The following passage kicks off the chapter on comic legend Harry Langdon in Smileage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter, the invaluable reference tome written by film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts:
All right…that’s it—hey, you! Yes, you—come here! It’s time for a heart-to-heart, mano a mano. Now I know there’s a lot of Langdon haters out there (yes, you over there—don’t try to hide, I see you!). They’re all over, hiding in the corner, underneath the dustbin, some of them are nice people, mean well, nice to dogs and children, and I’ve smiled politely to them while they blather on about how they’ve tried but they just don’t like Harry Langdon or Harry Langdon creeps them out in some way or whatever nonsense but finally, enough is enough! The fact is folks, that a number of you just don’t get Harry Langdon and it’s not him, it’s you, you poor saps! Perhaps it’s something you’re just born with, or without. Perhaps it’s something with a little therapy you can overcome. We all have our likes and dislikes; I think the World can be divided between the people who like The Fatal Glass of Beer and those who don’t. The Ritz Brothers have always seemed to me like the triple cloning of the same spastic and the three of them cancel each other out—but some of you actually seem to like them so who am I argue…
Before I continue, I should like to clarify the following:
1) I love The Fatal Glass of Beer (“My Uncle Ichabod said, speakin’ of the city, ‘It ain’t no place for women gals, but pretty men go thar.’”).
2) I don’t “actually seem” to like the Ritz Brothers—I do like the Ritz Brothers. (Those of you wanting to file a lawsuit…operators are standing by.)
3) I love Harry Langdon—a man of incalculably incredible comedic talents—very much. In fact, just recently I watched him in both Zenobia (1939) and All-American Co-Ed (1941) and I give a hearty thumbs-up to his antics.
I begin this blog post in an admittedly unorthodox manner because I felt it was necessary for a further understanding of the DVD collection I’m reviewing today. Mr. Roberts, in tandem with Kit Parker Films, produced the Sprocket Vault collection Harry Langdon at Hal Roach: The Talkies 1929-1930, which became available for Harry’s fans this past April 14. Described as a “bet-you-never-thought-you’d-see-this-on-DVD” release by Richard at the beginning of the commentary tracks he provides for each of the eight shorts, it is clearly a labor of love for the film comedy author who has praised Langdon as “one of the bravest and most fascinating comic performers of all time.”
My earliest exposure to Harry Langdon came via two sources in my childhood. The first was PBS’ Silent Comedy Film Festival, which I have mentioned on the blog in the past. It was on this show that I was introduced to Langdon’s silent classics like Feet of Mud (1924) and All Night Long (1924); at the time Saturday Afternoon (1926) was shown on the festival only the first two reels had survived and it wasn’t until many years afterward that I saw it in its entirety. (Talk about waiting for the other shoe to drop.) I will steadfastly maintain that Harry’s best work remains those two-reel gems that he made for Mack Sennett between 1924 and 1926; sure, a few of his feature films are good (The Strong Man  is his finest, and I’m a big fan of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp ) but he really seemed to flourish in the two-reel domain.
The second was the inclusion of several of the Columbia two-reelers Harry made at that studio’s fun factory between 1934 and 1945 in the Hilarious Hundred package Screen Gems (Columbia’s TV arm) made available for television. Of Langdon’s sound output, I can safely say I have seen more of the Columbia shorts than anything else (I’m only familiar with one or two of his Educational comedies). I’ll readily admit that while I have a soft spot for them, there is an awful lot of chaff in that two-reeler wheat field. Still, when Langdon was on his game, he could make entertaining sound comedies like His Bridal Sweet (1935), I Don’t Remember (1935), and my personal favorite, Cold Turkey (1940). (I know Leonard Maltin singled out A Doggone Mixup  for heady praise in The Great Movie Shorts but this is not the first time I have parted company with Len and it certainly won’t be the last, as we will soon see. I think Sue My Lawyer  is funnier than Mixup, and Lawyer is not one of Harry’s finest onscreen hours.)
Now that I’ve praised (well, more or less) Harry Langdon’s work for Columbia (a gig that Harry himself once described as “the ‘O—Ouch—O’ comedies”) what is there to be said for his initial foray into talkies during his brief stay at “The Lot of Fun”? I’m going to be honest here: I myself in the past have described Langdon’s output for Roach as “abysmal,” my sole point of reference being The Head Guy (1930), which at one time was the most accessible of his two-reelers, having once appeared on a Nostalgia Merchant VHS release that I acquired during my halcyon shelf-straightening days at Ball…Blockbuster Video. (RMR references this in one of his commentary tracks, which made me smile.) I wasn’t particularly taken with it at the time (Harry’s in charge of a railroad station while boss Edgar Kennedy tends to Mrs. Kennedy, who’s just given birth to twin Edgars) but upon repeat viewings it’s improved (my favorite bit is Harry hoofing it with some chorus girls, showing everybody what he learned in vaudeville). I saw the five remaining Langdon talkies—Skirt Shy (1929), The Fighting Parson (1930), The Big Kick (1930), The Shrimp (1930), and The King (1930)—during The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™’s month-long tribute to Hal Roach many, many moons back. (I fell asleep during some of them…but in their defense, I had to get up awfully early to make sure I grabbed them all.)
Richard wastes no time in pointing out the guiltiest culprit in the maligning of Harry’s oeuvre at Roach; it’s our old chum from two paragraphs up, Leonard Maltin, who describes the shorts as “bad beyond belief.” “[I]n the long run the blame for these horrible films must rest with Langdon himself,” Maltin opines in The Great Movie Shorts. “He is incredibly bad. Gone is the innocence he projected so effortlessly in his earlier films; instead, we see a babbling idiot who, instead of creating sympathy, draws impatience and dislike from the viewer.” Roberts argues, however, that is the entire point of Langdon’s comedy; he is not an actor but a re-actor—the viewer who expresses impatience that Harry isn’t “doing anything” hasn’t grasped that the key to Langdon is he’s so ineffectual he’s incapable of “doing anything.”
Maltin was also partly responsible for perpetuating the myth that Harry Langdon was a “problem child” at Hal Roach Studios; the producer himself is even quoted in Leonard’s The Great Movie Comedians as saying “I found out that Harry’s friends commented to him on his ability to stretch a scene out longer than any other comedian…[to] sustain what we call a gag situation. And he got so enthralled by that idea that he could think of nothing else. So when I started to direct him, we would rehearse the scene and we were great. Then I’d say ‘Camera’ and he’d slow down like a slow-motion picture. And the scene which had run forty seconds would run two minutes before he finally got through…Well, it took so long that it wasn’t funny.”
Roberts parries that much of Roach’s recollections are stuff and nonsense; if Langdon were the menace Roach claimed there’d be evidence of it in the shooting schedules—and yet all of his shorts at the studio were filmed right on time. (There is no evidence of this onscreen, either.) Reports that the Langdon comedies were not well received at the box office are also riddled with falsehoods, and Langdon was never fired by Roach—he left on his own accord (Harry wanted to get back into features). The Langdon comedies, truth be told, do occasionally suffer from a static quality but I think you can chalk that up to the growing pains adjustment to the sound medium of that era—as more of Harry’s shorts rolled off the production line there was a marked improvement.
The strongest case for Langdon at Roach made by Roberts is this: most of the time, we watch these comedy shorts in the privacy of our homes. It’s an entirely different story when the comedies are presented as they were originally were—in front of an appreciative theatre audience. Laughing by your lonesome is not the same as laughing along with a large group of people fully entranced by the theatrical experience. Mind you, there is nothing I would like better than to unspool some of these shorts for the edification of, say, my parents, in an attempt to imitate this experience on a smaller scale. But we are talking about two people who utter “The Three Stooges” with the same intonation one uses to say “Nazi Germany.”
The first two Langdon MGM-Roach talkies, Hotter Than Hot (1929) and Sky Boy (1929), have been MIA for some time now, owing to the fact that because their soundtracks were recorded separately on disc—and the discs have apparently not survived—they exist in silent form only; the two shorts have subtitled dialogue on the Sprocket Vault collection (and supplemental music composed and performed by Andrew Earle Simpson). I may get into trouble for this, but I thought both shorts played better as silents, particularly Hot: a bizarre little outing fashioned after a sketch Harry performed in vaudeville, The Messenger. Described by Roberts as “just may be the weirdest film [Langdon] ever made,” Langdon is a firebug who’s asked (by Edgar Kennedy) to take a message to Thelma Todd…and he inadvertently winds up setting her apartment ablaze in the process.
My personal favorite of the Harry Langdon Roach comedies is The Fighting Parson; Harry is mistaken for the titular lawman but manages to clean up a wild-and-woolly Western town all the same. Langdon reaches back to previous triumphs like The Luck o’ the Foolish (1924) and The Strong Man for an entertaining romp that allows him to do some banjo strumming and hoofing (just like in The Head Guy) before wrapping things up with a memorably surreal boxing match. I’m also quite fond of The Shrimp (RMR opines that it’s the best of Harry’s Roach comedies), with its foolproof premise of Langdon, a much-put-upon schmoe in a boarding house, receiving a scientific treatment (courtesy of Max Davidson!) that imbues him with the tenacity of a bulldog and allows a bit of “worm turning” as he confronts his boarding house abusers. (I must also confess that I find the concept of The King funny, with Harry as a lecherous monarch and co-star Thelma Todd channeling her inner Anita Garvin.)
In addition to RMR’s commentaries there are some wonderful extras on this set; you’ll be able to see Harry’s technically first talkie appearance in a promotional short entitled Hal Roach Presents Harry Langdon (1929), which was restored by UCLA’s Film and Television Archive in 2007. There was a bit of sadness in the Hal Roach group on Facebook after seeing the 1963 footage of the Hal Roach Studios auction (Dick Bann remarked that it was hard to watch as it was like “a funeral”), also featured as an extra here. In addition to a nice photo gallery, you get a bonus short in La estación de gasolina (1930), the Spanish version of The Big Kick. (They filmed much of Kick with long, silent stretches that made it easier to incorporate Langdon’s footage into the Spanish version…which I found kind of nifty.)
Roberts rightly points out the undeniable influence Harry Langdon had on his comedy contemporaries: Stan Laurel never hesitated to acknowledge Langdon’s inspiration in the creation of his onscreen character (which is why Harry was such a good fit in scripting later L&H comedies like Block-Heads  and Saps at Sea ), and Buster Keaton’s famous cyclone sequence from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) had its antecedent in Langdon’s “twister” from Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. Harry Langdon at Hal Roach: The Talkies 1929-1930 is a DVD set no collector of comedy should be without, and you might even develop a new appreciation for the celebrated clown (I know I’m richer from the viewing experience).