Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Harry Langdon: Silent Comedy's Forgotten Genius

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 11:11:00 AM
DVD releases of the films of Harry Langdon should help establish him as one of the great comedians of the silent era.
DVD releases of the films of Harry Langdon should help establish him as one of the great comedians of the silent era.
Buster Keaton's The General and F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh have been re-released by Kino in new two-disc editions.
Buster Keaton's The General and F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh have been re-released by Kino in new two-disc editions.

Comedians were a dime a dozen in the days of silent film, but great comedians were precious and few. The judgment of history has left us maybe a half-dozen top-notch talents, and just a few of those names are much remembered today. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are the heavy hitters of course, the names that immediately come to mind, with perhaps Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, and a few others lagging not so far behind in name recognition. Still others, like Laurel and Hardy, did well in silent films but are today best known for their sound work. 


But the name of Harry Langdon still languishes in relative obscurity. The consistency and quantity of his best work may not quite place him among the ranks of the big three, but he is awfully close. Or at least he would be, if his work was more widely seen and appreciated.  


For years, the three great films that marked his peak—The Strong Man (1926), Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926), and Long Pants (1927)—have been available on DVD in the form of a single disc from Kino entitled "Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown." His tenure at the top was brief, but with few other films readily available for viewing over the years, that meteoric streak across the comedy horizon was difficult to contextualize and fully comprehend. But hopefully a pair of recent DVD releases will help to resuscitate Langdon's reputation, presenting the bookends to that brief, shining moment—the rise and fall of a great clown.  


Kino has released the next two comedic features in Langdon's oeuvre, the films that mark the comedian's descent from his peak. And this disc, combined with the release earlier this year of All Day Entertainment's "Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection," a four-disc set consisting primarily of Langdon's earlier films, finally establishes a body of work worthy of study and appreciation.  


Most of the discussion and commentary of Langdon's career stems from two sources: Walter Kerr's insightful analysis in his landmark book The Silent Clowns, and from the autobiography of director Frank Capra. Kerr, with his graceful prose and articulate deconstructions of the form, has become the de facto authority on the comedian, with virtually every discussion of Langdon centering on Kerr's distillation of the essence of the comedian's work. 


It was Kerr's view that Langdon "existed only in reference to the work of other comedians." The form had to exist already, and "with that form at hand—a sentence completely spelled out—Langdon could come along and, glancing demurely over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking, furtively brush in a comma." 


By 1926, Kerr wrote, audiences were well versed in the mechanics and traditions of screen comedy. The major comedians delighted viewers by their unique approaches to the form, by the idiosyncratic ways in which they both met and flouted those conventions. But Langdon more often than not simply defied those conventions altogether, usually by doing...nothing. In situations where another comedian would have leapt into action, or at least turned tail and run, Langdon just stood there. As the world moved around him, he stood watching and blinking, allowing us to observe the slow thought process that left him hilariously ineffectual. 


Kerr: "[L]angdon's special position as a piece of not quite necessary punctuation inserted into a long-since memorized sentence means that he remains, today, dependent on our memory of the sentence. It is not even enough to know the sentence. We must inhabit it, live in its syntax in the way we daily take in air, share its expectations because they are what we expect, if we are to grasp—and take delight in—the nuance that was Langdon. You would have to soak yourself in silent film comedy to the point where Lloyd seemed a neighbor again, Chaplin a constant visitor, Keaton so omnipresent that he could be treated as commonplace, and the form's structure as necessary as the roof over your head in order to join hands with Langdon once more and go swinging, fingers childishly interlocked, down the street. That sort of immersion can never really take place again, except perhaps among archivists, and we shall no doubt continue to have our troubles with Langdon. It seems likely, however, that our reacquaintance with silent film comedy is going to develop a good deal beyond what it is now; the closer we come to feeling reasonably at home in it, the larger will Langdon's decorative work—all miniature—loom." 


Kerr's analysis of Langdon's downfall is that the comedian lost control of the delicate ambiguity that defined his screen presence—the mercurial blend of man and child, of sexual adult and pre-sexual nymph. "The ambiguity dissolved," wrote Kerr, as Langdon no longer walked the line but stepped right over it, even going so far as to portray himself as an actual child, at one point peering out from a baby carriage. The character was no longer ambiguous and intriguing; it was grotesque and absurd. 


Frank Capra, on the other hand, was a bit less nuanced in his take. It was Capra's view that Langdon did not fully understand his own character, and that once he dispensed with the directors who had hitherto handled him—Capra among them—he was simply at a loss. Of course, Langdon had been a successful comedian for years in Vaudeville, and had even managed to carve out a space for his quiet comedy amid the bluster and bombast of the knockabout Sennett studio—all suggesting that Langdon had a very complete understanding of his talents. Despite Capra's self-aggrandizing tone, there may be some truth in his account. But the better explanation may be that Langdon, in his desire to establish himself as an independent man, as an auteur in the style of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, simply overreached. His understanding of his character was probably quite solid; it was more likely his inability to sustain a high level of quality while acting as writer, director, producer and star that did him in. And the fickleness of the audience must also be factored in; it is possible that the public simply lost interest in him, their fling with Langdon revealing itself as more of an infatuation than the sustained love affairs they experienced with Langdon's rivals. 


The All Day Entertainment set explores Langdon's evolution from Sennett slapstick to the comedian's full flowering as the curious man-child of 1926-27. But it also includes a few films from Langdon's later years. Kino's initial release put the three best Langdon features on one disc. This second edition showcases the two rarely seen follow-up features. Three's a Crowd (1927) and The Chaser (1928) have been deemed by history to be lesser efforts, to have set in motion Langdon's steep decline, but now at least we can make up our own minds. 


And yet it's not an easy task, for as Kerr said, an appreciation for Langdon is predicated on a thorough understanding of the form as it existed in 1927; to understand Langdon, we must first steep ourselves in the idiom of silent comedy, in the quirks and mannerisms and formulae and framework of the great films of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and the myriad other comedic talents of the day. There are worse forms of homework. 



Three's a Crowd. 1927. 61 minutes. 

The Chaser. 1928. 63 minutes.  



Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection 



Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown 

The Strong Man. 1926. 84 minutes. 

Tramp Tramp Tramp. 1926. 97 minutes. 

Long Pants. 1927. 88 minutes. 




Also new to DVD: 


The General 


Kino first released the comedies of Buster Keaton on DVD in a 10-disc set, "The Art of Buster Keaton," in 1995. The set contained all of Keaton's work as an independent filmmaker, from the moment he graduated from his apprenticeship with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1921 until just before signing a disastrous deal with MGM in 1929—all 19 two-reelers and all 10 features.  


Kino has decided it's time to update at least one of those releases, and has done so with Keaton's celebrated masterpiece The General, releasing the Civl War comedy in a two-disc set. 


This new version contains all the film-specific extras from the box set version, but contains a number of new features as well, not the least of which is a much-improved transfer of the film, taken from a 35mm print struck from the original camera negative. The result is an image that is cleaner, crisper and more detailed than any previous DVD release.  


But in terms of extra features, the major improvement is the inclusion of three scores for the film. Gradually DVD companies are realizing that the inclusion of multiple scores is the best way to provide value for silent film releases, allowing viewers the opportunity to experience the film several different ways. Some Kino releases have been marred by mediocre or inappropriate scoring, from the synthesizer-laden scores of some of their silent horror releases to the eclectic modern score on the company's version of Keaton's Sherlock Jr. These scores would be fine amid several alternatives, but to limit the viewer to just one option essentially dictates how the film must be experienced. And as viewers become more attuned to the history and tradition of silent film, they more likely to demand scores that are period-appropriate, using music and instrumentation authentic to the era in which the films were produced.  


The new release of The General addresses this by providing an orchestral score by Carl Davis and the Thames Silents Orchestra; a Wurlitzer score by Lee Erwin; and a second orchestral score by Robert Israel, taken from Kino's original DVD release. 


Other features include a tour the train itself, a tour of the filming locations by author John Bengston, "The Buster Express," a montage of Keaton's train gags throughout his career, and introductions to the film by Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, taken from television presentations. 


The General. 1926. 78 minutes. $29.95. 



The Last Laugh 


German director F.W. Murnau created some of the most celebrated films of the silent era —Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), Tabu (1931). His work was varied, unique and highly influential. One his greatest achievements, The Last Laugh (1924), has just been re-released on DVD by Kino in a new two-disc set. 


The Last Laugh is one of the landmarks of German Expressionism, a tour de force of imagery and pathos. Emil Jannings plays a hotel doorman unceremoniously stripped of his position and uniform, robbing him of his primary source of pride and self-worth. He is demoted to washroom attendant, sentenced to spending his days passing out towels in a basement restroom. Jannings conveys the weight on the character's soul by transforming himself from a strapping, gregarious, barrell-chested blowhard to a forlorn and despairing old man, stoop-shouldered and plodding. 


The tale is famously told without the use of dialogue and intertitles, with Jannings and Murnau and photographer Karl Freund conveying plot and character entirely through acting, through direction, through camera movement and photographic effects.  


The film is more character study than narrative. Murnau, one of the exemplars of German Expressionism, uses the subjective camera to express the emotional state of the central character as he suffers defeat, humiliation, despair and, finally, resurrection. Lighting, angles and even set design are employed as metaphor: The hotel's revolving door, for instance, quietly echoes the doorman's plight, showing the speed and coldness with which a man can be swept into warmth and comfort or ushered quickly into coldness and gloom.  


Is a man's worth based on societal standing? Is his position more important than the man himself? To what extent is a man responsible for his own downfall? Murnau does not provide easy answers, and he does not oversimplify his tale by making the doorman a noble innocent. The porter himself was pompous and arrogant, when many are pleased to see him brought down a peg. His family and neighbors are contemptuous of him and snicker at the fallen man. Murnau does not give us villains and heroes, only humans, everyday people at work and at play in a universe that may be stylized in presentation but that remains remarkably real in its ambiguity and moral relativity.  


The ending of the film has always been disconcerting. Murnau finally gives us an intertitle after demonstrating for an hour and a half that intertitles aren't necessary, and then tacks on an upbeat conclusion. Is it a parody of the Hollywood happy ending? Is it a concession to an audience that just sat through so much bleakness? Is it an indulgence in fantasy, granting the character revenge and poetic justice, if only for a moment? A good argument can be made that Murnau should have simply let the film end a few minutes earlier. 


Kino's two-disc set comes with a 40-minute making-of documentary which sheds light on Murnau's techniques, including his highly effective use of forced perspective, which would also characterize his first American production, Sunrise. The film is accompanied by a new recording of Giusepppe Becce's original 1924 score. 


The Last Laugh. 1924. 90 minutes. $29.95.