Review and observations by Doug Gibson
During the years 1929 and 1930, Harry Langdon starred in eight talkie comedy shorts for Hal Roach Studios. A screen shot from the film, “The Shrimp,” is above. Thanks to the “Frank Capra Fibs” legacy, Langdon’s Roach shorts have been breezily derided and scorned for decades. The truth is, five of the six films I have seen (two have lost sound discs) I find better-than average examples of early-early sound comedy shorts.
And “The Shrimp,” I believe Harry’s penultimate film with Hal Roach, is a gem. I consider it a classic within its admittedly small genre, sound comedy shorts prior to the early 1930s. Co-stars include an already-established comedy star, Max Davidson, a budding star, Thelma Todd, and a reliable heavy of the genre, Jim Mason. I’ve read that Hal Roach Studios was a fun place for actors to work, and the cast seems as if it’s having some energetic fun.
The plot involves Harry living in a boarding house. He’s weak, timid and easily bullied. He does admire the daughter of the house (Nancy Drexel), and she seems to like him, urging him to stand up to his tormentors. Harry, in a halting sing-song, toddler-like voice, one that was used in his vaudeville appearances and some films during his entire career, says he will stand up to them.
However, dinner is a disaster as Harry is viciously and sadistically bullied by Jim (Mason), and his girlfriend (Todd). Most of the other boarders unfeelingly laugh at his plight. The cruelty does allow the talented Harry Langdon to create a lot of pathos. One particularly funny scene is Harry trying to get at least one bite as food is passed around the large table.
We soon find out that Harry works, or volunteers, as a product tester for a goofy, well-known scientist (Davidson). In a highly publicized event, courtesy of the experiment, Harry assumes the personality of a rambunctious dog. Harry quickly runs away from the event and returns to his boarding house with a whole new attitude, and aggression.
As mentioned, these are early talkies and somewhat crafted in the style of a silent film. I think the same movie, without changes, could also have been as effective as a silent with subtitles. I wonder if “The Shrimp” played older movie theaters as a silent?
I will not give away too many details of the hysterically funny climax of the film where Harry settles scores with, among others, the lazy father of the boarding house, and in a big fight, with Jim the bully. It is fast-paced and funny, and the credit goes to Langdon, who despite no changes in his body or even tone of voice, become head of the household, and “the boss,” through the sheer brute will and tenacity of, say, a bulldog. In the last scene, Harry’s focus is taken away by the presence of a cat, that, of course, needs to be chased. For a second, Harry eyes a telephone pole with interest, a nice subtle joke, the type of mild, off-color humor Langdon used in the late ’20s, particularly in his penultimate silent feature, “The Chaser.”
Readers can find “The Shrimp” on the Internet if one searches thoroughly. I’m not going to give a link for two reasons. One, I don’t want it lifted, and two, Kit Parker Films (also known as Sprocket Vault Classic Films) is releasing via DVD, in April, Harry Langdon at Hal Roach: 1929-1930. It will have all eight films I have read, and that must mean the two without sound discs will be included. There will also be a Spanish version of one of the Roach shorts, which will be fascinating, and other extras. To my knowledge, this may be the first factory release of any of Langdon’s talkie shorts. I am extremely excited about this release. I have already pre-ordered it.
This review is cross-posted at the blog Plan9Crunch here.