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

Most surveys of silent comedy are confined to Chaplin and Keaton. Sometimes they include Harold Lloyd or Laurel & Hardy, but many other popular silent-era comedians are glossed over. One such star, Harry Langdon, definitely deserves greater attention.

A new DVD 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 of the silent era.

Harry Langdon and Alma Bennett in Long Pants.
Digitally re-mastered from mint-condition prints by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, "Harry Langdon . . . the forgotten clown" gives us the opportunity to see three vintage feature films from Langdon's brief reign as a major box-office attraction. 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 on this DVD, 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.

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: soon after the contest begins, Harry gets separated from the other participants, so he tries to climb over a fence to catch up. As he drops over the fence, his sweater and belt become caught on a nail. He tries to pull himself free, but unknown to Harry, he is dangling hundreds of feet in the air at the top of a huge cliff. 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 down. Harry then rides the fence 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'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 from a pile of tools and join the other convicts breaking up rocks. Harry instead grabs a little hammer. 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 three of 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.

Harry Langdon in The Strong Man.
"Harry Langdon . . . the forgotten clown" is filled with wonderful comic routines. You'll find an hilarious scene where an ill Harry attempts 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, gives it to the car's owner, and takes off running down the street.

But of course, the best evidence of Langdon's genius is the movies themselves. It's a toss up whether to give the strongest recommendation to The Strong Man 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 comedies ever made, but it's well-worth watching. In Long Pants, Harry wears short pants (like a little boy), but he leers at women from his 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, 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, don't start with Long Pants. Go for The Strong Man or Tramp, Tramp, Tramp first.

This DVD serves a great role in helping to restore Langdon with some well-deserved attention. 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" is now available on DVD from Kino on Video. This disc features three Langdon feature-length comedies: The Strong Man; Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; and Long Pants. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, we suggest you check out the Kino Web site: http://www.kino.com. These three comedies are also available separately on VHS from Kino. (Each videotape also includes a vintage Harry Langdon short.)