Silents are Golden: The One-Of-A-Kind Harry Langdon
For a long time, most silent comedians were very much of the same “type.” Their appearances might vary and some had more distinctly “dimwitted” personalities than others, but practically all of them had a similar level of easily excitable, jumping, pratfalling energy. Exaggerated reactions and lots of racing around matched the fast-paced mayhem and chase scenes that were the norm in the 1910s. By the 1920s comedies were settling down, but it took a highly unique and deliberately slow-paced performer to popularize a very different kind of comedy. Enter the talented Harry Langdon, considered by some as one of the “Big Four” of silent comedy behind Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.
Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1884, the baby-faced Langdon had been in show business since he was a teen, performing in traveling medicine shows and stock companies. He married fellow performer Rose Musolff in 1903 and the two would eventually enter vaudeville where Langdon developed a sketch called “Johnny’s New Car.” Created at a time when automobiles were just becoming a part of everyday life (and were often the butt of jokes), the sketch featured meek husband Harry and shrewish wife Rose in their new car, which of course breaks down. Harry attempts to fix the unwieldy machine (a wooden break-apart replica of a real car), but as soon as one part is fixed another either falls off, shatters, or explodes. The Langdons performed the sketch thousands of times over the years, modifying and perfecting it along the way, working their way up to high-class vaudeville houses.
Initially skeptical of the longevity of films, Langdon finally accepted a contract from Mack Sennett in 1924. His deliberately slow style and innocent, befuddled manner were a big contrast with Sennett’s usual brand of energy. The studio’s writers were skeptical about the new hire–as Frank Capra remembered: “…Here was this child-like character who took five minutes to wink. Nobody wanted him. But Sennett kept saying, ‘You guys all know what he’s got. He’s got something.’”
That “something” Langdon certainly had, although it took a while to shine. Starting with Picking Peaches (1924), his first few films had him sharply, if rather conventionally, dressed and going along with Sennett’s usual style of slapstick. But in time, Langdon’s comedies started to revolve around his more unique style of slow blinks, delayed reactions, and cheerful social awkwardness.
With his white pancake makeup and dark liner, Langdon looked like he’d escaped from a comic strip–or perhaps a more apt description is “wandered away from a comic strip and gotten lost.” He adopted a signature dented hat, ill-fitting coat and trousers, and silk necktie he tied like a shoelace. While other comedians might give an exaggerated reaction when startled, Langdon would stand still and then jump a second too late. While most comedians would run from danger, Langdon was more likely to blink uncomprehendingly and then give danger a well-meaning wave. Writer Walter Kerr probably described Langdon’s enigmatic, childlike persona best: “A five-year-old and not a five-year-old. A twelve-year-old and not a twelve-year-old. A full-grown functioning male and not a full-grown functioning male. Langdon was and was not all three at once, with nary a seam showing.”
Once Langdon was allowed to be fully Langdon, the results were some of the best comedy shorts of the 1920s. One favorite is Saturday Afternoon (1925), about a henpecked Harry whose friend talks him into sneaking away for a date with two pretty girls. The costar was Vernon Dent, a heavyset comedian who often played villainous characters. Dependable Dent and fluttery Langdon were well-matched onscreen and would partner many more times in the future.
Langdon was becoming wildly popular, and his style was influencing those around him. Stan Laurel is probably the most obvious example, having started in comedy shorts as the usual energetic go-getter but noticeably slowed his performance style by the end of the ‘20s and added Langdonesque blinks and childlike reactions. Buster Keaton also started playing more with long takes and hesitant movements – and that’s just to name two well-known personalities.
By 1925 it was a given that such a popular comedian would go into features, and Langdon became a producer at his own company, the Harry Langdon Corporation. His first feature-length comedy was The Strong Man (1926), also the first feature directed by Frank Capra, and it was followed by Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), and Long Pants (1927). Capra later insisted that Langdon had started getting a swelled head and wanted to add more Chaplinesque pathos to his films, in ways that Capra felt wouldn’t fit his character. In any case, Capra did get let go, and Langdon assumed the director’s chair.
His directorial debut was Three’s a Crowd (1927), a charming story about Harry taking in a young woman who’s about to have a baby (despite owning very little himself), and it was followed by the less successful The Chaser and the lost Heart Trouble (both 1928). By this point his popularity was waning, perhaps because so many Langdon films had been flooding the market, and he would return to comedy shorts.
Langdon’s transition to talkies was rocky since his speaking style was often oddly rambling and monotone and some of the quirks of his childlike character could seem uncomfortably strange in “normal” life (as opposed to silent comedy’s slightly undercranked world). He did adapt, however, appearing in dozens of sound shorts throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s and some low-budget films, eventually specializing in henpecked husband characters. By this time the resemblances between him and Stan Laurel were pronounced enough that when Laurel went through a contract dispute with Roach, Langdon stepped in to star alongside Oliver Hardy in Zenobia (1939).
Langdon passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944, leaving behind his wife Mabel (he had married two more times after divorcing Rose in 1928) and ten-year-old son Harry Jr. While he became an obscure figure in cinema in the decades after his death, in more recent years his films have been beautifully restored. Happily, they seem to be gaining the enigmatic little comedian new fans every year, and a new appreciation of his stature in silent comedy.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.