Langdon’s lovable schmuck is far less prepared for the struggles he so valiantly undertakes.
Rich, expansive and more than a bit murky, the pre-sound era represents one of the most abundant periods in film history, one from which strange new wonders continue to emerge. While as many as three-quarters of all silent movies are now lost, the ones that remain tell us an enormous amount about both the early 20th century and the cinematic history forged within it, as a young medium mixed with the buffeting swells of progress to create a fertile breeding ground for artistic advancement. This evolution reached its apex in the years following World War I, as film grammar codified into something sophisticated and diverse, supporting a wide range of genres, scenarios and on-screen personalities.
Chief among these were the clowns. The films anchored by these supple, body-oriented comedians, most of them longtime veterans of the vaudeville stage, aren’t always the most refined examples of cinematic craft. But they’re essential as both a bellwether of popular taste and an easy link to a bygone era; the worlds they operate in may be foreign, but the humor remains universal. The genre is best represented by the emblematic godhead of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, each one representing a different face of the harried modern American. An image of prim Victorianism gone pitifully to seed, Chaplin’s Tramp persona offered a form of sentimental balladry that turned the plight of the forgotten man, beset by the demands of whirring gears and crowded city streets, into slapstick ballet. Keaton, the blank, timeless force of immutable obstinacy, emerges like some vision out of the past and proceeds to charge forward with unstinting aplomb, even as he’s knocked down again and again. Lloyd, the upwardly mobile striver, asserts a similar appetite for motion matched with a chameleonic ability for adaptation, signified by his fake glasses and unctuous, overeager smile.
Of course, these weren’t the only personalities, and beneath the leading lights sits an entire tier of secondary figures, from notorious flameouts like Fatty Arbuckle, to obscure footnotes (Charley Chase and Ben Turpin), to eventual sound-era stalwarts (W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy). Then there’s Harry Langdon, a doll-faced oddity whose career kept chugging along after sound took over Hollywood, but who mostly remained mired in the world of B-comedies and shorts. In his silent-era features, he takes on the same sort of modern problems as the above stars, situations he counters with his own brand of clownish incapacity, stumbling around potential catastrophe in a goo-goo-eyed haze. Malformed and sleepily incompetent, his character is perhaps the original cinematic man-child, bearing a token similarity to Stan Laurel (he was even briefly paired with Oliver Hardy) but a far more oblivious stage presence. A blank slate of infantile doofiness stuffed into a trim suit, he still manages to coast by on a tide of general goodwill and serendipitous good fortune.
Where for a striver like Lloyd clothes are transformative, one of the totemic passkeys for his entrance to the working world, they do little to inspire Langdon toward anything more than token adulthood. This is a central theme of 1927’s Long Pants, a tale of arrested development in which Langdon’s Harry Shelby, long past the age at which this achievement is appropriate, is finally granted his first pair of big-boy slacks, allowed to leave his childish short pants behind. His overprotective parents are worried this new freedom will get him into trouble, and Harry immediately proves them right, pedaling his bike in loopy circles around a gangster’s moll who’s coincidentally parked in front of his house, attempting to woo her through a succession of stiff-limbed acrobatics. The woman drives off, but a discarded love note to her thug boyfriend convinces Harry he’s already sealed the deal, setting off a persistent chase that progresses as the woman realizes how easily her new suitor can be made into a patsy.
This is a plot point that pops up again and again in Langdon’s late silent features, as other characters give off signals his semi-heroic schmoes seems incapable of interpreting, then set out to fleece him once they learn the full extent of his ineptitude. Woody Allen’s swanning physical comedy often seems to tap directly into Chaplin’s more well-known lovestruck buffoonery, but it also has a direct antecedent in Langdon, whose moony bumbling is less structured and elegant and more expressly idiotic.
A similar incompetence is on display in 1926’s The Strong Man, in which he plays Paul Bergot, a Belgian soldier who heads to America to track down a female pen pal, in this case one who seems to have some actual affection for him. Before he can pursue her, however, he needs to survive World War I, an obstacle expressed via a single bizarre set piece that finds him heaving heaps of garbage at a lone German machine gunner. As this early scene proves, the most impressive Langdon scenarios are also the most absurd, with his stock character doing his best work when he’s at his most insensible, moving against the current, pursuing a noble goal in the most ill-conceived fashion imaginable. Prevented from finding his love by a variety of obstacles, he remains persistently on track, culminating in a blowout theater scene that finds him waging war against hundreds of audience members.
The theme of one man against the world is equally developed in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, probably his best film, which was also released in 1926. Here, he falls in love with the subject of a billboard advertisement, and is then thrilled to find the woman in his town, sponsoring a cross-country walking contest. Despite his complete inability to resemble a normal person, Langdon’s Harry Logan secures her affections rather easily, and then proceeds to join the race, both to earn her respect and the prize money, which he’ll use to both get married and save his father’s endangered business. Yet even with the real woman in hand, he continues his love affair with the billboard image, papering his hotel room with shredded scraps of the ad, doting on individual segments of her visage while his furious roommate attempts to sleep.
This scene captures the usual concerns of imminent modernity in a pleasingly sidelong fashion, filtering fears about commodity fetishism and rampant consumerism through an outlandish passage of absurdist comedy. Even at his best, Langdon doesn’t have quite the same ability to fully mine a comedic scenario as his more famous counterparts, but his weirdness is more pronounced, leading to episodes that skip gently along the outer edges of surrealism.
These films are also notable as the earliest full-length efforts of director Frank Capra, who’d go on to make a far greater stamp on American cinema than his star. Little of his trademark myth-making is present in these early works, but he and Langdon do share a seed of common sentiment, both fixated on the spectacle of the plucky underdog going up against unfriendly odds. Whereas in Capra’s better-known movies these underdogs possess a sense of composure, dignity and competence, Langdon’s lovable schmuck is far less prepared for the struggles he so valiantly undertakes. Even so, he always manages to come out on top, his good-natured benevolence effectively willing a positive outcome. For audiences battered by the increasingly hectic pace of modern life, these small victories proved therapeutic. They offer a similar balm to contemporary viewers, short on virtuosity but still marked by the same airtight comic construction and madcap inspiration as the finest silent gag fests.