Author: James L. Neibaur.
Harry Langdon is one of the great stars and clown comedians of the silent era who is all but forgotten today. He is not remembered in the way that Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton are remembered. Yet his image is iconic – the pale faced clown with the pierrot sad face, effete mannerisms and big buttoned jacket and always played the innocent man-child who gets himself into innocent amorous scrapes. His career took a downward spiral in the dying days of silent cinema and continued to make some forgotten quickies in the 1930s and early 1940s. Neibaur begins his book with an introduction that states, as is commonly known amongst silent film enthusiasts, that his career was killed by the man who co-wrote many of his films and went on to direct two of his most famous films, Frank Capra. Capra became known for many great classic comedies and light hearted films of the 1930’s and 40’s including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) who even had a verb named after him: Capraesque. In his autobiography, ‘The Name Above the Title’ Capra took the credit for making Langdon famous and wrote about this in the press at the time. Despite the damage that this caused Neibaur refutes this and argues that this story is not as black and white as his films attempting to re-establish a new look and re-assesses the films of Harry Langdon, within the pages giving an affectionate re-evaluation of this now forgotten artiste. He re-addresses Langdon’s career by looking at his silent career as a whole revealing a much more complex story and individual.
Many silent comedians made a poor transition to sound including Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton; indeed Chaplin and Lloyd delayed making talking pictures for many years and the myriad of films that Keaton made were generally very poor and inferior (Neibaur has also written a book on Keaton’s sound films). In fact Laurel and Hardy are among the few whose sound films are vastly superior to their silent ones.
Langdon’s origins, like many silent stars of the time stem from vaudeville before going on to work for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, once the breeding ground of many career making silent clowns such as Chaplin, Keaton, Ben Turpin and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle where Langdon’s deliberately slow, more mannered style was in contrast to the hectic comedy Sennett expected. After a few years of two and three reelers Langdon moved to First National where he made his best work, most notably Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and The Strong Man (both 1926) and took with him many of his best supporting actors and crew including regular writers Capra and Arthur Ripley. Following his fall out with Capra Langdon suffered a few misses before the talkies finally took over and Langdon found he no longer had the success he previously had and signed up with Hal Roach, the home to Laurel and Hardy where he made ever cheaper two reelers with Columbia and Warner Brothers before he died in 1944. Over the years Langdon’s star faded further and is almost unheard of today and it is great that Neibaur’s book re-addresses this. It is often perceived that Langdon’s downfall came about due to a mixture of his arrogance and his well publicised fall-out with Capra. After these two aforementioned films Langdon made one further film with Capra, Long Pants (1927) before their relationship finally deteriorated. Indeed Long Pants was poorly received by critics before his star finally waned with the emergence of sound. But there were other complexities and factors that contributed to this; he may well have been arrogant, difficult and a poor budget keeper as a producer but Long Pants was a direction forward from the usual formula for Langdon’s man-child character. The star was now over 40-years-old and it was becoming more difficult to pull this off convincingly and was moving away from gags and, with the aid of another long term collaborator, Arthur Ripley, Langdon was exploring more quirky and even surreal gags and situations (this film was lauded by Chaplin and the Surrealists).
James L. Neibaur has published several books on silent comedians (most published by Scarecrow Press) such as Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and gives the same credit to Langdon, defending his career while at the same time criticising the films he doesn’t believe are strong enough or warrant defense. As a result we are able to see the development of the clown’s persona stemming from his vaudeville days in what is possibly one of the best reads on Langdon’s career. While we don’t get a great insight into his private life or personality, we do get a strong analysis on his career and its ups and downs. Neibaur also makes the point that Langdon developed from an actor in shorts to features in a quicker space of time than many other bigger names of the period. Unfortunately for Langdon this occurred in the last stages of the golden age of silent cinema before sound called time on many of the greats with even Chaplin staving off the Little Tramp from talking until 1940. Each short/feature is given a chapter, similar to the presentation Neibaur laid out in a similar book he has written on Chaplin in ‘Chaplin at Keystone’ (also reviewed in Filmwerk) except here he has chosen not to organize the films according to their release date but in the order that they were made allowing him to demonstrate how Langdon’s persona was developing (Sennett held back and released Langdon’s last films a couple of years after they were made). There are few books as readable, well illustrated or as engaging as Neibaur’s books on Harry Langdon.