thoughts. He keeps talking about suicide, but now his tone of voice is wrong, his emphasis skewed. The idea of suicide was evidently too terrible to contemplate, so now when he talks about dying it’s more like he’s come to think of himself as terminally ill. But this puzzles him (when did I get sick, exactly?) and he tries some more “sobbing” while he tries to retrace his thoughts.
This leads to a sudden change in mood. He looks up brightly and tries to snap his fingers nonchalantly (emphasis on “tries”). He puffs himself up as if putting on a show to impress onlookers. But he’s the only person in the room. Who is he trying to fool?
“Ha ha!” (the laugh is as fake as his cry) and he boasts of getting a pretty girl (which he then changes to “bigger girl” for some reason) and again tries unsuccessfully to snap his fingers, a gesture that doesn’t oblige him to give up the nail file but ends up just as poorly timed. Now he’s expanded his description of his new, better girl to include the fact that she will smoke. But this reminds him of Nancy (because she doesn’t smoke) and his phony bravado is undone.
The rest of his speech–and there is a fair bit of it yet to go–is incomprehensible because during the preceding part he opened his lunchbox and took out a sandwich, and the rest of his rant is delivered while he eats. The act of crying and eating simultaneously initiates a coughing fit, and to clear his throat he pulls an apple from the lunchbox.
“I could jump in the lake I will I don’t want my apple now I don’t want no apple now I don’t want no apple now I’ll eat my apple after now.”
End of scene.
This is verbal surrealism. It is a purely dialogue-based joke, unique to Langdon’s character. No other comedian could have delivered a scene like that, and none would have tried. The effect is more worrisome than funny. It is profoundly off-putting and weird, and I love it.
I know I spent a lot of real estate up there describing something that I could have just shown you, but the point was to wallow in the comic intricacy of what Langdon was doing even in those much-maligned Hal Roach shorts.
I haven’t said anything about Three’s A Crowd yet. Tom S. nailed it when he said it’s a great film just not a comedy. I absolutely consider it a masterpiece, and say so in my audio commentary to it, but I’ve never once felt a compunction to laugh in it.
But so what? I don’t laugh during Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (the subject of next week’s blog, by the way), nor Ernst Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed, nor Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. And if you think any of those films reflect poorly on their makers, well, then we’re going to have to take this outside and settle it like men.
Well, that’s all for this week, folks. See you after now.
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