• The Case for Harry Langdon: How and Why Frank Capra Was Wrong B E N U R I S H I N 1928 FILM PIONEER MACK SENNETT, TWO YEARS AFTER HIS PROFESSIONAL association with Harry Langdon had ended, rated him Charlie Chap- lin’s superior. Langdon was presented as a performer and filmmaker who had definite notions of his own, yet a quarter of a century later Langdon was portrayed by Sennett as misty headed and infantile. Ob- viously, the two versions of Langdon do not match. Here is Mack Sennett in 1928: Harry Langdon . . . the greatest of them all . . . greater than Chaplin . . . He had his own ideas, exactly, of how everything should be done. And he didn’t want to be interfered with. (qtd. in Dreiser 189– 90) And here is Mack Sennett in 1954: Harry Langdon actually was as innocent as an infant . . . he seldom had the mistiest notion of what his screen stories were about. (Sennett with Shipp 142) A clue to the nature of this contradiction comes from film historian Kevin Brownlow. He reports that in 1927 Langdon fired Frank Capra, a man who had been working with Langdon for two years (Brownlow 506). Frank Capra became a successful filmmaker, helming such rec- ognizable classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and many others. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2008 r 2008, Copyright the Authors Journal compilation r 2008, Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 141
  • Langdon was a comedian, pantomime artist, cartoonist, and film- maker with whom Capra worked from the start of 1925 to early 1927. The first features directed by Capra were made during his tenure with Langdon. Capra was a gagman and story developer when he went to work for the Langdon unit at Sennett’s studios. At that time Langdon’s popularity as a starring film comedian was skyrocketing, and when they split, Langdon was a phenomenally popular star and Capra had valuable experience as a director. Capra reportedly began disparaging Langdon upon his 1927 firing in an effort to avoid complete stigmatization within the movie indus- try. He sent a vitriolic letter lambasting Langdon to at least one prominent industry journalist and probably others as well (Brownlow 438 – 39, McBride 176– 77). Capra may seem overly sensitive about his situation but his worries were legitimate; Mack Sennett had fired him previously and he did not want a reputation as someone who could not work with others (McBride 156). Capra was anxious about his career’s future. Even the statements in his autobiography over forty years later seem anxious and defensive. Whether or not Capra’s 1927 – 28 statements had a significant impact on Langdon’s immediate career is difficult to discern, although Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride believes it had a strong impact, reinforcing negative opinions studio bosses held about the independent Langdon (McBride 179). In any event, Capra’s col- oring of Langdon returned two decades later and left a far-lasting impression then. Capra’s version of Langdon the man, Langdon the performer, and Langdon the filmmaker became the accepted canonical version of Langdon and has been the dominant one for decades. As a result, any discourse on Langdon has been framed largely by Capra’s contentions. Langdon and film history deserve better. Some correction of the standard Capra/Langdon discussion has oc- curred but not nearly enough. Capra’s characterization just does not hold up when considering the entire scope of Langdon’s career. Capra could not have invented Langdon’s comic persona as he claimed, Langdon did. Langdon managed his career fairly well; it did not col- lapse, as Capra would have it, from Langdon’s befuddled ineptitude or inflated self-importance. Langdon, in fact, owed comparatively little of his success to Capra. Capra began to create his version of Langdon in earnest in 1949 with the publication of critic James Agee’s enormously influential article 142 Ben Urish
  • ‘‘Comedy’s Greatest Era,’’ which appeared in Life Magazine five years after Langdon’s death. In this article, Agee argues that comedians and comedies of the silent era were superior to those of 1934 – 49, and he names Langdon as one of the top four comedians of the time. While the article may have rescued Langdon from the near oblivion shared by such formerly popular silent era comics as Larry Semon, Raymond Griffith, and others, Agee’s reliance on Capra (he quotes him) as a source to describe Langdon and his career was an unfortunate decision. While Capra concedes that Langdon was a pantomime genius, he contends that Langdon had no understanding of the character he por- trayed or how to best use that character. Statements such as ‘‘Langdon was almost as childlike as the character he played’’ are the norm (qtd. in Agee 14). Agee’s article gives Langdon no credit beyond an ‘‘intuitive’’ ability to improvise pantomime comedy, concluding with a quote from Capra that Langdon ‘‘never did really understand what hit him’’ (qtd. in Agee 13 – 14). Unfortunately for Langdon’s reputation the effect of Agee’s article was, and still is, immense. By 1954 when Mack Sennett’s autobiog- raphy was published, Sennett seems to have resorted to Capra’s version as if he had experienced it directly himself. Yet Sennett had no direct contact with Langdon’s career after 1926. For that matter Capra had nothing to do with Langdon’s career after 1927. The 1928 interview of Sennett quoted above does not exhibit an anti-Langdon bias. In his autobiography, which predates Capra’s by seventeen years, Sennett re- fers to Capra as Langdon’s director at Keystone. In reality, it was not Keystone anymore but the Mack Sennett Studios, and Capra did not direct a Langdon film until they both had left Sennett’s employment. Such was the impact of the Agee article after only five years. Even such respected film historians as Donald McCaffrey and Kevin Brownlow default much of their interpretations of Langdon’s career to Capra.1 As silent cinema enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, Langdon and his career were viewed through Agee’s article; and therefore through Capra’s portrayal. With the publication of his autobiography in 1971, Capra reiterated and elaborated his Langdon story by constructing scenes and positing dialogue. It is a story that vindicates Capra and unjustly makes an imbecile of Langdon. This unreliability is not a unique situation in the book. As film historian J. B. Kaufman has wryly commented regarding the autobiography, ‘‘[Capra’s] great creativity was better suited to The Case for Harry Langdon 143
  • making movies than to writing an account of what was supposed to be historical truth’’ (Kaufman). Capra’s autobiography tells of a meeting where, based on a casual remark by writer Arthur Ripley, Capra has a flash of inspiration on how to develop Langdon into a screen persona. He then requests that Harry Edwards be named director for the Langdon films with he and Ripley as writers. The facts are clearly otherwise. Another film company, Principal Pictures, had hired Langdon in 19232 (Schelly 9). Sennett bought the two films that had already been made but unreleased as well as Lang- don’s contract (Rheuban 230). Capra was working for Sennett as an all- purpose gagman and story constructionist on pictures starring Ben Turpin, Ralph Graves, Andy Clyde, and others (Hanson 4 – 8). Harry Edwards began directing Langdon with Langdon’s eighth Sennett short, and Arthur Ripley joined as writer on the thirteenth. Capra does not earn credit until the fifteenth, although he could have been con- tributing gags for previous films without credit, as might have Ripley. In any event, this evidence shows that his contributions were com- paratively minimal and the story he relates in his autobiography clearly inaccurate. Langdon only made twenty-one shorts for Sennett. The two Principal Pictures shorts were released after the sixteenth Sennett short was released and they were evidently successfully passed off on the public as Sennett shorts (Rheuban 230). Although Langdon had to adapt to films in general and find his footing with Sennett in particular, the implication is that Langdon’s comic persona was more or less in place not only before Capra but also before Sennett. The early Langdon short for Sennett, Smile Please (1923), bears this out. While Langdon does engage in standard Sennett knockabout, the film spends a large section of its running time on very characteristic Langdon pantomime and character-based comic reactions. In fact, there is evidence that Langdon had developed his distinctive comic persona as early as 1906, seventeen years before his first film (Rheuban 23). During his time with Sennett, Langdon was at what proved to be the mid-point of his professional career. And he had achieved no small measure of success before making films. A full-page ad in the National Vaudeville Artist’s 1923 Benefit Book features Langdon as the author of four working acts, no mean feat.3 Clearly the ad is good publicity, and was likely paid for by Langdon himself or his booking 144 Ben Urish
  • agent. Yet it does provide a marker of sorts for Langdon’s success as a performer and sketch writer, evidencing that he was a recognized per- former himself and in demand for writing successful acts for other performers. Furthermore, he is in top-notch company because other full-page ads are for variety legends Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, further demonstrating that Capra and Sennett’s contentions that Lang- don was merely a small-time vaudeville performer are not accurate. Capra states that Langdon was playing cheap ‘‘honky tonks’’ a year before he began his First National features, indicating that Capra does not even know how long Langdon was with Sennett, let alone his status in vaudeville (Capra 63). Author Joyce Rheuban spends considerable time documenting the point that Langdon was a vaudeville star of some note, headlining on several circuits and becoming a reliable and familiar staple of big time shows (19 – 23). In addition, there is a strong circumstantial case that can be made for the fact that Langdon had already developed and refined the character that he used in films. Photographs and descrip- tions of his characteristic costume and make-up were in place by 1910, thirteen years before his first film (Rheuban 20). That Langdon’s comic persona is also present is clear from reviews of Langdon’s stage per- formances, which refer to his character as a ‘‘simp,’’ ‘‘dumbell,’’ and ‘‘boob’’ (Rheuban 19 – 23). And evidence indicates that Langdon was already pursuing his forte of delicate minimalist pantomime as exem- plified by this trade journal quote ‘‘each season he makes better with less’’ (qtd. in Rheuban 22). Of Langdon’s twenty-three silent shorts, Edwards is credited on fourteen, Ripley on nine, and Capra on only six. Edwards and Ripley also worked on all six of the shorts worked on by Capra. From Capra’s version, you would never know that other comedy directors, writers, and gagmen worked with Langdon because he does not mention them. In fact he describes a scene where a film of Langdon’s vaudeville act is screened and all of the Sennett staff refuse to work with Langdon because he seems so void of talent (Capra 59). If such a screening did take place, it may have been of one of Langdon’s already completed but unreleased films for Principal Pictures that Sennett had purchased along with Langdon’s contract. And the screening could reasonably have been to show the gagmen and writers Langdon’s already estab- lished (for him and his potential core audience) comic persona and style, not an unusual happening for established performers. If the The Case for Harry Langdon 145
  • account is accurate, their reluctance or even refusal to work with him likely stemmed from the difficulty his unique character presented, not from any shortcoming of his. Capra even goes so far as to put words in Ripley’s mouth to support his contentions. He has Ripley state that not even Langdon under- stands the key to his comic persona, which Ripley then explains (Capra 61). Yet three pages later, Capra states that he was amazed to find out that Edwards and Ripley did not understand what made Langdon’s character work (Capra 64). This just does not add up and it is surely significant that both Ripley and Edwards were dead by the time Cap- ra’s autobiography was published. Capra’s memory fails him in other respects as well. One notable example occurs when Capra, the most junior partner in the Langdon– Edwards– Ripley – Capra quartet, sees himself as the instigator and prime mover, convincing Edwards and Ripley to break with Sennett (Capra 63 – 64). The far more likely and reasonable explanation is that Langdon desired to take his hit-making team with him to First Na- tional, where he could be an independent producer in charge of his own output. An ironic aspect of Capra’s chapter on Langdon is the event de- scribed as taking place years later. Langdon hit bottom by working in cheap one-reel comedies that served as ‘‘fillers’’ . . . It was while he was making one of these ‘‘fillers’’ that I saw him for the first and last time since our break . . . He looked like a gargoyle . . . carrying an enormous fat lady on his lap . . . It was a grotesque replica of the famous scene we did with Mary Astor in The Strong Man . . . I could have cried . . . [Langdon] was being yelled at to ‘‘go faster!’’ (Capra 72) Capra probably meant Gertrude Astor because Mary Astor is not in The Strong Man. The film in question must be a two-reel (not one-reel) 1938 Columbia release, Sue My Lawyer, directed by Jules White and scripted by Langdon. The film is by no means a ‘‘filler’’ and the leading lady is Ann Doran, who is in no way fat but is quite svelte. The film moves at a pace typical of Columbia comedy shorts of the period, except for set pieces that highlight Langdon’s unique talents, which are more deliberately paced. One such sequence is the scene in question. It is by no means as elaborate as in its original incarnation in The Strong 146 Ben Urish
  • Man (1926). But then, neither is its setting. The Strong Man is a feature while Sue My Lawyer runs only eighteen minutes. And Langdon does not resemble a gargoyle of any type. Interestingly, Capra himself later reused the material in A Hole in the Head (1959), this time relying on Frank Sinatra’s well-known talent for physical comedy. It should be remembered that it was and is a fairly common practice for comedians to repeat and/or vary special routines, and many silent era comics reworked their most popular routines into their sound films. A gap of twelve years and the change from the silent era to sound separates Langdon’s performances, certainly a sufficient change and length of time to wait before reworking a popular routine. Silent films were rarely reissued at the time, and there was no television, video, or DVD. Capra’s previously quoted remarks on the irony of the short’s di- rector telling Langdon to speed up his acting are a result of Capra’s recognition that Langdon’s forte was slow pantomime. The real irony is that Capra clearly did not realize that Langdon probably recognized it too and was trying to maintain his artistry despite the force of a director telling him to do otherwise. Capra unknowingly undercuts his own contentions that Langdon was unaware of his talents and how to properly showcase them. Langdon’s popularity did decline but this is attributable to several events, not Capra’s leaving Langdon’s employ and Langdon’s lack of understanding of his comic persona. (1) First National was associated with Warner Bros., which was devoting itself to developing sound films. Langdon found him- self working in an environment indifferent to his work at best. The story critic Walter Kerr relates of going to a First National booker in 1927 is very telling. According to Kerr, the booker stated that First National would be dumping ‘‘the little son-of- a-bitch,’’ referring to Langdon (qtd. in Kerr 263– 64). Other accounts indicate that First National may have been intention- ally attempting to hamper Langdon’s productions and releasing schedules in an attempt to cause him to break his contract (Rheuban 186 – 87, McBride 178). (2) The creative team of Langdon, Edwards, Ripley, and Capra was dispersing. With Capra’s departure following Edward’s, half of the team was gone. The Case for Harry Langdon 147
  • (3) Within twenty-two months in 1926 – 27, Langdon made five starring features, three special short subjects, and a cameo ap- pearance in a popular feature. In addition, his earlier Sennett work was kept in constant reissue. The public may have just been oversaturated. A strong case can be made for Langdon’s awareness of his artistry and comic persona throughout his career. First he adapted to the stage, then short films, and then features. He also adjusted well to sound cinema and later was able to adapt to his increasing age while maintaining his basic comic persona. He pursued this on stage as previously noted and in films as well. Langdon’s unique comic persona was centered upon his delicate pantomime. Langdon experimented and pushed his perform- ing style to the limit, which was a minimalist and not necessarily comic pantomime. His decreasing audience may partly support the contention that some of his public did not respond well to a more ‘‘distilled’’ Langdon. A rough analogy might be that if, in 1955, Red Skelton had decided to focus on his ‘‘silent-spots’’ and curtail his other comedic activities, it seems unlikely that his popularity would have sustained itself. Despite the general belief expressed by the bulk of Langdon’s biographers and critics, there is evidence that Langdon continued to pursue his minimalist pantomime throughout his career. Three such examples are the ‘‘crying’’ scene in The Head Guy (1930), the ‘‘drink- ing’’ scene in The Stage Hand (1933), and the ‘‘prayer’’ in A Doggone Mix-Up (1938). The crying scene in The Head Guy runs for almost four minutes, and the camera does not move from its medium close-up nor is there a cut. Harry has just been jilted by his girlfriend Nancy. He begins to cry, soon with such force that he is gulping air. He talks to himself, saying he will die if Nancy does not want him. As he babbles and blubbers, he points his finger and slams his fist on the table. He picks up a fountain pen and begins to clean his fingernails, proclaiming that he would only work as hard as he did for Nancy. Then a change comes over him as he takes on a swagger and laughs, saying, ‘‘I should worry over a girl!’’ He expresses his belief that he will soon have a pretty girl—a bigger girl—maybe even a girl who smokes. This reduces him back to tears proclaiming, ‘‘That’s just it—Nancy don’t smoke.’’ 148 Ben Urish
  • As the crying continues, Harry pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and a sandwich out of his lunch box.4 Harry takes huge bites out of his sandwich, still blubbering about how he does not want to live without Nancy. He chokes, coughs, and cries into his sandwich. In the middle of a sentence about jumping into a lake, Harry pulls an apple out of his lunch box and says, ‘‘I don’t want no apple now I don’t want no apple now I’ll eat my apple after now.’’ He puts the apple in his coat pocket and the shot/scene ends. Langdon’s control of the pacing and flow of the scene is remarkable. For many the scene plays as merely strange, but to those familiar with Langdon’s performance style and goals it is a very funny, stunning, performance tour de force. Three years later we find a similar example in the Langdon scripted and directed The Stage Hand. A friend leads Harry to a secret hidden in- home bar and they begin drinking. Again in a medium shot and with few edits we see Harry perform, this time working with a partner. Just as Langdon had the ability to make us actually feel the sleepiness engulf him in a famous scene from Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926), we now feel the inebriation take hold. And Langdon not only controls his own performance and the flow of the scene but, with his interactions, that of his partner as well. A Doggone Mixup (1938) pairs Harry with a large St. Bernard. Langdon has a few miniature ‘‘set-pieces’’ in the film. One that manages to be touching and humorous at the same time is the sequence where Harry prays for the safety of his dog. It is not as long as the previous examples but still characteristic of Langdon’s delicate performing. Compare the film with the work of Charley Chase or the Three Stooges done at the same time at the same studio. Chase worked ‘‘quieter’’ than the Stooges, but even he did not manage to create such moments of tenderness in his short films. Langdon was not, as some would have it, ‘‘no longer inspired or motivated’’ in his later career (Rheuban 52). Some may argue that such scenes are not unique to Langdon or that other reasons may account for their appearance. While it is true that many comedians use set-pieces consisting mainly of uninterrupted performances, Langdon’s use of set- pieces went beyond the usual scope of the device. For Langdon, as has been shown, they were the bedrock of his comedy and performing style. Admittedly, one could cite other factors for the examples previously mentioned: bulky early sound equipment for The Head Guy, budget The Case for Harry Langdon 149
  • limitations for The Stage Hand, and quick production for A Doggone Mix-Up. But this would not explain Langdon’s use of the technique in other instances, such as the ‘‘suicide’’ scene in The Chaser (1928), the ‘‘dummy cop’’ routine in Long Pants (1927), the ‘‘sleeping pills’’ episode in Tramp Tramp Tramp, or the ‘‘finger in the bottle’’ bit in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933). Each of these sequences and many others in Lang- don’s film career (silent and sound) are made up of long takes, few cuts, and immobile cameras. Even at the end, writing and starring in low- budget features, Langdon still managed to weave comedy gold out of straw (Schelly 195 – 201). There were various directors, writers, pro- ducers, companies, formats, and venues; the only thing in common is the presence of Harry Langdon and, by certain implication, his comedic and performance sensibility. Other explanations also fail to account for why other performers at the same studios at the same time did not use set-pieces as did Lang- don. Stan Laurel, whose persona is sometimes akin to Langdon’s, came close. In fact, Langdon was hired to prepare special material for four Laurel and Hardy features from 1938 to 1940. It is reasonable to speculate that Laurel might have consciously utilized techniques that worked for Langdon because he played a Langdon-influenced character in the mid-1920s for producer Joe Rock, and in later years reportedly kept a photo of Langdon at his desk.5 Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns posits an interesting analysis of Langdon’s comic persona (see appropriate chapters). Yet, for all his insights Kerr deviates little from the Capra version. In addition, Kerr generally defines Langdon’s character as a balance of ambiguities in- volving age and sexuality, and when Langdon does not meet Kerr’s definitions, Kerr sees failure. Perhaps however Kerr’s definitions would not have matched Lang- don’s. Kerr sees Langdon’s artistic height as occurring in the films made with Capra to such an extent that he even attempts to give Capra credit for Three’s a Crowd (1927), Langdon’s first feature as a director (Kerr 281 – 82). Capra could not have worked on much more than the basic story construction of the film because he was fired before Three’s a Crowd was put into production. Because no known copies of Langdon’s last silent feature Heart Trouble (1928) exist, and because Kerr ignores Langdon’s sound output, this leaves The Chaser for Kerr to analyze as the only true expression of Langdon’s self-directorial abilities and therefore the expression of his 150 Ben Urish
  • use of his comic persona. Kerr finds the film and Langdon lacking. He uses the suicide scene as an example of how Langdon and his comic persona have come ‘‘unraveled’’ (Kerr 286). In the film, Harry believes that he has taken poison and lies down to die. But the audience knows he has taken castor oil, which often works to induce vomiting or as a strong laxative. Langdon keeps the camera on his still form until Harry quickly rises in search of a bathroom. This is obviously in keeping with Langdon’s reactive comedy and his attempts to get laughs with min- imal activity. He even covers himself with a sheet so no facial con- tortions or finger movements can evidence his dawning awareness and physical discomfort. Kerr faults Langdon for interrupting the bit with a cut. Kerr sees Langdon as being (1) on a downward artistic spiral, (2) not the creator of his own persona or even understanding it, and (3) at the end of his creative life. Kerr believes this cut to be an example of Langdon’s failure to understand his own strengths and argues that Langdon should not have made the edit. Certainly the bit would work better without a cut. But this is Langdon still discovering how to use the film medium for himself. In the same book, Kerr does not criticize Chaplin or Keaton for not achieving their zenith in their second directorial effort, and they each had a much more thorough apprenticeship than circumstances allowed Langdon. In addition, Langdon’s artistry and film career did not end in 1928. He continued to practice his craft and art for another seventeen years. Langdon is credited with the direction and/or writing of eight of his sound films (as well as writing for others as in his vaudeville days), but Kerr treats Langdon’s work in the sound era as if it did not exist and ignores it. Comments on Langdon by co-workers about his refusal to speed up his performances and Capra’s previously discussed ‘‘grotesque replica’’ story support the view that Langdon had a clear idea of his forte and that he continued to try to develop it (Rheuban 38 – 39). Langdon himself gave interviews and wrote articles that indicate an under- standing of comedy and his own talents.6 He knew how to pace his own comedy and takes responsibility for it: I’d play along at a fairly slow tempo . . . If the laughs were too few, I’d increase my speed. (qtd. in North 127) The Case for Harry Langdon 151
  • By timing is meant the haste or slowness with which a situation is built . . . the actor puts over the performance . . . and . . . is almost solely responsible for . . . success or failure. (Langdon, Breaking Into Movies 91) He understood the strengths of his own character: Systematic absentmindedness is the most comical thing imaginable . . . the four greatest stimuli to laughter are rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness, and unsociability. (Langdon, Theater 22) And he was aware of its potential pitfalls: [Comic] personality . . . is either a powerful asset or a distinct liability . . . (Langdon, Breaking Into Movies 92) Comments about Langdon in 1930: Everybody did everything they could to get him to move faster . . . he slowed right down . . . you finally get discouraged. (qtd. in Rheuban 38 – 39) Comments about Langdon in 1940: The moment you tried to speed him up . . . you were dead . . . He wasn’t funny unless he could pace himself. (qtd. in Rheuban 38 – 39) Recall Capra’s story of the two-reeler director telling Langdon to ‘‘go faster.’’ Langdon continually and consistently fought to retain what he knew was his major talent and the backbone of his unique comic persona. The supposed failure of Langdon without Capra does not account for Langdon’s pre-Capra success and Capra does not even admit the ex- istence of a pre-Capra Langdon. One could just as well make the case that the first Capra post-Langdon films failed from a lack of Langdon. Still, the fact that Capra became an important filmmaker with his own discernible style, worldview, and auteur idiosyncrasies has caused crit- ics and historians to look for ‘‘Capraisms’’ in his films with Langdon. Critic and film theorist Gerald Mast in The Comic Mind makes some of the strongest claims for Capra’s influences on Langdon 152 Ben Urish
  • (Mast 168 – 69). Mast believes Capra’s version of Langdon to the point that he gives Capra credit for being the controlling influence of Tramp Tramp Tramp, which Edwards directed, and Capra was only one of six credited writers. Mast even goes so far as to draw an absurd parallel between trucks in The Strong Man and trucks in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), stating that they are both ‘‘big’’ and therefore rep- resent ‘‘big business.’’ Mast also tries to tie Langdon’s self-directed features to Capra’s later style as if Capra had taught Langdon how to direct. If anyone had, and there seems to be no evidence that anyone did, it probably would have been Edwards’s example and not Capra’s. But Edwards, Langdon, Cap- ra, and others subsumed (or created) their directing styles attuned to Langdon’s unique pantomimic performances. This is a practice shared by virtually all successful comedy films built around the distinctive talents of a comedic performer; the performance/performing style de- termines the film. Langdon’s comedy was largely reactive in that the humor lies in his persona’s response to a situation. Mast also wishes to draw a parallel between Capra’s photographing performers from the back, or in a manner that hides their faces, with Langdon’s reactive comedy. But other directors photographed Langdon from the back—it was part of his drive to minimal pantomime—to show how much can be expressed with how little by eliminating the face and hands. An example of this is in Fiddlesticks (1926). After spending the night in a cheap hotel, Harry leaves and is walking down the street. He begins to twitch and slap himself because he is infested with some sort of a bug he picked up in the low-class lodgings. He then forces the bug to move down his pants leg and onto the sidewalk where, after ob- serving it for a moment, he steps on it. This routine is photographed from behind. Capra was a co-writer for the film. This scene and others like it bear no significant resemblance to later Capra-directed scenes where the subject’s face is hidden, such as Jimmy Stewart and his ‘‘hat fumbling’’ in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the start of the sequence where Clark Gable comes for his money in It Happened One Night (1934). Perhaps the best Langdon – Ripley – Capra collaboration in this style makes up the finale of Long Pants (1927). The audience only sees Harry in medium shots from the back as he (and the audience) watch as his ‘‘innocent girlfriend’’ (actually an on-the-lam gun moll) completely The Case for Harry Langdon 153
  • trashes a dressing room and savagely beats a rival woman senseless. The humor stems from the audience’s awareness that Langdon has gone into a state of shock, which is conveyed by his immobility, and its awareness of his comic persona. It is a scene no other comic could successfully duplicate, although Jack Benny’s famous ‘‘Your money or your life!’’ radio instance is also dependent upon the audience being completely familiar with the comic’s persona and a seeming lack of reaction. Certainly Capra influenced Langdon’s career, and his films with Langdon, at least The Strong Man and Long Pants, bear formative Capra traits. At this point however, Capra’s creative goal was to help Lang- don’s comic performances in slapstick films. Any ‘‘vision’’ of Capra’s was secondary to that goal at best. It seems reasonable to assume that Capra’s evident formative traits (if there are any) are no more than whispers of the Capra yet to come, and though perhaps interesting to note the strain to hear them is unworthy of what they have to say. Capra was merely one (although an admittedly important one) of sev- eral who provided Langdon with material to perform and helped create the venue in which to perform that material, and his association with Langdon brought Capra from the ranks of short-subject gagman to feature film writer/director. Langdon owed far less of his career to Capra than Capra did of his to Langdon. Langdon was a unique talent who had a productive career of over forty years. During that career he wrote several vaudeville sketches for himself and others, and after twenty years in vaudeville he entered films and became one of the biggest stars of the silent era, perhaps the only comedian of his time to be considered Chaplin’s superior. Cir- cumstances prevented him from developing his art as far as he might have done, yet he did keep developing it. But what he did achieve is still available for us to marvel at and enjoy. His delicate minimalist pantomime has never been bettered and infrequently equaled. Frank Capra’s version of Langdon’s career and talent does not match the factual record. Unfortunately his version of events has become the canon and despite occasional insights by a handful of scholars Capra’s version is still cited as if it were proven fact, and as a result Langdon has been largely reduced to one of the great cautionary tales of the silent era. Common sense alone should be enough to seriously question the story’s validity and we have much more at our disposal. We have Langdon’s articles and interviews, the reviews of his vaudeville per- formances, and most importantly we have his films. Langdon never got 154 Ben Urish
  • a chance to defend himself and his work so his work must now speak for itself and for him and it says that Frank Capra was wrong. Appendix A: The Credited Langdon/Edwards/Ripley/Capra Collaborations (Note: In addition to performing, Langdon contributed gags, story ideas, and on the later features, produced and directed. He did not always receive screen credit.) Shorts (1) The Luck O’ The Foolish-1924 (Edwards) (2) The Hansom Cabman-1924 (Edwards) (3) All Night Long-1924 (Edwards) (4) Feet Of Mud-1924 (Edwards) (5) The Sea Squawk-1925 (Edwards) (6) Boobs In The Woods-1925 (Edwards/Ripley) (7) His Marriage Wow-1925 (Edwards/Ripley) (8) Plain Clothes-1925 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (9) Lucky Stars-1925 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (10) There He Goes-1925 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (11) Saturday Afternoon-1926 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (12) Fiddlesticks-1927 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (13) Soldier Man-1927 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (14) Marriage Humor-1933 (Edwards) (15) Counsel on de Fence-1934 (Ripley) (16) Shivers-1934 (Ripley) (17) The Leather Necker-1935 (Ripley) (18) Cold Turkey-1940 (Edwards) (19) Carry Harry-1942 (Edwards) (20) Piano Mooner-1942 (Edwards) (21) Blonde and Groom-1943 (Edwards) (22) Defective Detectives-1944 (Edwards) (23) Snooper Service-1945 (Edwards) (24) Pistol Packin’ Nitwits-1945 (Edwards) The Case for Harry Langdon 155
  • Featurette (1) His First Flame-1927 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) Features (1) Tramp Tramp Tramp-1926 (Edwards/Capra) (2) The Strong Man-1926 (Ripley/Capra) (3) Long Pants-1927 (Ripley/Capra) (4) Three’s A Crowd-1927 (Ripley) (5) The Chaser-1928 (Ripley) (6) Heart Trouble-1928 (Ripley) Sound Films Written and/or Directed by Harry Langdon in Which He Appears, Not in Collaboration with Edwards, Ripley, or Capra (1) The Stage Hand-1933 (Short: story, director) (2) House of Errors-1942 (Feature: story) NOTES Special thanks to Theresa Capra for her tolerance and graciousness, and to James T. Coon for his insights regarding Frank Capra’s autobiography. 1. See McCaffrey’s 4 Great Comedians and Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. Brownlow at least allows that the complete story may not be out. 2. Did Langdon work in films before this? David Quinlan lists Langdon as a performer in a 1918 serial The Master Mystery, but does not give his source (Quinlan 174). 3. This volume is unpaginated. 4. There was a well-known stage routine made popular by Bert Wheeler at the time involving crying, a handkerchief, and a sandwich. Many copied it. Langdon does not, a wry joke on the audience’s expectations and a tribute to Langdon’s creative invention. Wheeler does a variation of it in Diplomaniacs (1933). 5. See Half a Man (1925) for an example of a very Langdon-like Laurel. Laurel’s high regard for Langdon is mentioned in nearly every Laurel and Hardy volume since the 1970s. 6. They may have been ghostwritten, but their similarity indicates that if Langdon did not write them directly, he was interviewed for them or oversaw their composition. Sources Cited Agee, James. Agee on Film Reviews and Comments. New York: Beacon Press, 1958. 156 Ben Urish
  • Brownlow, Kevin. The Parades Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1968. Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. New York: Macmillan, 1971. Dreiser, Theodore. ‘‘The Best Motion Picture Interview Ever Written.’’ Spellbound in Darkness. Ed. George C Pratt. Connecticut: Graphic Society Ltd., 1973. 182– 94. Hanson, Patricia King, executive editor. Meet Frank Capra A Catalog of His Work. Los Angeles American Film Institute, Undated. Kaufman, J. B. ‘‘Re: Langdon.’’ E-mail to the author. 5 Mar. 2006. Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York: Knopf, 1975. Langdon, Harry. ‘‘The Comedian.’’ Breaking Into Movies. Ed. Jones Charles Reed. New York: Unicorn, 1927. 91 – 94. ———. ‘‘The Serious Side of Comedy Making.’’ The Theatre 46 (December 1927). 22, 78. ———. ‘‘Harry Langdon.’’ Films in Review 43.3/4 (March/April 1992). 97 – 99. Leary, Richard. ‘‘Capra and Langdon.’’ Film Comment 8.4 (November – December 1972). 15 – 17. Maland, Charles J. Frank Capra. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Maltin, Leonard. Great Movie Shorts. New York: Crown, 1972. Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1973. McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra the Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. McCaffrey, Donald. 4 Great Comedians Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1968. National Vaudeville Artists’ 1923 Souvenir 7th Annual Benefit Book. New York, NVA: 1923. North, Jean. ‘‘It’s No Joke To Be Funny.’’ Photoplay 28 ( June 1925). 86, 126 – 27. Quinlan, David. Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Comedy Actors. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. Rheuban, Joyce. Harry Langdon the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene. Rutherford: New Jersey Associated Press, 1983. Schelly, William. Harry Langdon. New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1982. Sennett, Mack with Cameron. Shipp. King of Comedy. New York: Dou- bleday, 1954. Ben Urish is a culturologist specializing in media, humor, and popular culture. He is the primary author of The Words and Music of John Lennon (Praeger-Greenwood, 2007) and the primary editor of the abridged version of Leslie White’s ‘‘lost’’ opus Modern Capitalist Culture (Left Coast, forth- coming, 2008). He currently teaches at Michigan State University. The Case for Harry Langdon 157
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The Case for Harry Langdon: How and Why Frank Capra Was Wrong

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  • The Case for Harry Langdon: How and Why Frank Capra Was Wrong B E N U R I S H I N 1928 FILM PIONEER MACK SENNETT, TWO YEARS AFTER HIS PROFESSIONAL association with Harry Langdon had ended, rated him Charlie Chap- lin’s superior. Langdon was presented as a performer and filmmaker who had definite notions of his own, yet a quarter of a century later Langdon was portrayed by Sennett as misty headed and infantile. Ob- viously, the two versions of Langdon do not match. Here is Mack Sennett in 1928: Harry Langdon . . . the greatest of them all . . . greater than Chaplin . . . He had his own ideas, exactly, of how everything should be done. And he didn’t want to be interfered with. (qtd. in Dreiser 189– 90) And here is Mack Sennett in 1954: Harry Langdon actually was as innocent as an infant . . . he seldom had the mistiest notion of what his screen stories were about. (Sennett with Shipp 142) A clue to the nature of this contradiction comes from film historian Kevin Brownlow. He reports that in 1927 Langdon fired Frank Capra, a man who had been working with Langdon for two years (Brownlow 506). Frank Capra became a successful filmmaker, helming such rec- ognizable classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and many others. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2008 r 2008, Copyright the Authors Journal compilation r 2008, Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 141
  • Langdon was a comedian, pantomime artist, cartoonist, and film- maker with whom Capra worked from the start of 1925 to early 1927. The first features directed by Capra were made during his tenure with Langdon. Capra was a gagman and story developer when he went to work for the Langdon unit at Sennett’s studios. At that time Langdon’s popularity as a starring film comedian was skyrocketing, and when they split, Langdon was a phenomenally popular star and Capra had valuable experience as a director. Capra reportedly began disparaging Langdon upon his 1927 firing in an effort to avoid complete stigmatization within the movie indus- try. He sent a vitriolic letter lambasting Langdon to at least one prominent industry journalist and probably others as well (Brownlow 438 – 39, McBride 176– 77). Capra may seem overly sensitive about his situation but his worries were legitimate; Mack Sennett had fired him previously and he did not want a reputation as someone who could not work with others (McBride 156). Capra was anxious about his career’s future. Even the statements in his autobiography over forty years later seem anxious and defensive. Whether or not Capra’s 1927 – 28 statements had a significant impact on Langdon’s immediate career is difficult to discern, although Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride believes it had a strong impact, reinforcing negative opinions studio bosses held about the independent Langdon (McBride 179). In any event, Capra’s col- oring of Langdon returned two decades later and left a far-lasting impression then. Capra’s version of Langdon the man, Langdon the performer, and Langdon the filmmaker became the accepted canonical version of Langdon and has been the dominant one for decades. As a result, any discourse on Langdon has been framed largely by Capra’s contentions. Langdon and film history deserve better. Some correction of the standard Capra/Langdon discussion has oc- curred but not nearly enough. Capra’s characterization just does not hold up when considering the entire scope of Langdon’s career. Capra could not have invented Langdon’s comic persona as he claimed, Langdon did. Langdon managed his career fairly well; it did not col- lapse, as Capra would have it, from Langdon’s befuddled ineptitude or inflated self-importance. Langdon, in fact, owed comparatively little of his success to Capra. Capra began to create his version of Langdon in earnest in 1949 with the publication of critic James Agee’s enormously influential article 142 Ben Urish
  • ‘‘Comedy’s Greatest Era,’’ which appeared in Life Magazine five years after Langdon’s death. In this article, Agee argues that comedians and comedies of the silent era were superior to those of 1934 – 49, and he names Langdon as one of the top four comedians of the time. While the article may have rescued Langdon from the near oblivion shared by such formerly popular silent era comics as Larry Semon, Raymond Griffith, and others, Agee’s reliance on Capra (he quotes him) as a source to describe Langdon and his career was an unfortunate decision. While Capra concedes that Langdon was a pantomime genius, he contends that Langdon had no understanding of the character he por- trayed or how to best use that character. Statements such as ‘‘Langdon was almost as childlike as the character he played’’ are the norm (qtd. in Agee 14). Agee’s article gives Langdon no credit beyond an ‘‘intuitive’’ ability to improvise pantomime comedy, concluding with a quote from Capra that Langdon ‘‘never did really understand what hit him’’ (qtd. in Agee 13 – 14). Unfortunately for Langdon’s reputation the effect of Agee’s article was, and still is, immense. By 1954 when Mack Sennett’s autobiog- raphy was published, Sennett seems to have resorted to Capra’s version as if he had experienced it directly himself. Yet Sennett had no direct contact with Langdon’s career after 1926. For that matter Capra had nothing to do with Langdon’s career after 1927. The 1928 interview of Sennett quoted above does not exhibit an anti-Langdon bias. In his autobiography, which predates Capra’s by seventeen years, Sennett re- fers to Capra as Langdon’s director at Keystone. In reality, it was not Keystone anymore but the Mack Sennett Studios, and Capra did not direct a Langdon film until they both had left Sennett’s employment. Such was the impact of the Agee article after only five years. Even such respected film historians as Donald McCaffrey and Kevin Brownlow default much of their interpretations of Langdon’s career to Capra.1 As silent cinema enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, Langdon and his career were viewed through Agee’s article; and therefore through Capra’s portrayal. With the publication of his autobiography in 1971, Capra reiterated and elaborated his Langdon story by constructing scenes and positing dialogue. It is a story that vindicates Capra and unjustly makes an imbecile of Langdon. This unreliability is not a unique situation in the book. As film historian J. B. Kaufman has wryly commented regarding the autobiography, ‘‘[Capra’s] great creativity was better suited to The Case for Harry Langdon 143
  • making movies than to writing an account of what was supposed to be historical truth’’ (Kaufman). Capra’s autobiography tells of a meeting where, based on a casual remark by writer Arthur Ripley, Capra has a flash of inspiration on how to develop Langdon into a screen persona. He then requests that Harry Edwards be named director for the Langdon films with he and Ripley as writers. The facts are clearly otherwise. Another film company, Principal Pictures, had hired Langdon in 19232 (Schelly 9). Sennett bought the two films that had already been made but unreleased as well as Lang- don’s contract (Rheuban 230). Capra was working for Sennett as an all- purpose gagman and story constructionist on pictures starring Ben Turpin, Ralph Graves, Andy Clyde, and others (Hanson 4 – 8). Harry Edwards began directing Langdon with Langdon’s eighth Sennett short, and Arthur Ripley joined as writer on the thirteenth. Capra does not earn credit until the fifteenth, although he could have been con- tributing gags for previous films without credit, as might have Ripley. In any event, this evidence shows that his contributions were com- paratively minimal and the story he relates in his autobiography clearly inaccurate. Langdon only made twenty-one shorts for Sennett. The two Principal Pictures shorts were released after the sixteenth Sennett short was released and they were evidently successfully passed off on the public as Sennett shorts (Rheuban 230). Although Langdon had to adapt to films in general and find his footing with Sennett in particular, the implication is that Langdon’s comic persona was more or less in place not only before Capra but also before Sennett. The early Langdon short for Sennett, Smile Please (1923), bears this out. While Langdon does engage in standard Sennett knockabout, the film spends a large section of its running time on very characteristic Langdon pantomime and character-based comic reactions. In fact, there is evidence that Langdon had developed his distinctive comic persona as early as 1906, seventeen years before his first film (Rheuban 23). During his time with Sennett, Langdon was at what proved to be the mid-point of his professional career. And he had achieved no small measure of success before making films. A full-page ad in the National Vaudeville Artist’s 1923 Benefit Book features Langdon as the author of four working acts, no mean feat.3 Clearly the ad is good publicity, and was likely paid for by Langdon himself or his booking 144 Ben Urish
  • agent. Yet it does provide a marker of sorts for Langdon’s success as a performer and sketch writer, evidencing that he was a recognized per- former himself and in demand for writing successful acts for other performers. Furthermore, he is in top-notch company because other full-page ads are for variety legends Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, further demonstrating that Capra and Sennett’s contentions that Lang- don was merely a small-time vaudeville performer are not accurate. Capra states that Langdon was playing cheap ‘‘honky tonks’’ a year before he began his First National features, indicating that Capra does not even know how long Langdon was with Sennett, let alone his status in vaudeville (Capra 63). Author Joyce Rheuban spends considerable time documenting the point that Langdon was a vaudeville star of some note, headlining on several circuits and becoming a reliable and familiar staple of big time shows (19 – 23). In addition, there is a strong circumstantial case that can be made for the fact that Langdon had already developed and refined the character that he used in films. Photographs and descrip- tions of his characteristic costume and make-up were in place by 1910, thirteen years before his first film (Rheuban 20). That Langdon’s comic persona is also present is clear from reviews of Langdon’s stage per- formances, which refer to his character as a ‘‘simp,’’ ‘‘dumbell,’’ and ‘‘boob’’ (Rheuban 19 – 23). And evidence indicates that Langdon was already pursuing his forte of delicate minimalist pantomime as exem- plified by this trade journal quote ‘‘each season he makes better with less’’ (qtd. in Rheuban 22). Of Langdon’s twenty-three silent shorts, Edwards is credited on fourteen, Ripley on nine, and Capra on only six. Edwards and Ripley also worked on all six of the shorts worked on by Capra. From Capra’s version, you would never know that other comedy directors, writers, and gagmen worked with Langdon because he does not mention them. In fact he describes a scene where a film of Langdon’s vaudeville act is screened and all of the Sennett staff refuse to work with Langdon because he seems so void of talent (Capra 59). If such a screening did take place, it may have been of one of Langdon’s already completed but unreleased films for Principal Pictures that Sennett had purchased along with Langdon’s contract. And the screening could reasonably have been to show the gagmen and writers Langdon’s already estab- lished (for him and his potential core audience) comic persona and style, not an unusual happening for established performers. If the The Case for Harry Langdon 145
  • account is accurate, their reluctance or even refusal to work with him likely stemmed from the difficulty his unique character presented, not from any shortcoming of his. Capra even goes so far as to put words in Ripley’s mouth to support his contentions. He has Ripley state that not even Langdon under- stands the key to his comic persona, which Ripley then explains (Capra 61). Yet three pages later, Capra states that he was amazed to find out that Edwards and Ripley did not understand what made Langdon’s character work (Capra 64). This just does not add up and it is surely significant that both Ripley and Edwards were dead by the time Cap- ra’s autobiography was published. Capra’s memory fails him in other respects as well. One notable example occurs when Capra, the most junior partner in the Langdon– Edwards– Ripley – Capra quartet, sees himself as the instigator and prime mover, convincing Edwards and Ripley to break with Sennett (Capra 63 – 64). The far more likely and reasonable explanation is that Langdon desired to take his hit-making team with him to First Na- tional, where he could be an independent producer in charge of his own output. An ironic aspect of Capra’s chapter on Langdon is the event de- scribed as taking place years later. Langdon hit bottom by working in cheap one-reel comedies that served as ‘‘fillers’’ . . . It was while he was making one of these ‘‘fillers’’ that I saw him for the first and last time since our break . . . He looked like a gargoyle . . . carrying an enormous fat lady on his lap . . . It was a grotesque replica of the famous scene we did with Mary Astor in The Strong Man . . . I could have cried . . . [Langdon] was being yelled at to ‘‘go faster!’’ (Capra 72) Capra probably meant Gertrude Astor because Mary Astor is not in The Strong Man. The film in question must be a two-reel (not one-reel) 1938 Columbia release, Sue My Lawyer, directed by Jules White and scripted by Langdon. The film is by no means a ‘‘filler’’ and the leading lady is Ann Doran, who is in no way fat but is quite svelte. The film moves at a pace typical of Columbia comedy shorts of the period, except for set pieces that highlight Langdon’s unique talents, which are more deliberately paced. One such sequence is the scene in question. It is by no means as elaborate as in its original incarnation in The Strong 146 Ben Urish
  • Man (1926). But then, neither is its setting. The Strong Man is a feature while Sue My Lawyer runs only eighteen minutes. And Langdon does not resemble a gargoyle of any type. Interestingly, Capra himself later reused the material in A Hole in the Head (1959), this time relying on Frank Sinatra’s well-known talent for physical comedy. It should be remembered that it was and is a fairly common practice for comedians to repeat and/or vary special routines, and many silent era comics reworked their most popular routines into their sound films. A gap of twelve years and the change from the silent era to sound separates Langdon’s performances, certainly a sufficient change and length of time to wait before reworking a popular routine. Silent films were rarely reissued at the time, and there was no television, video, or DVD. Capra’s previously quoted remarks on the irony of the short’s di- rector telling Langdon to speed up his acting are a result of Capra’s recognition that Langdon’s forte was slow pantomime. The real irony is that Capra clearly did not realize that Langdon probably recognized it too and was trying to maintain his artistry despite the force of a director telling him to do otherwise. Capra unknowingly undercuts his own contentions that Langdon was unaware of his talents and how to properly showcase them. Langdon’s popularity did decline but this is attributable to several events, not Capra’s leaving Langdon’s employ and Langdon’s lack of understanding of his comic persona. (1) First National was associated with Warner Bros., which was devoting itself to developing sound films. Langdon found him- self working in an environment indifferent to his work at best. The story critic Walter Kerr relates of going to a First National booker in 1927 is very telling. According to Kerr, the booker stated that First National would be dumping ‘‘the little son-of- a-bitch,’’ referring to Langdon (qtd. in Kerr 263– 64). Other accounts indicate that First National may have been intention- ally attempting to hamper Langdon’s productions and releasing schedules in an attempt to cause him to break his contract (Rheuban 186 – 87, McBride 178). (2) The creative team of Langdon, Edwards, Ripley, and Capra was dispersing. With Capra’s departure following Edward’s, half of the team was gone. The Case for Harry Langdon 147
  • (3) Within twenty-two months in 1926 – 27, Langdon made five starring features, three special short subjects, and a cameo ap- pearance in a popular feature. In addition, his earlier Sennett work was kept in constant reissue. The public may have just been oversaturated. A strong case can be made for Langdon’s awareness of his artistry and comic persona throughout his career. First he adapted to the stage, then short films, and then features. He also adjusted well to sound cinema and later was able to adapt to his increasing age while maintaining his basic comic persona. He pursued this on stage as previously noted and in films as well. Langdon’s unique comic persona was centered upon his delicate pantomime. Langdon experimented and pushed his perform- ing style to the limit, which was a minimalist and not necessarily comic pantomime. His decreasing audience may partly support the contention that some of his public did not respond well to a more ‘‘distilled’’ Langdon. A rough analogy might be that if, in 1955, Red Skelton had decided to focus on his ‘‘silent-spots’’ and curtail his other comedic activities, it seems unlikely that his popularity would have sustained itself. Despite the general belief expressed by the bulk of Langdon’s biographers and critics, there is evidence that Langdon continued to pursue his minimalist pantomime throughout his career. Three such examples are the ‘‘crying’’ scene in The Head Guy (1930), the ‘‘drink- ing’’ scene in The Stage Hand (1933), and the ‘‘prayer’’ in A Doggone Mix-Up (1938). The crying scene in The Head Guy runs for almost four minutes, and the camera does not move from its medium close-up nor is there a cut. Harry has just been jilted by his girlfriend Nancy. He begins to cry, soon with such force that he is gulping air. He talks to himself, saying he will die if Nancy does not want him. As he babbles and blubbers, he points his finger and slams his fist on the table. He picks up a fountain pen and begins to clean his fingernails, proclaiming that he would only work as hard as he did for Nancy. Then a change comes over him as he takes on a swagger and laughs, saying, ‘‘I should worry over a girl!’’ He expresses his belief that he will soon have a pretty girl—a bigger girl—maybe even a girl who smokes. This reduces him back to tears proclaiming, ‘‘That’s just it—Nancy don’t smoke.’’ 148 Ben Urish
  • As the crying continues, Harry pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and a sandwich out of his lunch box.4 Harry takes huge bites out of his sandwich, still blubbering about how he does not want to live without Nancy. He chokes, coughs, and cries into his sandwich. In the middle of a sentence about jumping into a lake, Harry pulls an apple out of his lunch box and says, ‘‘I don’t want no apple now I don’t want no apple now I’ll eat my apple after now.’’ He puts the apple in his coat pocket and the shot/scene ends. Langdon’s control of the pacing and flow of the scene is remarkable. For many the scene plays as merely strange, but to those familiar with Langdon’s performance style and goals it is a very funny, stunning, performance tour de force. Three years later we find a similar example in the Langdon scripted and directed The Stage Hand. A friend leads Harry to a secret hidden in- home bar and they begin drinking. Again in a medium shot and with few edits we see Harry perform, this time working with a partner. Just as Langdon had the ability to make us actually feel the sleepiness engulf him in a famous scene from Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926), we now feel the inebriation take hold. And Langdon not only controls his own performance and the flow of the scene but, with his interactions, that of his partner as well. A Doggone Mixup (1938) pairs Harry with a large St. Bernard. Langdon has a few miniature ‘‘set-pieces’’ in the film. One that manages to be touching and humorous at the same time is the sequence where Harry prays for the safety of his dog. It is not as long as the previous examples but still characteristic of Langdon’s delicate performing. Compare the film with the work of Charley Chase or the Three Stooges done at the same time at the same studio. Chase worked ‘‘quieter’’ than the Stooges, but even he did not manage to create such moments of tenderness in his short films. Langdon was not, as some would have it, ‘‘no longer inspired or motivated’’ in his later career (Rheuban 52). Some may argue that such scenes are not unique to Langdon or that other reasons may account for their appearance. While it is true that many comedians use set-pieces consisting mainly of uninterrupted performances, Langdon’s use of set- pieces went beyond the usual scope of the device. For Langdon, as has been shown, they were the bedrock of his comedy and performing style. Admittedly, one could cite other factors for the examples previously mentioned: bulky early sound equipment for The Head Guy, budget The Case for Harry Langdon 149
  • limitations for The Stage Hand, and quick production for A Doggone Mix-Up. But this would not explain Langdon’s use of the technique in other instances, such as the ‘‘suicide’’ scene in The Chaser (1928), the ‘‘dummy cop’’ routine in Long Pants (1927), the ‘‘sleeping pills’’ episode in Tramp Tramp Tramp, or the ‘‘finger in the bottle’’ bit in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933). Each of these sequences and many others in Lang- don’s film career (silent and sound) are made up of long takes, few cuts, and immobile cameras. Even at the end, writing and starring in low- budget features, Langdon still managed to weave comedy gold out of straw (Schelly 195 – 201). There were various directors, writers, pro- ducers, companies, formats, and venues; the only thing in common is the presence of Harry Langdon and, by certain implication, his comedic and performance sensibility. Other explanations also fail to account for why other performers at the same studios at the same time did not use set-pieces as did Lang- don. Stan Laurel, whose persona is sometimes akin to Langdon’s, came close. In fact, Langdon was hired to prepare special material for four Laurel and Hardy features from 1938 to 1940. It is reasonable to speculate that Laurel might have consciously utilized techniques that worked for Langdon because he played a Langdon-influenced character in the mid-1920s for producer Joe Rock, and in later years reportedly kept a photo of Langdon at his desk.5 Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns posits an interesting analysis of Langdon’s comic persona (see appropriate chapters). Yet, for all his insights Kerr deviates little from the Capra version. In addition, Kerr generally defines Langdon’s character as a balance of ambiguities in- volving age and sexuality, and when Langdon does not meet Kerr’s definitions, Kerr sees failure. Perhaps however Kerr’s definitions would not have matched Lang- don’s. Kerr sees Langdon’s artistic height as occurring in the films made with Capra to such an extent that he even attempts to give Capra credit for Three’s a Crowd (1927), Langdon’s first feature as a director (Kerr 281 – 82). Capra could not have worked on much more than the basic story construction of the film because he was fired before Three’s a Crowd was put into production. Because no known copies of Langdon’s last silent feature Heart Trouble (1928) exist, and because Kerr ignores Langdon’s sound output, this leaves The Chaser for Kerr to analyze as the only true expression of Langdon’s self-directorial abilities and therefore the expression of his 150 Ben Urish
  • use of his comic persona. Kerr finds the film and Langdon lacking. He uses the suicide scene as an example of how Langdon and his comic persona have come ‘‘unraveled’’ (Kerr 286). In the film, Harry believes that he has taken poison and lies down to die. But the audience knows he has taken castor oil, which often works to induce vomiting or as a strong laxative. Langdon keeps the camera on his still form until Harry quickly rises in search of a bathroom. This is obviously in keeping with Langdon’s reactive comedy and his attempts to get laughs with min- imal activity. He even covers himself with a sheet so no facial con- tortions or finger movements can evidence his dawning awareness and physical discomfort. Kerr faults Langdon for interrupting the bit with a cut. Kerr sees Langdon as being (1) on a downward artistic spiral, (2) not the creator of his own persona or even understanding it, and (3) at the end of his creative life. Kerr believes this cut to be an example of Langdon’s failure to understand his own strengths and argues that Langdon should not have made the edit. Certainly the bit would work better without a cut. But this is Langdon still discovering how to use the film medium for himself. In the same book, Kerr does not criticize Chaplin or Keaton for not achieving their zenith in their second directorial effort, and they each had a much more thorough apprenticeship than circumstances allowed Langdon. In addition, Langdon’s artistry and film career did not end in 1928. He continued to practice his craft and art for another seventeen years. Langdon is credited with the direction and/or writing of eight of his sound films (as well as writing for others as in his vaudeville days), but Kerr treats Langdon’s work in the sound era as if it did not exist and ignores it. Comments on Langdon by co-workers about his refusal to speed up his performances and Capra’s previously discussed ‘‘grotesque replica’’ story support the view that Langdon had a clear idea of his forte and that he continued to try to develop it (Rheuban 38 – 39). Langdon himself gave interviews and wrote articles that indicate an under- standing of comedy and his own talents.6 He knew how to pace his own comedy and takes responsibility for it: I’d play along at a fairly slow tempo . . . If the laughs were too few, I’d increase my speed. (qtd. in North 127) The Case for Harry Langdon 151
  • By timing is meant the haste or slowness with which a situation is built . . . the actor puts over the performance . . . and . . . is almost solely responsible for . . . success or failure. (Langdon, Breaking Into Movies 91) He understood the strengths of his own character: Systematic absentmindedness is the most comical thing imaginable . . . the four greatest stimuli to laughter are rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness, and unsociability. (Langdon, Theater 22) And he was aware of its potential pitfalls: [Comic] personality . . . is either a powerful asset or a distinct liability . . . (Langdon, Breaking Into Movies 92) Comments about Langdon in 1930: Everybody did everything they could to get him to move faster . . . he slowed right down . . . you finally get discouraged. (qtd. in Rheuban 38 – 39) Comments about Langdon in 1940: The moment you tried to speed him up . . . you were dead . . . He wasn’t funny unless he could pace himself. (qtd. in Rheuban 38 – 39) Recall Capra’s story of the two-reeler director telling Langdon to ‘‘go faster.’’ Langdon continually and consistently fought to retain what he knew was his major talent and the backbone of his unique comic persona. The supposed failure of Langdon without Capra does not account for Langdon’s pre-Capra success and Capra does not even admit the ex- istence of a pre-Capra Langdon. One could just as well make the case that the first Capra post-Langdon films failed from a lack of Langdon. Still, the fact that Capra became an important filmmaker with his own discernible style, worldview, and auteur idiosyncrasies has caused crit- ics and historians to look for ‘‘Capraisms’’ in his films with Langdon. Critic and film theorist Gerald Mast in The Comic Mind makes some of the strongest claims for Capra’s influences on Langdon 152 Ben Urish
  • (Mast 168 – 69). Mast believes Capra’s version of Langdon to the point that he gives Capra credit for being the controlling influence of Tramp Tramp Tramp, which Edwards directed, and Capra was only one of six credited writers. Mast even goes so far as to draw an absurd parallel between trucks in The Strong Man and trucks in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), stating that they are both ‘‘big’’ and therefore rep- resent ‘‘big business.’’ Mast also tries to tie Langdon’s self-directed features to Capra’s later style as if Capra had taught Langdon how to direct. If anyone had, and there seems to be no evidence that anyone did, it probably would have been Edwards’s example and not Capra’s. But Edwards, Langdon, Cap- ra, and others subsumed (or created) their directing styles attuned to Langdon’s unique pantomimic performances. This is a practice shared by virtually all successful comedy films built around the distinctive talents of a comedic performer; the performance/performing style de- termines the film. Langdon’s comedy was largely reactive in that the humor lies in his persona’s response to a situation. Mast also wishes to draw a parallel between Capra’s photographing performers from the back, or in a manner that hides their faces, with Langdon’s reactive comedy. But other directors photographed Langdon from the back—it was part of his drive to minimal pantomime—to show how much can be expressed with how little by eliminating the face and hands. An example of this is in Fiddlesticks (1926). After spending the night in a cheap hotel, Harry leaves and is walking down the street. He begins to twitch and slap himself because he is infested with some sort of a bug he picked up in the low-class lodgings. He then forces the bug to move down his pants leg and onto the sidewalk where, after ob- serving it for a moment, he steps on it. This routine is photographed from behind. Capra was a co-writer for the film. This scene and others like it bear no significant resemblance to later Capra-directed scenes where the subject’s face is hidden, such as Jimmy Stewart and his ‘‘hat fumbling’’ in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the start of the sequence where Clark Gable comes for his money in It Happened One Night (1934). Perhaps the best Langdon – Ripley – Capra collaboration in this style makes up the finale of Long Pants (1927). The audience only sees Harry in medium shots from the back as he (and the audience) watch as his ‘‘innocent girlfriend’’ (actually an on-the-lam gun moll) completely The Case for Harry Langdon 153
  • trashes a dressing room and savagely beats a rival woman senseless. The humor stems from the audience’s awareness that Langdon has gone into a state of shock, which is conveyed by his immobility, and its awareness of his comic persona. It is a scene no other comic could successfully duplicate, although Jack Benny’s famous ‘‘Your money or your life!’’ radio instance is also dependent upon the audience being completely familiar with the comic’s persona and a seeming lack of reaction. Certainly Capra influenced Langdon’s career, and his films with Langdon, at least The Strong Man and Long Pants, bear formative Capra traits. At this point however, Capra’s creative goal was to help Lang- don’s comic performances in slapstick films. Any ‘‘vision’’ of Capra’s was secondary to that goal at best. It seems reasonable to assume that Capra’s evident formative traits (if there are any) are no more than whispers of the Capra yet to come, and though perhaps interesting to note the strain to hear them is unworthy of what they have to say. Capra was merely one (although an admittedly important one) of sev- eral who provided Langdon with material to perform and helped create the venue in which to perform that material, and his association with Langdon brought Capra from the ranks of short-subject gagman to feature film writer/director. Langdon owed far less of his career to Capra than Capra did of his to Langdon. Langdon was a unique talent who had a productive career of over forty years. During that career he wrote several vaudeville sketches for himself and others, and after twenty years in vaudeville he entered films and became one of the biggest stars of the silent era, perhaps the only comedian of his time to be considered Chaplin’s superior. Cir- cumstances prevented him from developing his art as far as he might have done, yet he did keep developing it. But what he did achieve is still available for us to marvel at and enjoy. His delicate minimalist pantomime has never been bettered and infrequently equaled. Frank Capra’s version of Langdon’s career and talent does not match the factual record. Unfortunately his version of events has become the canon and despite occasional insights by a handful of scholars Capra’s version is still cited as if it were proven fact, and as a result Langdon has been largely reduced to one of the great cautionary tales of the silent era. Common sense alone should be enough to seriously question the story’s validity and we have much more at our disposal. We have Langdon’s articles and interviews, the reviews of his vaudeville per- formances, and most importantly we have his films. Langdon never got 154 Ben Urish
  • a chance to defend himself and his work so his work must now speak for itself and for him and it says that Frank Capra was wrong. Appendix A: The Credited Langdon/Edwards/Ripley/Capra Collaborations (Note: In addition to performing, Langdon contributed gags, story ideas, and on the later features, produced and directed. He did not always receive screen credit.) Shorts (1) The Luck O’ The Foolish-1924 (Edwards) (2) The Hansom Cabman-1924 (Edwards) (3) All Night Long-1924 (Edwards) (4) Feet Of Mud-1924 (Edwards) (5) The Sea Squawk-1925 (Edwards) (6) Boobs In The Woods-1925 (Edwards/Ripley) (7) His Marriage Wow-1925 (Edwards/Ripley) (8) Plain Clothes-1925 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (9) Lucky Stars-1925 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (10) There He Goes-1925 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (11) Saturday Afternoon-1926 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (12) Fiddlesticks-1927 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (13) Soldier Man-1927 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) (14) Marriage Humor-1933 (Edwards) (15) Counsel on de Fence-1934 (Ripley) (16) Shivers-1934 (Ripley) (17) The Leather Necker-1935 (Ripley) (18) Cold Turkey-1940 (Edwards) (19) Carry Harry-1942 (Edwards) (20) Piano Mooner-1942 (Edwards) (21) Blonde and Groom-1943 (Edwards) (22) Defective Detectives-1944 (Edwards) (23) Snooper Service-1945 (Edwards) (24) Pistol Packin’ Nitwits-1945 (Edwards) The Case for Harry Langdon 155
  • Featurette (1) His First Flame-1927 (Edwards/Ripley/Capra) Features (1) Tramp Tramp Tramp-1926 (Edwards/Capra) (2) The Strong Man-1926 (Ripley/Capra) (3) Long Pants-1927 (Ripley/Capra) (4) Three’s A Crowd-1927 (Ripley) (5) The Chaser-1928 (Ripley) (6) Heart Trouble-1928 (Ripley) Sound Films Written and/or Directed by Harry Langdon in Which He Appears, Not in Collaboration with Edwards, Ripley, or Capra (1) The Stage Hand-1933 (Short: story, director) (2) House of Errors-1942 (Feature: story) NOTES Special thanks to Theresa Capra for her tolerance and graciousness, and to James T. Coon for his insights regarding Frank Capra’s autobiography. 1. See McCaffrey’s 4 Great Comedians and Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. Brownlow at least allows that the complete story may not be out. 2. Did Langdon work in films before this? David Quinlan lists Langdon as a performer in a 1918 serial The Master Mystery, but does not give his source (Quinlan 174). 3. This volume is unpaginated. 4. There was a well-known stage routine made popular by Bert Wheeler at the time involving crying, a handkerchief, and a sandwich. Many copied it. Langdon does not, a wry joke on the audience’s expectations and a tribute to Langdon’s creative invention. Wheeler does a variation of it in Diplomaniacs (1933). 5. See Half a Man (1925) for an example of a very Langdon-like Laurel. Laurel’s high regard for Langdon is mentioned in nearly every Laurel and Hardy volume since the 1970s. 6. They may have been ghostwritten, but their similarity indicates that if Langdon did not write them directly, he was interviewed for them or oversaw their composition. Sources Cited Agee, James. Agee on Film Reviews and Comments. New York: Beacon Press, 1958. 156 Ben Urish
  • Brownlow, Kevin. The Parades Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1968. Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. New York: Macmillan, 1971. Dreiser, Theodore. ‘‘The Best Motion Picture Interview Ever Written.’’ Spellbound in Darkness. Ed. George C Pratt. Connecticut: Graphic Society Ltd., 1973. 182– 94. Hanson, Patricia King, executive editor. Meet Frank Capra A Catalog of His Work. Los Angeles American Film Institute, Undated. Kaufman, J. B. ‘‘Re: Langdon.’’ E-mail to the author. 5 Mar. 2006. Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York: Knopf, 1975. Langdon, Harry. ‘‘The Comedian.’’ Breaking Into Movies. Ed. Jones Charles Reed. New York: Unicorn, 1927. 91 – 94. ———. ‘‘The Serious Side of Comedy Making.’’ The Theatre 46 (December 1927). 22, 78. ———. ‘‘Harry Langdon.’’ Films in Review 43.3/4 (March/April 1992). 97 – 99. Leary, Richard. ‘‘Capra and Langdon.’’ Film Comment 8.4 (November – December 1972). 15 – 17. Maland, Charles J. Frank Capra. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Maltin, Leonard. Great Movie Shorts. New York: Crown, 1972. Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1973. McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra the Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. McCaffrey, Donald. 4 Great Comedians Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1968. National Vaudeville Artists’ 1923 Souvenir 7th Annual Benefit Book. New York, NVA: 1923. North, Jean. ‘‘It’s No Joke To Be Funny.’’ Photoplay 28 ( June 1925). 86, 126 – 27. Quinlan, David. Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Comedy Actors. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. Rheuban, Joyce. Harry Langdon the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene. Rutherford: New Jersey Associated Press, 1983. Schelly, William. Harry Langdon. New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1982. Sennett, Mack with Cameron. Shipp. King of Comedy. New York: Dou- bleday, 1954. Ben Urish is a culturologist specializing in media, humor, and popular culture. He is the primary author of The Words and Music of John Lennon (Praeger-Greenwood, 2007) and the primary editor of the abridged version of Leslie White’s ‘‘lost’’ opus Modern Capitalist Culture (Left Coast, forth- coming, 2008). He currently teaches at Michigan State University. The Case for Harry Langdon 157
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