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Harry Langdon . . . the forgotten clown
video review by Gary Johnson

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Most surveys of silent comedy confine themselves to Chaplin and Keaton, sometimes including Harold Lloyd as well, allowing many other popular silent-era comedians to fade into obscurity. One such star, Harry Langdon, is definitely deserving of greater attention.

Harry Langdon and Alma Bennett in Long Pants.

Kino on Video)

A new series of videos from Kino on Video allows us to experience Langdon's finest feature films--The Strong Man, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, and Long Pants--and reveals Langdon was indeed one of the finest comedians, arguably deserving mention in the same breath as Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

Digitally re-mastered for video from mint-condition prints by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, Kino's new series, "Harry Langdon . . . the forgotten clown," gives us the opportunity to see three vintage Langdon feature films and three Langdon shorts. The feature length comedies come from Langdon's zenith--1926 to 1927, Langdon's short reign as one of the finest comedians. In 1925 Photoplay reported that Harry Langdon was the comedian of choice of Hollywood comedians: "Ask Harold Lloyd who gives him his biggest celluloid laugh. Ask any star. They will all say Langdon."

Working closely with Frank Capra, who either directed or wrote all three feature-length comedies in this series, Langdon created a boyish adult character who was an eternal optimist. With a strange little wave--that might start out as a salute, break into a sideways, fey twist of his hand and then turn into a scratch of his head--Langdon was always mystified. But he was also always hopeful. With a dented bowler hat, a tight jacket (with only the top button buttoned), a loosened tie, a small pot belly, and over-sized pants with cuffs that pooled around his ankles, Harry drifted from one encounter to the next, never sure where he was headed, but always looking for acceptance, like a puppy looking for a master.

Harry Langdon serving time in
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.

Kino on Video)

Throughout all his travails, Harry played a relatively gentle and benign character who consistently stumbled into messes and somehow always survived, usually smelling like a rose. For example, in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp he participates in a cross-country walk: at one point, Harry gets separated from the other participants and he tries to climb over a fence to catch up with them. As he drops over the other side of the fence he finds himself dangling hundreds of feet in the air, at the top of a huge cliff. But does Harry notice the drop off? Of course not. With his sweater and belt caught on a nail, he tries to pull himself free (of course the nail is the only thing keeping him from plunging to his death). Finally he notices his plight and he starts pulling out other nails and hammering his sweater to the fence. (Harry's pockets are often filled with unlikely items, such as the boat oar he pulls out of his pants in The Strong Man.) But he pulls out so many nails that the fence falls over. Harry then rides the fence down to the bottom of the cliff, putting him ahead of the other race contestants. He gets up, scratches his head, and plods on toward his goal. (This scene is reminiscent of Harold Lloyd's acrobatics in Safety Last.)

Harry Langdon in
The Strong Man.

(©1997 Kino on Video)

However, Harry's comedy usually is relatively quiet. In another scene from Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Harry gets thrown onto a chain gang. The guard orders him to pick up a sledgehammer and join the other convicts breaking up rocks. Harry grabs a little hammer instead from the pile of hammers. The guard orders him to drop the hammer and pick up a sledge. In the ensuing flurry of motions, Harry somehow ends up with the guard's rifle. He drops that too and it fires. In the turmoil, Harry emerges with the little hammer again. He totters over to the rock pile and begins tapping rocks no bigger than his fist.

Harry might seem childish, but in all these movies he's love struck. In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, he falls in love with the woman in a billboard advertisement. In The Strong Man, he plays a Belgian soldier who falls in love with his American pen pal and ventures to America to find her. In Long Pants, he falls for a sexy vamp who deals "snow." And in all cases he must endure incredible pains to win (or simply find) his true love. His love might seem chaste, but occasionally he'll give a sly little wink, or a mischievous raise of an eyebrow, that suggests he might actually be a randy little guy.

The three tapes in Kino's "Harry Langdon . . . the forgotten clown" set are filled with wonderful comic routines. You'll find an hilarious scene where an ill Harry means to smear camphor rub on his chest but ends up smearing limburger cheese instead. You'll find a wonderfully anarchic scene where Harry is forced to play a circus strong man for an audience of rowdies and he ends up firing a canon as the audience storms the stage, destroying the theater in the process. You'll find a marvelous sequence where Harry loses his fiancee's wedding ring and finds it embedded in the tire of a passing car: he pulls out a small knife and begins jabbing the tire (slashing the tire to ribbons in the process). When he finally gets the ring, he grabs the car's jack and presents it to the car's owner.

But of course, the best evidence is the movies themselves. I strongly recommend you try out all three tapes in this set. It's a toss up whether to give the strongest recommendation to The Strong Man (with also features the wonderful short "His Marriage Vow") or Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (which features Joan Crawford as the object of Harry's affections). Langdon's Long Pants should be placed in a different category. It's one of the strangest movies ever made, but it's well-worth watching (or owning) as well. In Long Pants, Harry is still wearing short pants (like a little boy) when the movie opens, but he leers at women from the attic window. As soon as his parents give him his first pair of long pants, Harry gets moonfaced over a sexy con-woman and decides he's going to marry her. When she gets thrown in jail instead, he decides to marry his childhood sweetheart, but then he reads about the con-woman's jail break and decides he must get rid of his fiancee. On their wedding day, he leads her into the forest, intent on killing her! If you haven't seen any Harry Langdon movies before, Long Pants isn't the video to start with. Go for The Strong Man or Tramp, Tramp, Tramp first.

These videos serve a great role by helping to restore some well-deserved attention to Langdon. Langdon's star only burned briefly. After his partnership with Capra dissolved and he took complete control over his films, Langdon's movies became uneven. But for these three films, Langdon was one of the finest comedians in the history of Hollywood.

"Harry Langdon . . . the forgotten clown": The three videos comprising this set are available from Kino on Video. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, we suggest you check out the Kino Web site:


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