Harry Langdon time again. This time via The Forgotten, over at The Daily Notebook. Seems Richard Brody is right — Langdon was a talented director.
Archive for Harry Langdon
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 —
Well worth buying these —
I know. Absolute filth. I’m shocked, you’re shocked. Not the kind of thing one expects in a Keystone comedy.
The movie is THE SURF GIRL, another attempt to shoehorn gratuitous bathing beauties into a slapstick two-reeler. The nominal star is Raymond “Ray” Griffith, a figure I’m quite interested in — he’s unusual in being of normal build and with a normal-sized human moustache, distinguishing him from the run-of-the-mill Keystone freaks and grotesques. Somebody like that would need to have some genuine comic chops to compensate for his lack of visual zaniness, and he does. Of course, in the chaotic flurry of a Sennett short, he doesn’t get many chances to shine, but he seizes them.
Uncredited director Harry Edwards, a prolific Canadian, was a specialist in this kind of thing, chalking up 157 shorts by the IMDb’s count. The titles are the usual array of puns and catchphrases, some of them now rendered surreally incomprehensibly by the passage of time and evolution of language. They may make you punchy if you read too many: THE SEA SQUAWK, THE LION AND THE SOUSE, FATHER WAS NEUTRAL, UNIVERSAL IKE GETS A GOAT, LADIES MUST EAT. TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (that’s one title, not a film and its two remakes) starring Harry Langdon, is his most famous work. And indeed he keeps the action semi-coherent here, even though the plot seems to introduce a new supernumerary comic every thirty seconds. Edwards knows when to get the most out of a close-up, and when to hold a long shot so we can enjoy the sight of lots of frantic characters running in and out of doorways. The simple knockabout aspires here to the heights of farce.
What’s most enjoyable is the sight of long-ago Amurricans at play, in some seaside paradise of days gone by. Strolling punters can rodeo-ride wild birds in the zoological garden, get boozed up in a bar, then stagger next door to drown in the swimming baths, and there’s also a shooting gallery which duplicates a whole skid row street, and the paying customers can hurl wooden balls at effigies of what appears to be Abraham Lincoln and some of his homies.
Here’s where Raymond Griffith scores his best moment. Fleeing from an angry man in a long beard, he disguises himself, perhaps foolishly, as one of these moving targets, and finds himself transported via clockwork mechanism through a gauntlet of ball-hurling yahoos. His only hope of avoiding detection is to maintain the imposture that he’s a lifeless automaton. Here, most actors would adopt a glassy stare, face forward, in mimicry of the mannequins around him, but Griffith is a more resourceful player: hilariously, he turns his face up and to the side, as if in aloof distraction, aspiring to the attitude rather than the appearance of a storefront dummy — a frozen image of aristocratic indifference, with just a soupcon of blind terror trickling underneath.
More study of this fine thespian is now urgently required.