Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection
Reviewed by James L. Neibaur

The Handsome Cabman

The Handsome Cabman

Produced by David Kalat for All Day Entertainment, www.alldayentertainment.com and distributed by Facets Video, www.facets.org.

Disc One (1924): Picking Peaches, Smile Please, His New Mama, The First 100 Years, The Luck o' the Foolish, The Hansom Cabman, and All Night Long

Disc Two (1924-1925): Feet of Mud, The Sea Squawk, Boobs in the Wood, His Marriage Wow, Plain Clothes, Remember When, Lucky Stars, and There He Goes (surviving extract).

Disc Three (1925-1927): Saturday Afternoon, Fiddlesticks, Soldier Man, and His First Flame. Plus Bonus extra: Catalina Here I Come, starring Eddie Quillan, Langdon imitator.

Disc Four (1933-1935): Knight Duty, Hooks and Jabs, and Love, Honor and Obey (the Law). Plus bonus extra: Lost and Found, an original feature-length documentary on the life and films of Harry Langdon. 

Opinion about Harry Langdon is divided among film critics and scholars. Many concur with Walter Kerr’s assertion in his book The Silent Clowns (1975) that Langdon belongs in the coveted fourth spot alongside the undisputed silent comedy triumvirate of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Others, seeking to explain his comparatively brief turn in the spotlight, from 1924-1927, insist that Langdon was semiskilled, merely the creation of talented writers and directors, and of limited intelligence. Making its appearance on this contested turf, the new four-disc DVD set, Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection offers a strong case in support of Langdon as deserving a firm and lofty position among the silent screen’s finest comedians.

Langdon’s negative reputation in some quarters derives in part from the comments of his one-time collaborator Frank Capra in his autobiography The Name Above The Title, in which the filmmaker recalls Harry as impatient, uninspired, and limited in scope. While this assessment has since been effectively refuted, some still believe Capra’s claim that he, Arthur Ripley, and Harry Edwards were instrumental in the formation of Langdon’s screen character. There are also those who fail to appreciate Langdon’s shy, bewildered, hesitant child-man, or his relaxed pace, his inclination to allow the action to pause as his character stands center frame and ponders. In a world of comedians with flailing arms and blatant facial expressions, Langdon stood out as a quieter, subtler funny man. Audiences of the 1920s responded favorably to his persona, quickly catapulting him to superstar status. Film scholars who are dismissive of Langdon’s achievement may well be speaking from an inability to absorb and savor his method of presentation. In any case, because Lost and Found gathers every existing short comedy that Langdon made from 1924-1926—including such consistently brilliant films as Luck o’ The Foolish, The Hansom Cabman, Saturday Afternoon, and All Night Long—it gives any and all interested cinephiles an opportunity to sort out questions about Langdon’s legacy for themselves.

The baby-faced Langdon seemed younger than his forty years when he joined the Mack Sennett studios in 1924 after decades on the vaudeville stage. His first films—Picking Peaches and Smile Please (both 1924 and appearing on disc one in this package)—are clever and funny, but Langdon had not yet established his unique style, which likely first appeared on screen in Shanghaied Lovers, Flickering Youth, and The Cat’s Meow. These films exist as fragments or not at all. In the next short on the box set’s first disc, His New Mama, Langdon’s sixth film, the outlines of his noted screen character begin to take shape. It is unfortunate that the lost films are not available to provide for us a precise picture of how Langdon’s original and unforgettable screen persona evolved.

By the time he appeared in the films on disc two of this package, including such timeless classics as Feet of Mud and His Marriage Wow, Langdon was completely established as the bewildered, hesitant child-man whose quest for gratification was characterized by his naivete and lack of understanding. There is a wonderful scene in Feet of Mud where Harry wrestles with a dummy whom he believes to be an actual man. After he threatens, via title card, to knock the “man’s” block off, the dummy’s head goes flying. Langdon’s reaction perfectly underscores his approach to slapstick comedy. He stops, stares, ponders what has occurred, offers a worried look, tentatively approaches the severed head, carefully lifts and examines it, and finally realizes that he has been fighting with a mannequin. The brilliance of this scene is in Langdon’s reaction. Most comedians of the time would have reacted slowly at first and built up to more blatant gestures. Langdon never does. His actions remain understated. And when he does finally take in that his adversary is a dummy, we do not witness his relief. The picture cuts away before he can react fully. When it cuts back to Harry, he is in another place. The previous scene has ended.

Is this scene funnier or more effective because it is slower? Is its decidedly minimalist approach somehow more gratifying? Is it better because it is different? According Langdon’s admirers, in a word, yes. And, indeed, Langdon’s comedic defiance of what was then considered the norm displays an innovative search for an alternative to the standard gag. The Harry Langdon filmography, especially his short films from this period, are filled with such moments, making this DVD collection essential to even the most cursory appreciation of silent screen comedy.

Virtually every extant silent short in which Langdon appeared from 1924-1926 has been collected on this DVD set. Along with the aforementioned short films, Langdon’s initial feature-length production, His First Flame, is also included. A few of the films are only fragmentary; some others are marred by poor quality. Most of the films, however, have been salvaged by careful restoration and look astonishingly good, and they trace a convenient historical time-line of Langdon’s career.

His First Flame concludes disc three, for it was at that point, 1926, when Langdon left Sennett and made features for First National Pictures. The success of Langdon’s initial First National productions – Tramp Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants – was enormous. Sennett, in fact, withheld some of his Langdon productions from release (including His First Flame), offering them to theaters after Langdon’s stardom had reached its zenith a year or so later.

By the time Langdon started directing himself in the 1927-1928 First National features Three’s a Crowd, The Chaser, and Heart Trouble, his massive popularity had come to an end. Why? There are many theories, including that audiences had lost interest in his brand of comedy and that his own obstinacy about his work got in the way of success. The latter is unlikely, and it is usually coupled with another myth, that Langdon’s career was over once talking pictures hit, and he was wallowing in poverty-stricken obscurity by his death in 1944.

Langdon, in fact, remained active into the talking-picture era, and a handful of sound shorts from this period can be found on disc four. Among them, Knight Duty and Hooks and Jabs are amusing low-budget efforts for Educational Pictures, and Love Honor and Obey (the Law) is a historically interesting industrial film promoting Goodrich Tires. Langdon wrapped up his career at Columbia pictures, whose studio shorts department is best known for its Three Stooges series; Columbia is where Buster Keaton also sought refuge when his career was at low ebb. While no longer the superstar he had been in the Twenties, Langdon worked regularly to the end of his life. His influence on future generations was extended by television, as the collection demonstrates by including Langdon footage used on the mid-twentieth-century television shows Funny Manns and Comedy Capers, offering a nostalgic look at how children of the early 1960s were introduced to silent comedy via television bowdlerizations programmed alongside Saturday morning cartoons.

The Langdon collection features an original documentary, titled Lost and Found, and a press kit for the long lost feature Heart Trouble, as well as some rare home movies from the mid-1930s. An accompanying booklet that features a variety of essays from film historians and archivists includes a fascinating discussion of the musical accompaniment of the Langdon films. The set also includes the only existing footage of Langdon before Sennett (from the 1923 Sol Lesser production Horace Greeley, Jr.), some of his guest appearances in other shorts, and an eerily imitative post-Langdon Sennett comedy with the now justly forgotten Eddie Quillan as an ersatz, ineffective Harry clone. Perhaps the most interesting material in the booklet deals with the significance of Langdon’s characterization, including its effect on the Stan Laurel screen persona.  

The footage of Langdon and the special features on this DVD set are dense and rewarding. An absolute must for anyone with an interest in the rich history of motion pictures, the films and informative extras contained herein may effectively restore Harry Langdon’s reputation as one of the silent screen’s funniest and most creative performers and filmmakers.—James L. Neibaur

James L. Neibaur is a film historian and professional educator who has written seven film books and hundreds of articles including over forty essays in The Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2