Harry Langdon is a little Belgian soldier who comes to America to find his pen pal. How hard can it be to find a Mary Brown in 1926? He just has to get through gangsters, bootleggers and the common cold to locate her. Langdon at his best.
Send in the clowns
When discussing silent comedy, Harry Langdon is often damned by faint praise. Sometimes he is admitted into the so-called pantheon of comedy gods and sometimes he is omitted. When the Big Four are discussed, there’s always somebody who wants to swap out Langdon for another comedian. What does a Little Elf need to do to get some respect?
I am not a fan of pantheons or Big Fours or anything that locks viewers into valuing certain talents above others. It’s all a matter of taste, after all, and my taste just happens to heavily favor Mr. Langdon.
I don’t like slapstick very much but at this point in his career, Langdon’s comedy cannot really be described as pure slapstick. His elfin persona is sleepy, gentle and sweet with enough of the dickens left in him to cause trouble. It has never been displayed better than in The Strong Man.
Langdon plays Paul Bergot, a little Belgian soldier posted in No Man’s Land. He has a machine gun but is more successful chasing off Germans with his trusty slingshot. He’s taking this whole war thing rather well, helped along by regular Red Cross letters from an American woman named Mary Brown. Over their long correspondence, they have fallen in love.
But then a burly German appears and carries off Paul. So much for his career as a soldier.
Years pass, the war ends and Paul is still hanging around with the German who captured him, now called Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). He’s a strong man who has decided to take his act to America and Paul is his loyal gofer. Of course, Paul is also excited to come to America because it means that he can finally meet Mary Brown. Easy as pie, right?
Paul finds a likely street in New York and proceeds to ask passersby if they know where he can find Mary Brown. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go so well but Paul’s queries are overheard by Lily (Gertrude Astor), a tough moll. When her boyfriend slips her a roll of cash, Lily finds herself followed by the police. Knowing she will be searched, she slips the roll into Paul’s pocket.
The problems start when she goes to retrieve the money. Paul’s shabby suit has a hole in the pocket and the money has slipped into the lining. Lily is going to have to cut the money out but she can’t do it on the street, she has to lure him to somewhere more private. And how does she do it? Meet Mary Brown!
The scenes with Gertrude Astor are the most famous in the picture and for good reason. She and Langdon have fabulous comedic chemistry and take obvious delight in swapping the gender tropes of filmdom.
Lillian Gish is sometimes listed as an ingredient in Langdon’s screen persona and it’s a good observation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this was an all-out spoof a la The Patsy but there is something fluttery about Langdon, something that reminds viewers of the twee misses found in some 1900s and 1910s American cinema. Langdon plays this to the hilt opposite the aggressive Lily, calling to mind the “I have you now, me proud beauty!” scenes that remained popular in melodramas.
Paul realizes that Lily is no Mary Brown when she grabs at his bottom (she’s trying to get the cash but he doesn’t know that) and then lights a cigarette. This terrible woman is threatening him with a fate worse than death! That is the only possible explanation! He tries to flee but Lily plays dirty and pretends to faint, forcing Paul into the usual male movie role and carry her up to her apartment. The statuesque Astor had half on an inch of height over Langdon plus heels and so walking up the stairs with her would be impossible. He is obliged to carry her on his lap and “climb” the stairs with the seat of his pants.
Once they are safely in her apartment, Lily drops the girly routine, locks the door and chases Langdon with a knife. Help! Help! Langdon’s panicked Gishian antics return as he tries to escape. Lily finally gets the money and even if the roll was hot, she certainly earned it after all that.
Delightful stuff but we have to move on. You see, the real Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner) is in a bit of a pickle herself. She’s the parson’s daughter in Cloverdale, a border town that has been invaded by bootleggers. It’s a scene straight out of a William S. Hart western, complete with drinking, fighting, dance halls and Robert McKim as the villainous mastermind, Mike McDevitt.
Parson Brown (William V. Mong) is the last local leader fighting the bootleggers and he regularly leads his congregation in a march around the Palace dance hall, hoping that the walls will come tumbling down like Jericho. It hasn’t happened yet but McDevitt is growing tired of the parson’s interference.
And guess who has hired Zandow the Great? Yes, indeed!
The scenes of Zandow and Paul’s journey to Cloverdale involve Paul suffering from a cold and being reluctant to take his medicine. I’ll tell you one of the reasons why Langdon is so funny: we may not want to admit it but we are all like him a little bit. When Paul pours out his cough medicine and then can’t bring himself to take it, I certainly knew where he was coming from. Even his gestures are right, pumping his arm in an attempt to build up courage. Surely there must be another way besides swallowing this gunk, right?
And Paul’s meeting with Mary is just as sweet and understated as can be. I won’t give it all away because it’s such a lovely little scene but I will say that Capra and Langdon do not oversell the pathos and create something a bit more delicate. Aww!
Discussions of Langdon’s humor and appeal often descend into “stick a fork in it!” territory. I have read that Langdon cannot be viewed in vacuum, that he exists between the lines of silent comedy and can only be appreciated after long and careful study.
This is nonsense. I am not the biggest fan of silent comedy; I came for the drama, thank you very much. I started watching Langdon films fairly early in my silent film career because his milder brand of humor appealed to me. I laughed my head off as a newbie, I still laugh my head off as an experienced viewer. I suppose it helps that I enjoy the Hal Roach comedic style, which is very much in line with what Langdon does. (In fact, Harry Langdon worked for Roach after leaving First National.)
Give Harry an honest try, The Strong Man is a great place to start, and see if he makes you laugh. If he does, see more. If he doesn’t, find a comedian who does. It really is that simple.
The other elephant in the room is, of course, Frank Capra. The director of The Strong Man and one of the most iconic filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Capra and Langdon had a falling out. For the rest of his life (and he lived to ninety-four), Capra repeated the tale of Langdon descending into hubris, not realizing that he was nothing without his writers and directors. The Langdon of Capra’s telling is a marionette who decides to cut his own strings and collapses into a worthless mess. Curtain.
Different people have different experiences and I’m not saying that all memories of Langdon must be fawning but the problem is that for many years, the Capra version was the ONLY version and it was parroted by people who had never even seen a Langdon picture. Pola Negri and Marion Davies have also experienced similar dismissal sight unseen, though they are both enjoying something of a revival thanks to enthusiastic fans and more of their films being released to the public. In short, don’t knock it before you’ve tried it.
It’s almost certain that success did go to Langdon’s head but it’s also true that he was a talented comedian in his own right and his career did recover. He didn’t reach the same lofty heights as a top superstar but he did star in his own comedy shorts, did quite a bit of writing and was considered as a replacement for Stan Laurel when contract negotiations left Oliver Hardy without a partner. All in all, quite respectable.
While many top comedians wrote and directed their own pictures, there’s nothing wrong with a comedy star who just performs. It kind of reminds me of the singer-songwriter craze: there’s nothing wrong with just singing. Some people can do both and it’s amazing but if somebody is a fantastic singer, they shouldn’t be penalized for not also writing all their own songs. (Langdon did give directing a shot and while he has defenders in this, I have to say that I was unimpressed.)
I love Capra and I love Langdon. It’s a shame that Capra’s version of Langdon’s career was the only one available for a long stretch. (The recently published Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy seeks to rebalance the narrative, acknowledging Langdon’s flaws but also pointing out that Capra went overboard.)
The Strong Man is a delicate, delightful comedy with a gentleness that is all too rare in the movies. It’s an ideal introduction to Langdon and is one of my favorite funny features of all time, any era. It has my highest possible recommendation.
Where can I see it?
Released as part of Kino’s Harry Langdon… the Forgotten Clown disc. Unfortunately out of print.
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