The Sunday Intertitle: Two of a Kind

THREE’S A CROWD seems to have marked the real downturn in Harry Langdon’s fortunes as a star. Frank Capra liked to blame Langdon’s decline on the fact that he didn’t know his own screen character because he, Capra, had created it. Capra got fired from the Langdon organisation and Langdon certainly foundered on his own.

Joseph McBride in The Catastrophe of Success, his highly critical biography of Capra, heaps scorn on this notion, pointing out Langdon’s long stage career, during which he clearly had some kind of comic character worked out. And indeed, Langdon did not have Capra’s help on all of his early shorts.

The real problem with THREE’S A CROWD is construction, although the film certainly fails to make good use of Langdon’s childlike, melancholy and uncanny qualities. The first ten minutes or so is a pretty good standalone short, with Harry as a sleepy removal man. Much use is made of Harry’s odd apartment, which has a street lamp by the bed, and the extremely long external staircase, which looks like something Tati might have had built. The nicest gag involves Harry falling through a trapdoor and dangling from a carpet that’s caught in the trap. He manages to climb the dangling rug, attempts to open the trap to get back inside, and of course releases the carpet which slides further through, Harry still clinging to it. This is repeated until he’s running out of carpet and about to plummet several storeys. Good suspense gag, good convincing comedy physics.

Then the mother and baby arrive and the film goes to crap. Influenced by THE KID, down to a dream sequence which takes the place of honest plot development, Langdon is given no amusing business involving his new foster-fatherhood, and an inert swaddled infant is no substitute for Jackie Coogan. Inviting the comparison was madness. It’s a shame because Langdon has an extraterrestrial quality, even more so than Keaton. He’s a unique presence and his best moments have an unsettling quality much to my taste.

The film does have THIS, however —

Just beautiful.

Well worth buying these —

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection


7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Two of a Kind”

  1. Richard Brody and others pointed out that the films Langdon directed on his own are pretty good, derailing Capra’s dismissal of those films. I haven’t seen them myself though, I plan to.

  2. Just thinking about Langdon in light of Fioty Little Mothers a disastrous Eddie Cantor vehicle I saw just the other night. Directed by Busby Berkeley it was clearly created to give Cantor a role with “serious’ underpinnings and the sort of pathos that came naturally to Langdon. Man did it ever not work!

    Langdon’s heirs are Taylor Mead (especially in Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief) and Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory currently wowing them on Broadway in a revival of Harvey. The reviewers have all concurred Parsons doesn’t remind them of Jimmy Stewart (who made the role famous) at all. Of course not. Parsons is pure Harry Langdon.

  3. I have the set so I’ll delve deeper. Capra’s real achievement seems to have been adapting the frenetic Keystone style to suit Langdon’s pace, something which I reckon helped him with his own comedy. So that arguably Langdon taught Capra more than vice versa.

    Jimmy Stewart was too old for half the great roles he played, but too young for Harvey. But he did it so well it didn’t seem to matter. I certainly wish I could have seen Frank Fay do it.

  4. All the reviews of the new production have expressed amazement that Harvey beat out The Glass Menagerie for the Pulitzer Prize.

  5. One of the stranger things I saw while viewing submissions for the Film Festival this year was an Iranian version of The Glass Menagerie. I don’t think it traveled too well.

  6. What a happy coincidence – a new book on Harry Langdon was just published last week. Co-author Michael Hayde posted the following on Nitrateville:

    Good news! LITTLE ELF: A CELEBRATION OF HARRY LANGDON can now be ordered… and it’s IN STOCK! … uct_id=509

    This is Harry Langdon’s DEFINITIVE life story, coupled with the most comprehensive Langdon filmography ever compiled. My co-author, Chuck Harter, and I have uncovered every aspect of Harry’s career, from his earliest stage appearances to his final day on a soundstage. Errors from previous books have been explained and corrected. Over 500 images add depth to the story of this most subtly visual of silent clowns. As a bonus, the book includes FIVE of Harry’s original vaudeville scripts, TEN vintage movie magazine profiles from 1925-33, and a detailed, illustrated synopsis of HEART TROUBLE.

    A Foreword by Steve Massa and a 3-page Introduction by Ed Watz – two of the most authoritative film comedy experts of our day – set the stage for this 690-page Langdon tribute. Whatever the depth of your interest in the Golden Age of Comedy, we’re sure you’ll enjoy LITTLE ELF.

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