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Hal Roach Studios (Spotlight)
Remind Me

Introduction to Harry Langdon Shorts

Harry Langdon is often called the forgotten silent clown. Where Charles Chaplin's work was acclaimed throughout his life, and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have been the subjects of full-scale critical reappraisals, Langdon's short starring career and precipitous fall from grace have relegated him to second-string status. Yet the films he made at his best, from the start of his contract with Mack Sennett in 1923 to his last Frank Capra film in 1927, are among the best silent comedies ever made. Moreover, his child-man character is ripe for re-evaluation. Like Chaplin's romantic little tramp, Keaton's stone-faced stoic and Lloyd's all-American boy, Langdon's baby-faced blunderer is a richly resonant character whose progress through a hostile world and judgmental society echoes the conflicts of modern life. Had he lived a little longer, it's altogether possible that he would have become as a much a darling of Absurdist playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco as did Chaplin and Keaton.

Langdon dreamed of a theatrical career from his childhood in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As a teenager he worked in a medicine show, then went on to perform as a black-faced minstrel show singer, tumbler and trapeze artist. He developed his childlike character in 20 years of vaudeville work, frequently paired with his first wife, singer Rose Mensolf. That brought him a contract to make films for Principal Pictures in 1923. Fortunately for him, they went bust and he moved to Mack Sennett, where over time the comic pioneer teamed him with director Harry Edwards and writers Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley. The four developed his persona into a comic gem that quickly became an audience favorite in a series of popular shorts. Unlike Sennett's more typical shorts, Langdon's films moved at a slower pace and focused on character. Instead of leering at the Sennett Bathing Beauties, he was befuddled by them. The change of pace helped him distinguish himself from other silent comedians, and his box-office success reflected that. In 1926, Langdon set up his own production company at First National, taking Edwards, Capra and Ripley with him. His first feature, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), was a big hit and also helped boost the career of his young leading lady, Joan Crawford. Capra moved into the directing chair for two more hits, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927).

Then Langdon made a potentially disastrous decision. Concerned about budget overruns on his first three productions and at odds with Capra over the spirit of the films, he fired the young director and took over direction with Three's a Crowd (1927). Without Capra's humanistic vision, Langdon indulged his more cynical view of life and produced a huge flop. The same problems plagued his other features. By the time the silent era ended, he was out of work and broke.

That was when Hal Roach stepped in. Roach signed him for a series of sound shorts that marked a comeback of sorts, as Roach's team of writers and directors came up with ideal situations for the clown. In The Fighting Parson (1930), for example, he blunders into a Western town where he's mistaken for a boxing preacher come to clean up the city. In The Big Kick (1930), he gets mixed up with bootleggers while trying to run a filling station. He even got to do drag -- perfect casting for an actor still possessed of a baby face as he was pushing 50 -- in Skirt Shy (1929), in which he masquerades as his female boss to hold one of her suitors at bay. He also got to work with such Roach regulars as Thelma Todd and slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy, who would eventually top line their own series of comic shorts.

Sound added a new dimension to Langdon's work. The slowness of early sound film, which proved a hindrance to many slapstick silent comics, was a boon to Langdon's more character-driven work. The Langdon child-man needed to move slowly, and that extended tempo made his work even funnier as he came into conflict with less patient bullies, gangsters and Western outlaws. But though the films have been critically reevaluated in recent years, audiences at the time weren't having it. Roach fired him after only eight films.

As Langdon's career floundered he moved into lower-budget shorts. There was a promising supporting role in the Al Jolson vehicle Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933), but the innovative film's box-office failure sent him back to studios like Columbia and Monogram, a major come down for the once-popular star. Eventually, Langdon would return to Roach as a writer for Laurel and Hardy's films. He even took over for Laurel, side-lined by a contract dispute, as Oliver Hardy's partner in the 1939 Zenobia. He was beginning to establish a new career as a character actor when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944.

by Frank Miller


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