Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy best as a familial biography
Review by Doug Gibson
It’s been a long wait for a new biography, “Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy,” (University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Author Gabriella Oldham began work on the project generations ago, with Langdon’s wife, Mabel, who died in 2001. There was always talk of a biography from Mabel — and indeed she is listed as a co-author, although the writing belongs to Oldham, a researcher of the silent film genre.
As noted early in the biography, an attempt is made to go beyond Langdon the showman and explore the businessman, the artist, the family man. And also his more “mature” years, after a career fall, that Oldham tells us produced a more humble man, able to plead for loans from friends, be closer to his family, and still thrill over a steady paycheck in front of or behind the camera. As Oldham notes, the book cover photo of Langdon (above) underscores her wish to present him in this serious light.
To be frank, the biography’s main strength is in its familial tale of Harry and Mabel. The best parts of the book start when the pair are matched for a date. Their life anecdotes, clearly garnered from Mabel’s recollections, convey a tale of two people who needed each other. He, impoverished by two divorces, worked hard for her and she, without a yen for the film industry, offered her husband a happy home and eventually a son, Harry Langdon Jr., who writes forward to the biography. (Harry Langdon Jr., now in his 80s, has enjoyed a successful career as a photographer.)
It’s bittersweet that Langdon had to die with his son only 10 years old. As Oldham notes, having a wife and a son together with him was probably the happiest era of his life. Particularly enjoyable are accounts of Langdon, Mabel and baby Harry heading across to Australia where Langdon appeared in the play “Anything Goes.” From there the family would eventually arrive in England where Langdon would act in one film and direct another.
There was a cheerful spontaneity to the family. When Harry wanted to make an effort to be on the stage in the East Coast, Mabel quickly agreed to sell the house and leave, even if it meant leaving the piano with the new owners. The best parts of the book are accounts like this, including the very early years of Harry as a youngster in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he would put on plays, try to get into playhouses for adults and eventually, by his early teens, be a traveling performer.
Although I’ve read often of Langdon’s death at age 60 in 1944 — he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a long day of soft shoe dancing for his final Columbia short, “Pistol Packin’ Nitwits,” the drama of the lingering days before his death is captured. As Oldham notes, he first thought he had a toothache. His descent must have been rapid because he was soon bedridden and unable to speak to his son or wife. Even then, as director Ed Bernds’ notes reveal, his contemporaries were surprised he died.
I rarely am moved to tears, but Mabel’s recollection of telling Harry Jr. that his father had died deeply touched this father of two sons, one deceased, the other 12. “He turned around, went to his room for over an hour, then came out as if I hadn’t said anything at all.” My heart breaks for the boy who began processing deep grief in that hour.
So, how does “Harry Langdon: King of Comedy” compare with two other biographies of Langdon, “Little Elf,” by Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde, and William Schelly’s “Harry Langdon: His Life and Films.” This new book finishes third. There is, however, valuable information. The vaudeville years and his life with first wife, and acting partner, Rose, are covered quickly, but success with Mack Sennett and First National, followed by the fall, and the on-again off-again successes in sound cinema are not ignored.
The Frank Capra/Langdon drama is interesting because Oldham, while certainly appropriately critical of Capra’s less-than-truthful later observations of Langdon (the guy never seemed to get over being fired), also seems to infer that Langdon did indeed disrespect his gag man-turned-director. Anecdotes include Langdon’s future second wife, Helen Walton, arrogantly sitting in Capra’s director’s chair, and an unpleasant scene where Langdon humiliates Capra for trying to get the star out for an extra shot in a scene.
Langdon had a swift fall at First National, and apparently it was ugly enough that Hal Roach verbally told Langdon he’d take none of the First National nonsense at his studio. Indeed, Langdon only lasted a season with Roach before moving to movies and shorts at other studios. He later worked a lot with Roach’s studio behind the scenes and even starred with Oliver Hardy in “Zenobia.“
Oldham is very critical of the Langdon-directed “Three’s A Crowd” and “The Chaser,” both flops. Langdon was also critical of “The Chaser” and the lost “Heart Trouble,” his final First National film (and one film I dearly, desperately want found). Personally, I think the films Langdon had control over, “Long Pants,” “Three’s A Crowd,” and “The Chaser” are more unique, cultish films than the hits, Harry Edwards’ “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” and Capra’s “The Strong Man.” But there’s no denying that the first two films, fine movies, were more appealing to audiences.
Langdon was trying to take risks, to explore facets of his Little Elf character. Certainly a darker perspective was influenced by collaborator Arthur Ripley, but Langdon was the star, the director, the man responsible for the money. He lost First National several hundred thousand dollars with the final four films. I do agree with the assessment that Langdon was trying too hard to perfect individual parts of his movies at the expense of the overall success of the whole film. Audiences wanted underdog stories of the Elf overcoming adversity and getting the girl. They didn’t want tragic and loveless endings for the Elf. Neverthless, “Three’s A Crowd” is a surreal, dreamlike set masterpiece and it’s an outrage that it’s never aired on Turner Classic Movies.
Langdon was far more successful professionally than many might be aware of in the sound era. He made at least 30 shorts (several are lost), a lot of movies, including the big-budget “Zenobia” and “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” was on the stage a lot (as was Buster Keaton, another sound-era success), was a gag man with Roach, worked overseas, and was still headlining shorts and appearing in B movies until he died. Though most of his shorts were with Columbia, his best overall work was with Educational Pictures, with independent producer/director Arvid E. Gillstrom, of Mermaid Pictures.
These shorts, and some can be found at YouTube, are very strong. They often co-feature Langdon’s close friend, Vernon Dent, who had worked with him since his silent Sennett days. Two I highly recommend are “The Hitchhiker” and “Knight Duty,” but about all the Gillstrom films are great. (One can see Charles Chaplin’s “City Lights” street sets in Gillstrom/Langdon/Dent’s “The Big Flash.”) Eventually Paramount released Gillstrom’s shorts, which was a boon for Harry and Dent, who were almost becoming a team. But Gillstrom died, so the series ended and alas, today the Paramount Gillstrom shorts are lost. Most feature Harry and Vernon in roles similar to what Laurel and Hardy might do. One can only hope these Paramount shorts are one day discovered. What we do know is that there were no serious future efforts to co-star the two stars, although they appeared in films together often.
Late in his life, Harry, with good humor referred to his Columbia shorts, heavy on slapstick, as ‘O Ouch O” comedies. Some are still pretty good. I enjoy “Tireman Spare My Tires,” with Louise Currie, “To Heir is Human” with Una Merkel, and “Pistol Packin’ Nitwits,” with El Brendel, with whom Harry made several shorts. Harry also starred in a few low-budget comedy programmers for Monogram and PRC, the best of which is “Misbehaving Husbands,” produced by Jed Buell, who ironically was the first filmmaker to sign vaudeville star Langdon almost 20 years earlier.
I’ve spoken very positively of the new biography. Overall, I like it. But there is one flaw that must be corrected in a Kindle version or future editions. I discovered several factual errors that are embarrassing. I’ll mention a few here. (The fact I found several just through my read of the book worries me that there are other errors I did not catch). I urge University Press of Kentucky to fix this. Errors include:
Writing that Vernon Dent was a co-star in “Three’s A Crowd.” It was Arthur Thalasso.
Claiming that Raymond Rohauer, the admirable film scholar, bought and restored “Plain Clothes.” He didn’t.
Writing that “His New Mamma” is a lost film. It is not. I watched it yesterday.
Writing that “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” was a big monetary hit. It was not. It’s a fine film but it went way over budget. The film was a major financial flop.
The Langdon short “Skirt Shy” is compared to “Saturday Afternoon” because Harry is dressed as a woman. I believe the author intended to use “The Chaser” and not “Saturday Afternoon.”
These are errors easily corrected, like typos in a newspaper, and they shouldn’t take away from what is an enjoyable biography worthy of a spot in a bookcase. Like my other Langdon books, I’ll read it often, but I hope the errors are corrected.
Langdon was a marvel of an actor; a minimalist genius, able to bring laughter and pathos to the smallest gestures and eye glances. He appropriately joins Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the four greatest silent comedy stars. His silent shorts, with Dent, “Saturday Afternoon,” and “All Night Long,” are among the best made. This biography has many photos of Langdon, his family and peers, as well as much of his artwork; he was a talented artist. (In fact, I just got a copy of The Harry Langdon Scrapbook, with lots of photos and text from Langdon Jr. It was released last fall and we will review it soon at Plan9Crunch)(This review is cross posted at http://planninecrunch.blogspot.com/2017/04/harry-langdon-king-of-silent-comedy.html.