Harry Langdon is a hapless doughboy who does not realize the First World War has ended (he escaped from a POW camp during an armistice celebration) and means to continue the battle in the middle of a Central Europe. As it happens the ruler of this particular country looks just like Harry. Hmm, I wonder what will come of this?
I’m going to tell you a little story about baking. I have been baking since I was old enough to stand and I helped my mother make bread and pizza dough. Both of these items contain yeast because of course. I never thought anything of it until I was older and started to read cookbooks. These books contained reassurances that yeast was not scary and that everyone should calm down about it. Because I had been using yeast for so long, it seemed odd to me that it would intimidate other people. Just roll up your sleeves and do it, people!
Harry Langdon is the yeast of silent comedy, if I may use a groan-inducing metaphor. Langdon enchanted me from the very first and I was delighted by his Little Elf character and his childlike antics. It was only later that I started to hear dire proclamations about him.
Langdon cannot be watched in isolation! He exists in the space between other, better comedians! He needs getting used to! He was Frank Capra’s puppet! He didn’t know what was funny! He doesn’t deserve to be part of the Big Four! One cannot just sit down and watch Langdon! It requires years of study!
Okay, everyone, calm down. Stop overthinking the matter and getting a complex about Harry Langdon. It’s actually very simple: get a Harry Langdon movie, watch it, enjoy. Simple. Don’t get all bent out of shape over the Frank Capra thing. Don’t make a federal case out of watching Langdon’s movies. Just relax and laugh.
For those of you who are unaware, Frank Capra directed some of Harry Langdon’s big hits but the two men had a falling out. Capra was obviously bitter because he continued to bash Langdon for decades. This has given rise to the erroneous narrative that Langdon just sort of curled up and died by the end of the twenties. Actually, he worked steadily until his death in 1944, as I discuss in my review of his 1940 comedy Misbehaving Husbands.
Capra’s animosity may also be the reason why some people feel the need to almost apologize for their love of Langdon. We may never know why Capra was so angry all those years later but it’s clear that Langdon was a very talented comedian, just as Capra was a very talented director. It’s a shame their collaboration ended so badly.
There’s no magic formula for making people into Harry Langdon fans. Just show his best work and see if it appeals to newbies. If it does, hurrah. If not, well, everyone has the right to their own opinion (even if they are wrong). Me? I adore Langdon and he is the silent comedian I watch the most, second only to Chaplin.
Soldier Man is considered by some to be Langdon’s best short film. It starts out as a World War One comedy and then quickly slides into a spoof of The Prisoner of Zenda. Let’s take a closer look at the plot.
The Great War has ended and all the soldiers are being shipped home with every single doughboy accounted for. Except one.
Harry Langdon is shown wandering through a desolate patch of country. According to his war diary, he arrived at the war on Christmas day 1917 and was captured by the Germans on December 26. After almost a year in captivity, he managed to escape on November 11, 1918 while his guards were “celebrating something or other”. Now he means to find the American army or die in the attempt. Also, he is hungry.
This is pretty much a perfect introduction for a Langdon character. He is alternately a small child, a teen and a grown man with his maturity level always the opposite of what is needed for any given situation. Harry wants to be a good soldier but his naiveté (combined with an overactive imagination) does him in every time.
Harry drifts through the countryside (it’s a fictional country called Bomania), shooting at scarecrows, getting dynamite stuck to his rifle and getting up close and personal with cow udders. Meanwhile, the king of Bomania has some problems of his own—and not just because he is absolutely identical to Harry. And obnoxious alcoholic, King Strudel has alienated just about everyone in his court, including his wife (Natalie Kingston).
Strudel’s behavior is so terrible that General von Snootzer (Frank Whitson) decides the time is ripe to seize power and so he has the king kidnapped. The plan would have worked perfectly if the prime minister (Vernon Dent) had not spotted poor little Harry. Why, he’s the perfect double for the king! He just needs to take his royal place long enough to sign a treaty. What could go wrong?
Well, other than General von Snootzer trying to get to the bottom of it all, the queen attempting to stab the king and Harry not showing up for royal functions because he really wants to eat some beautiful apples. The story goes on for a while before abruptly ending (the real king is still a prisoner, the bad guys have not been defeated) and revealing that it was all a dream and Harry is back home for the victory parade with his irritated wife (Natalie Kingston again) helping him get ready.
Soldier Man was originally planned as a four-reel comedy in 1926 but was finally dumped on the market with three reels after Langdon’s stock had fallen in late 1928. There’s not much information available as to what exactly was cut and why but it is certainly true that the film feels cobbled together. (What info is available is included in the book Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon.) The beginning and middle sections of the short don’t really gel but they are both so funny that it doesn’t matter. The problem is that Zenda plotline was going along swimmingly and could have been tied up neatly in the time of that missing reel but instead the audience is dragged out of the established story and informed that it was all a dream. Hardly satisfying.
The “it was all a dream” trope can succeed (even if it is a bit stale) if the characters either emerge victorious and then wake up (the 1939 Wizard of Oz) or if the characters are in mortal peril and the only way out is to wake up (Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland). Soldier Man takes neither of these options and just cuts things off before they have been properly set up.
Choppy though the ending is, Soldier Man does contain some superb moments of Langdon comedy. For example, the running gag throughout the film is that Harry doesn’t care about the royal stuff as much as he just wants a hearty meal. The queen, believing that he is her wayward husband, plans to seduce him and then stab him with her dagger. The problem is that Harry wants to snuggle with her but he has also spotted a plate of sandwiches. Does he ask for one? Does he just take one? As the queen tries to seduce and stab him, he continues to munch, even going back for seconds. His hesitant fluttering between food and love doesn’t bash you over the head but it’s exactly the sort of humor that makes Langdon Langdon.
While Soldier Man is not a perfectly structured short, it is still a great introduction to Langdon for viewers who may not want to commit to a feature like The Strong Man. Soldier Man contains all the whimsy and cute humor that Langdon fans have come to expect and the spoofing of the popular Prisoner of Zenda plot makes the film highly accessible.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The absolute best way to see Soldier Man is on the Harry Langdon Collection: Lost and Found. The set is now out of print but be sure to snatch one up if you see it for a good price. Four discs of Langdon goodness with lovely prints and lively scores. Soldier Man has a sassy jazz score performed by the Snark Ensemble and it is toe-tapping fabulous! You can listen to samples here. There are also bargain disc releases but I have not viewed them and doubt the quality is up to snuff.