Monday, March 5, 2012

Silent type

Long before The Artist won Best Picture, Harry Langdon was making his mark on the silver screen

Guest post by Imogen Reed

Think about the era of silent comedy. 

Who are the names that immediately spring to mind? Chaplin? Keaton? Lloyd? Laurel and Hardy? Of course. 

What about Harry Langdon?

Often forgotten and wrongly left off this list of illustrious performers, Langdon was a skilled and adept performer – more than capable of holding his own in slapstick film roles whilst maintaining a “sad clown” image that could turn a celluloid moment around and melt your heart.

Born in Iowa in 1884, Langdon didn’t have the impoverished upbringing of Chaplin – he was the son of a painter and decorator who managed to maintain a very large family, he was lucky in that he never had to rely on handouts or special offers from the stores in his town. But he did have the insatiable love of performing and theatre right from the get-go. He would (much to the chagrin of his mother) enter amateur dramatic competitions in local theatres, for which he won numerous prizes. No matter how hard his parents tried to steer him away from this path, he kept creeping back to it.

Finally in his early teens he ran away to join the rather wonderfully named “Dr Belcher’s Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show”, but soon returned, with the acting bug still firmly in his grasp. This was what he wanted to do; this was the journey he was destined for.  So he did what many of the silent greats did: He carved out a little niche for himself in vaudeville. Performing with his first wife, Rose, Langdon honed an incredibly successful act which the couple toured with for many years – they worked both together and as solo artistes in their own right to great acclaim.

In terms of his film career, Langdon was by the standards of the time a latecomer to the medium, only making his first films in 1923 in a series of short two reelers, working for Sol Lesser under the direction of Alf Goulding. Eventually signing up with the legendary Mack Sennett later that year the initial films he made were possibly not suited to the skills he had gained through years in the theatre and touring. See this clip from Picking Peaches.) In 1924 he really made his mark with a short film entitled The Luck O’ The Foolish, and from this film onwards he managed to find his footing as  a loveably naïve, childlike character – someone who was imbued with the grace of Chaplin, the Keaton gift of perfect slapstick and Lloyd’s head for heights and stunts. 

Most artists eventually left the control of Mack Sennett – and Langdon was no different. He wanted to make the move away from two reelers into longer, more expressive films with more of a concerted storyline. This he did, in 1926 with probably one of his more famous outings Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, in which he gets to showcase all of his talents. It’s a delightful little story, in which he falls in love with a local girl called Betty – and ends up mistakenly entered into a cross-country walking contest. The film sets up some lovely little moments of slapstick – in particular, the one showcased in the clip above in which he is on the edge of a precipice hanging onto a fence panel. His face, so expressive and so childlike, is a study in exactly how silent films should be acted. Comic perfection.

Landgon made two other really notable pictures, The Strong Man and The Long Pants. But he was now in a difficult working relationship with Frank Capra, and the films he made with Capra, while good, were often over-produced and over budget. Langdon was unhappy with these problems and became a victim of them when Capra was fired over Long Pants. Langdon moved on.
In 1929 Langdon made the move to the studios of Hal Roach (most famous for his work with Laurel and Hardy). The talkie era proved a frightening time for many actors and actresses who were worried that acting styles would have to change and also more pressingly whether their voices would actually be recordable. The added challenge of having a microphone placed in your line of view (or sometimes directly over the top of your head) meant restricted movement and sometimes stilted conversation. Langdon’s voice was described as “falsetto,” the result of poor treatment for an illness he’d suffered as a child. Although he took on many small roles for Hal Roach and continued to work in the movies for a good few years after silents became extinct, he never reached the heights he had done in the times of his slapstick heyday. In this clip from one of his films Tied For Life, released in 1933, you can see how his style altered with the advent of microphone technology. It was more or less the end of his career.

Langdon died in 1944.  He was just 60 years old. His contemporaries, Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin all lived into the 1960s and 1970s (long enough to see their work revered and relived in all its glory, and to enjoy a second chance at fame). Langdon did not. Of course, the three aforementioned gentlemen deserve every bit of the reverence; their work is unsurpassed in its brilliance.  It’s just unfair that the work of Harry Langdon has never had the proper revival it needed.  His childlike insouciance, babyish features and impish little smile fitted into a niche that other actors couldn’t match. It’s time this wonderful actor and performer was given the recognition and merit he requires.