The Sunday Intertitle: After His Worm

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Frank Capra’s big lie — that comedian Harry Langdon did not invent, and thus did not understand, his own screen persona — is shown up in THREE’S A CROWD, which Langdon directed himself. He certainly understood that slowness was central to his approach — he spends the first five minutes failing to get out of bed. What Langdon didn’t understand, I think, is story and structure.

Still, I like the design of this film. Harry lives in a bizarre shack positioned atop a vertiginous single flight of stairs that has the precarious ricketiness of a rope bridge. Like Henry Spencer’s hovel in ERASERHEAD, with its rumbling industrial exterior sound, the Langdon residence seems unsure if it is indoors or out, an effect largely created by the bedside street lamp, though the bicycle helps.

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It makes sense that manchild/angeldevil inhabits a liminal space, where the dented alarm clock in the wide shot transforms into a brick in closeup, apparently a continuity glitch left by a deleted gag. Everything about Harry is undefinable, from his age to his gender, or almost.

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One Response to “The Sunday Intertitle: After His Worm”

  1. Here — and even more in “The Chaser” — what Kerr (and others?) see as misfired attempts at Chaplinesque pathos looks to me like unapologetic comedy.

    When Harry brings home the woman and the baby, we see a bunch of bums being routed, like clowns pouring from a too-small car. Was he sheltering or subletting to them, and is now turning them out in favor of an attractive female? Did they just infest the place on their own? Whatever the explanation, it undercuts (deliberately?) the poignance of Harry taking her in. We incidentally infer (but don’t see) Harry being effectively tough in clearing them out.

    “The Chaser” is emphatically about a henpecked husband versus his feminist wife. The unused baby bed that Kerr found so maudlin is a smirky joke about how unmanned he is, in a sequence capped by a guy assuming beaten-down Harry must be a woman. Some of the “demon lover” moments feel like they were parodying other movies or personalities the audience would recognize. The happy end — a bit mean-spirited by modern standards — is Harry asserting male supremacy. There’s no real pathos unless you go in assuming there HAS to be pathos.

    “Long Pants” takes what’s normally drenched in sentiment –first love and all that — and mocks it viciously. Harry may be sweetly clueless, but in this one he’s also a totally amoral child abruptly declared an adult. “The Strong Man” makes a little of Harry being put-upon by his master, but even that is primarily to throw the passive man-child into places and perils he’d normally avoid. “Tramp Tramp Tramp” could serve almost any comic: To save his father’s business and win the girl, he competes in a race and gags happen.

    There’s far more pathos in Keaton’s features. He could be extremely expressive within the non-smiling rule, and his stories allowed him feelings and sympathy Langdon simply wasn’t interested in. Maybe Langdon’s real downfall was not letting audiences react to his childlike persona as they instinctively wanted to. Laurel and Hardy, definitely influenced by Langdon, DID allow audiences to embrace them and not merely laugh.

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