A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.
Silent film great Harry Langdon died at sixty of a cerebral hemorrhage three years before Christmas day in 1944. He died broke; and Mabel, his third wife, with the help of a friend, managed to secure employment immediately at the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
Except to a small group of professionals in the film industry, Langdon had, tragically, become a dinosaur. Obituaries flubbed the details of his life: they claimed he was married five times (he was married three times), they made up the story he had a biological daughter of another mother (he had one son from his most recent wife, Mabel), and they roundly dismissed his value as a film star.
Yet five years after his death, Langdon’s reputation received renewed recognition when Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James Agee, in “Comedy’s Greatest Era” (Life magazine, September 5, 1949), (1) designated Langdon “one of the four most eminent masters” (281) of silent film, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.
In 1960, a Hollywood “Walk of Fame” star was dedicated to Harry Langdon and placed smack in front of the former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. And in 1999, the “Council Bluffs Arts Council” (in Langdon’s Iowa home town) honored its native son by transforming a 1.5-mile segment of Old Highway 375 into a street divided by a landscaped median and naming it Harry Langdon Boulevard” (292). In the May-June 1997 issue of Film Comment, Frank Thompson once again referred to Langdon the “fourth genius” of silent film comedy, along with Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and now dubbed them collectively as the “Mount Rushmore of Silent Comedy” (292).
Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Marcel Marceau have all cited Harry Langdon as a significant artistic influence. Most recently, film scholar Gabriella Oldham along with Mabel Langdon, have offered still another tribute in the form of an outstanding biography – Harry Langdon, King of Silent Comedy, published by The University Press of Kentucky (2017).
Oldham has written works about John Cassavetes, Buster Keaton, and Blake Edwards, and has published interviews with film editors. Mabel, Harry Langdon’s third wife, had been working tirelessly with film distributor, Raymond Rohauer, to restore and revive Langdon’s films. While the two of them were also working on a Harry Langdon biography, their manuscript, according to Oldham, lacked “critical perspectives (3). It’s clear such perspectives are what Oldham brings to this nominally co-authored work.
Harry Langdon was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1884, the second son of sign painter William Wiley Langdon, and Lavinia Lookingbill, a housekeeper, according to census records. Harry apparently had a sense of his destiny early, inasmuch as he listed his profession on these records as “actor” (8). His parents also resigned themselves to a career that, early on, entranced Harry.
They were oddly accepting when, at only twelve, Harry took off with the visiting Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show. By this time in the nation’s history, it was fashionable to romanticize American Indian lore intensely enough for the show to peddle mystical ailment cures like “licorice, burdock root, aloe, horehouns cloves, camphor, myrrh, and sassafras” (14). Langdon contributed enough playful antics to earn himself bed, board, and seven dollars a week.
In the meantime, while still a teenager, he managed to find a way to balance his life on the road as a vaudeville performer with occasional affectionate visits to his family back in Council Bluffs. And although his father would invariably try to make his second son a permanent worker in his sign-painting business each time he returned home, Harry would once again be off and running back toward the vaudeville stage. Strictly on the evidence of the Oldham biography, adolescence did not yet exist as an American institution. Harry, of necessity, found himself on his own when making financial and career decisions.
What’s especially remarkable about this phase of Langdon’s career is, to sustain a live audience’s attention, and to keep himself economically viable in vaudeville, he had to create for himself a repertoire of memorable physical gestures. His hilarious, and ultimately renowned, physicality is what enabled him to segue gloriously into his second career in silent films.
As children of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we’re inured to talkies. As such, it’s difficult for contemporary audiences to appreciate how an actor can distinguish themselves with small gestures. But Langdon’s ingenious ability with so much as his eyes helped him move gracefully from footlights to film:
Perceptive newspaper reviewers had discerned this trait during Harry’s stage performances, and it was a feature Harry knew how to exploit. It would become a routine: once his eyes spoke, his body reacted accordingly to orchestrate the uncanny number of meanings behind the look. His “eye acting” was so valuable to his work that an item in the Post Enquirer reported that the comedian had insured his “eloquent orbs” for $50,000 in case “Langdon’s eyes” lose their voice. (48)
Langdon received adulation for his early work under the famous moviemaker, Mack Sennett, and went on to work with other noted directors to much acclaim. Except for the re-appreciation of his work (discussed above) which includes the current Oldham biography, it’s entirely understandable Langdon’s work would eventually become lost to contemporary film aficionados. Partly this was due to the virtually monstrous artistic and economic success of Charlie Chaplin in America at a time when Langdon was just getting his sea legs. Another reason had to do with the innovation of talkies. Not every silent comedy star adjusted well to them.
But a third reason clearly had to do with the malicious publicity frequently given Langdon by one of his directors, Frank Capra. Capra, known to us principally through his sentimental films (It’s a Wonderful Life) is the last person in Hollywood to whom we want to think of as malicious. Yet according to Oldham, Capra’s autobiography as well as interviews that continued long after Langdon’s death, claim that anything worthy in Langdon’s performances are what Capra created for him, as though Langdon were Capra’s ventriloquist dummy. A negative portrayal of him by Capra is well documented in other sources:
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.” (Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2)
We’re too peremptory at this late date to categorically dismiss the film technique that Langdon perfected in vaudeville and silent films. His eye control and facial expressions alone were enough to catapult him to anybody’s list of top film stars. And it’s not outlandish at all to consider comics like Jackie Gleason and, more recently, Will Ferrell his artistic heirs. Under the circumstances, the Oldham biography of Landon is, at once, a historic tour de force and a labor of love.
- This piece has been collected in the very helpful Notions of Genre: Writings on Popular Film Before Genre Theory, ed. Barry Keith Grant and Malisa Kurtz (Austin: U Texas P), 2016.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.