Monday, March 10, 2014

Harry Langdon in the Sound Era


A new YouTube channel, the host of which calls himself Johnny Flattire, is furnishing the general public with the sound films of Harry Langdon.  The sound and picture quality is not the best, but it was a thrill for me to have access to many films that I had never seen before.  I have decided today to select a number of scenes for discussion.       

Director Arvid Gillstrom did well with Langdon in two of these films, The Big Flash (1932) and Tired Feet (1933).  The Big Flash includes a series of vignettes.  At one point, Harry does his best to avoid falling into the embrace of a vamp.  This was a preoccupation for Harry in his silent films.  

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Later, Harry has trouble operating a machine gun, which is reminiscent of a scene from Langdon's Soldier Man (1926).

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Langdon continues to fall back on old material when he recreates a Long Pants routine in which he has to distract a police officer.

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I like this scene in which Harry gets caught in the middle of a shoot out.  The joke is that Harry's hat flies into the air each time that the cop or robber fire their gun.  The scene also includes a sidewalk elevator gag that was used often in silent films.

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I wrote about the classic water pump routine here and here.  Langdon biographers Chuck Harter and Michael J Hayde found that Langdon made use of this routine in his vaudeville act, Johnny's New Car.  Langdon performed variations of the routine in two of his sound shorts.  First, he puzzles over an uncooperative water faucet in Tired Feet.

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Nine years later, an older and wiser Harry struggles to best a tricky water faucet in Tireman, Spare My Tires (1942).

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These two scenes reveal the major changes that Langdon made to his comic persona during his Columbia series, which ran from 1934 to 1945.  Pre-Columbia Harry tries to make peace with the faucet, giving it a friendly pat, and eventually walks away resigned and befuddled.  Columbia-era Harry, who functions as a more conventional character, engages in a prolonged battle with the faucet and walks away frustrated and wet.

The climax of Tired Feet involves Vernon Dent forcing Harry to dress as a woman in a scheme to rid their camp of tramps.

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Langdon opens Sue My Lawyer (1938) with an amusing bit in which he accidentally mistakes a ball of rubber bands for an apple and tries to take a bite out of it.  It isn't as funny as Stan Laurel eating a wax apple in Sons of the Desert (1933), but it got me to laugh nonetheless.

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Unfortunately, I cannot offer praise for much of what follows the rubber band scene.  The problem is that Columbia producer Jules White didn't allow Langdon to do what Langdon did best.  Langdon had his own distinctive style, but you see little of his style in his Columbia series.  It often looks as if Langdon wandered in off the street and got caught up in a Three Stooges comedy.  Buster Keaton had the same problem at Columbia.  Don't get me wrong, I love the Stooges.  But it was wrong for the Stooges' style to become the house style of Columbia's short comedies.

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Midway through Sue My Lawyer, Langdon recreates his classic Strong Man routine in which he carries an unconscious woman up a flight of stairs.  New to the routine is a dime-store corkscrew, which has been introduced to enliven the action.  The corkscrew pokes through Harry's coat pocket and it jabs the woman in the backside every time that Harry lifts his left leg to ascend the stairs.  This sort of comic mayhem, though suitable for the Stooges, only succeeds in distracting attention from Langdon's pantomime actions and emotional expression, which is what made the routine funny in the first place.  The fact is that the corkscrew gets more screen time than Langdon.

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But, still, the scene is subtle compared to the comedy found in many other Columbia shorts.  The next time that Langdon grappled with an unconscious woman for Columbia, writers Monte Collins and Elwood Ullman made the point to enhance the comic action with an explosive current of electricity.

To Heir is Human (1944)

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This is a familiar Commedia dell'arte routine used in Sue My Lawyer.

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In the long history of comedy, no actor ever worked his forehead as vigorously as Monte Collins works his forehead in this scene. 

This film provided one other routine that I enjoyed.

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This cracking walnuts routine had been used by other comedians in the past.  Lloyd Hamilton and Dick Sutherland performed the routine in a 1924 Educational comedy, Good Morning.

In Cold Turkey (1940), Langdon furnished the mirror routine in reverse.  Instead of mistaking another person for his reflection, he mistakes his reflection for another person.

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This is the strangest version of Langdon's classic balloon routine.

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Langdon performed a slightly better version of the routine a year later when he starred in the PRC feature Double Trouble (1941).

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Later in Cold Turkey, Harry is looking to slaughter the turkey for dinner, but Monte Collins gets the mistaken impression that Harry is an axe murderer out to slaughter him.

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The first gag of A Blitz on the Fritz (1943) has Harry getting stuck in a tire. Believe it or not, this gag is as funny as the film gets.

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The scriptwriter, Clyde Bruckman, borrowed the film's climax from a 1919 Harold Lloyd comedy, From Hand to Mouth.  The scene worked well with Lloyd but was hardly suitable for Langdon.

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Langdon was paired with British comedian Charley Rogers in a low-rent attempt by PRC to create their own version of Abbott and Costello.

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PRC's House of Errors (1942) starts out with Harry struggling with mechanical devices, including a car horn and a vacuum cleaner.

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Later, a criminal tries to use a fishing line to snatch a set of keys away from Harry.  He snags onto several items apart from the keys, reeling in a pocket handkerchief, a rug and Harry's hat.  Seeing these objects move across the floor or float into the air leads Harry to believe that he is being plagued by a poltergeist.  The scene reflects a direct Abbott and Costello influence.  Lou Costello was spooked by a moving candle in Hold that Ghost (1941) and now Langdon is spooked by a moving rug.

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Comedy stalwarts Monte Collins and Vernon Dent help out in a scene set in a flophouse.  The scene starts out with Langdon acting opposite Collins, who plays the proprietor of a flea circus.

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Next, Harry runs into problems with Dent, who falls asleep on his hand.

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Here is an amusing routine performed by Langdon in another PRC feature, Double Trouble (1941).

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Blonde and Groom (1943), which was written by Langdon, has a morbidly bizarre ending in which Harry is injected with a giant hypodermic needle and drained of more blood corpuscles than he can spare.  Harry is so anemic that, when his wife hugs him, he crumbles to dust.  The fact that the scene drags on for close to 3 minutes makes it especially gruesome.

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I recently wrote an article for Tim Greer's Harry Langdon fan site, Feet of Mud.  The article can be found at http://feetofmud.com/2014/02/03/death-lust-betrayal-and-long-pants/.  I strongly recommend that you also take a look at the site's excellently illustrated filmography.


2 comments:

  1. What a great article! I always found it fascinating how comedians borrowed gags and recycled their own throughout their career.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Any hope we'll ever get decent quality versions of any of these on dvd?

    ReplyDelete