The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
always seems to be the case with these biographies, I start by saying that it’s
tragic the stars of cinema’s Golden Era have not been given duly remembered.
Harry Langdon has remained far more obscure than his contemporaries despite his
enormous success during his heyday. Often called Baby Face, Harry is not
remembered the way Charlie Chaplin is. Looking at their respective films, there
is an undeniable genius in Chaplin’s work – as there was in
Buster Keaton’s –
that is not as consistently prevalent in Harry’s. But this takes away from the
fact that audiences at the time were not looking for technical perfection, or
for “cinema as art”, the way we might today. They were looking for laughs and
loveable performers. For a long time, they found that in their beloved Harry
Harry was born on June 15, 1884 in Council Bluffs,
Iowa – a fitting name for his home town, perhaps? At the tender age of 12, this
future comedian did what only the most adventurous children dream of doing: he
joined the circus. This led to years spent doing medicine shows, circus
performances and also vaudeville, which was all the rage at the time. The latter
was the perfect venue for his comedic experimentation, and he spent close to 20
years honing an act he called “Harry’s New Car” in one town after the next.
His hard work paid off when, in 1923, Harry was
discovered by none other than Mack Sennett, the enormously successful comic of
that era. Harry was already 40 at the time, but he had apparently just reached
his prime. Not that his career was wanting: he already had a lifetime’s worth of
success as a live performer, and easily could have continued in that vein. But
movies were just hitting a zenith in popularity and creative growth in the early
1920s, and Harry eagerly became part of the zeitgeist: he would find in the
movies yet another perfect vehicle for his talents.
Sennett put Harry into the hands of writers to help
him develop more full-fledged material from the character he had crafted over
the years, and a slate of top directors came on board to breathe life into these
efforts. Harry may have been middle-aged, but still had a cherubic baby-face
perfectly suited to the pantomime style he employed in the films he made with
directors Harry Edwards, Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley.
Comedy was one of the genres taken to great heights
in the silent era (largely the two-reelers prevalent at the time), and Harry fit
beautifully into the mix that already included, other than Sennett, the likes of
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Harry’s “schtick” consisted
primarily in playing highly hapless, innocent and indecisive characters, and for
this, he became a huge star. Most of his approximately 100 films were actually
made during this “early” period; titles include Smile Please, The
Cat’s Meow, The Luck of the Foolish, The Hansom Cabman (all
1924), Boobs in the Wood, Plain Clothes, The White Wing’s Bride,
Lucky Stars (all 1925), and Fiddlesticks and Ella Soldier Man
(both 1926). One of his most sensational films from this “Sennett era” that had
people talking was Saturday Afternoon (1926), in which he plays a miffed
husband bent on telling off his wife.
In 1926, Harry decided to form his own company, the
Harry Langdon Corporation, and he immediately got a six-film deal with First
National, a big studio at the time. Harry clearly had a great reputation,
because he was able to snag Edwards, Capra and Ripley from Sennett – it would
probably be pretty accurate to say that this period marked the third incarnation
in Harry’s career, and what an incarnation it was. His first film with his new
company was Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (on which he acted as producer
as well as star), starring a very young Joan Crawford; the film did extremely
well critically and with audiences.
He followed up this triumph with The Strong Man
(1926) and Long Pants (1927), both directed by Frank Capra, who has gone
down in history as one of the great filmmakers of the Classical Hollywood era.
Unfortunately, success does sometimes have its pitfalls, and Harry became
arrogant enough to fire Capra under the assumption that he could direct just as
well. While a comic genius, Harry just didn’t have the directing chops he needed
to get to the essence of what made his characters funny, and how to parlay that
into good storytelling. As a result, his next three films were not only
forgettable, but badly conceived, edited, and really not nearly as funny as
people expected when they went to see a Langdon film.
Harry was just about ruined. He had made his six
films for First National, and his popularity had waned; he could no longer
afford to keep his company going. Of course, this was also the transition period
when sound films were gaining headway. Harry wasted little time; in 1929 Hal
Roach gave him a contract and did eight films with Harry. They weren’t what Hal
was hoping they would be, and soon Harry was out of a job. He continued in this
vein, however, making film after film despite the fact that he seemed to have
lost that magic touch that made him so famous at the beginning of his film
career. A decade after he began making pictures, at age 50, Harry signed with
Columbia – apparently his legend was enough to sway studios to keep working with
him. Because of this, Harry managed to keep working in the ‘talkies’ era, an
area in which many of his contemporaries had failed.
While at Columbia, Harry largely made short films
that were re-workings of his earlier, more popular films. He also distinguished
himself – yet again – by writing for Laurel and
Hardy back over at the Hal Roach
Studio. In fact, the comic-duo phenomenon was going so well on that front that
Harry sought out someone he could pair up with – Charley Rogers was one of them
– but this didn’t really pan out. Harry was a lone rider through and through.
Thankfully, his ego had calmed down and he had been humbled by the realization
that he was indeed fallible as a person and as a comic, so up-and-comers were
only too happy to work with this once-groundbreaking actor. Meanwhile, he was
developing a new niche for himself as a performer by doing good character roles
in yet more short films for Columbia and another company, Monogram.
Harry died in 1944 of a brain hemorrhage. Far from
the top of his game, Harry-the-man, in popular imagination, had come to resemble
Harry-the-character – sad, pale, doe-eyed and always in an ill-fitting suit. He
worked long, he worked and played hard, he soared and he crashed; one would do
very well to chart the story of the Hollywood industry in the first half of the
20th century through the winding road that was Baby Face Langdon’s
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of
Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.