Harry Langdon plays a college sap who just wants to marry the girl of his dreams but is blocked at every turn by his woman-hating uncle, a chief in the local fire department. Will little Harry find love at last or will his dreams go up in smoke?
This is my contribution to the Hotter’n Hell Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog. Be sure to read the other entries!
Light His Fire
Before we get started, let’s clear the air about Harry Langdon. I’ve touched on this topic in my reviews of The Strong Man and Soldier Man but a lot of what people say about Langdon is based on old interviews with Frank Capra, who co-wrote His First Flame and later directed Langdon before things went nuclear. Capra outlived Langdon by almost half a century and never let go of his grudge against him; while I feel the circumstances of their professional breakup are complicated and that Langdon did bear some of the blame, I also think that Capra took his vendetta to the extreme.
I mention this because I have recently run into people who declare Langdon a mere “Chaplin imitator” (thus proving they have never seen a Langdon picture) and that he isn’t worth watching. If you want a more nuanced portrait of a misunderstood comedian, I recommend reading Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde; and Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy by Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon.
Love Harry, dislike him or don’t think about him at all but please make sure your decision is based on personal experience with his films and not bitter commentary from a single source.
His First Flame was made while Langdon was still under contract with Mack Sennett but was not released until after Langdon made a splash with his bigger, more famous First National pictures. As the May 26, 1927 issue of Hollywood Vagabond put it in a piece entitled Mack Sennett Cashes In on Harry Langdon:
“Langdon made two-reelers for Sennett until the day came when bigger and better opportunities as a comedy star in feature length opuses beckoned to the whimsical Harry… All this time Mack was carefully nurturing the can of film that held His First Flame. Now, with Langdon near the zenith of his popularity, the astute Sennett has released his Langdon-ian production and is, conservatively speaking, mopping up. From all of which we observe, it’s an ill wind that blows no one good.”
Of course, all of this raises a single question: Is His First Flame actually any good?
In the film, Harry plays, well, Harry, a college guy who is engaged to marry Ethel (Natalie Kingston). She openly loves his money more than she loves him while her sister Mary (Ruth Hiatt) secretly loves Harry for Harry.
The wrinkle in all of this is that Harry’s overbearing Uncle Amos (Vernon Dent) is a woman-hater who opposes all matrimony and does his best to break up the couple. Amos is also the local fire chief and after his graduation from college, Harry hangs around the firehouse as a kind of mascot.
The basic plot of the picture concerns Mary trying to win over Harry by any means fair or foul and Harry’s misadventures in the meantime. The plot is meandering and takes a lot of detours along the way, including a sequence cracking wise about domestic violence, which doesn’t really play extremely well to modern audiences. It’s not that dark topics are off limits, it’s just that there needs to be a bit more intelligence brought to the fore than “they’re hitting one another, giggle!”
Harry’s college speech is a more successful bit of comedy with a terrified Langdon addressing a group of ladies with random platitudes while trying his best to hide under his own graduation down. His run-in with a shoplifter is also amusing as she knocks him on the head and swaps clothes in order to evade the police.
The most successful sequences, though, are Harry’s signature slow motion comedy bits. Later in the picture, Mary fakes a fire in order to have Harry rescue her. He panics, fumbles with the phone and nervously informs her that there are only three people at the firehouse “and two of us are horses.” Later in the rescue sequence, he manages to create a real panic when his fire engine fills the entire house with smoke.
Langdon’s great talent was making something out of nothing, his struggles with everyday tasks creating the humor. This is similar to Stan Laurel, who once had an audience in stitches by confusing his napkin with a slice of bread for several minutes, and it’s easy to see why the idea of pairing Langdon with Oliver Hardy would have been considered. (What was ignored was Laurel’s talent as an idea man and the pair’s natural chemistry.) However, Langdon is far more childlike in his approach, prone to panic and hide when confronted with obstacles.
However, Langdon’s slow motion humor meant that classic gags did not always work for him. The firefighting sequence looks pretty good and Langdon charms as he annoys the crowd by constantly pointing out his Uncle Amos. Later in the sequence, he races into the flames to help with the rescue and emerges with a mannequin. With a more frenetic comedian, this gag would have worked because of the speed of the rescue. But sleepy Langdon’s slow descent makes his confusion less and less believable, especially since he has no trouble figuring out what he has rescued once he feels the mannequin’s face. (Compare Charley Chase and Oliver Hardy’s more successful mannequin antics in Fluttering Hearts, released the same year.)
But once Langdon reaches the ground, he sees the mannequin’s skirt has ridden up and so he reaches down and nervously covers her knees. Now THAT is Langdon!
Okay, so let’s pause here because I want to do a little bit of digging on the side. One of the great pleasures of watching silent movies is discovering the sources of their gags and finally getting references that haven’t been current in almost 100 years. In this case, our introduction to Mary:
If you’re a nerd, and you probably are if you’re reading this, you are already wondering about Laura Jean Libbey. Well, she was a popular and prolific romance novelist who wrote a whopping 82 books in her lifetime. Here is an excerpt from Pretty Madcap Dorothy; Or, How She Won a Lover:
“She looked around at the little, stuffy room, and thought of all her girlish day-dreams—of the sweet hopes she had had of soon leaving those dingy four walls, and of having a little bower of a cottage to call “home,” with a handsome young husband all her own to love her.
She had pictured every scene to herself—just how each cozy room should be furnished, and what vines and flowers should grow in the garden, and the pretty dresses she would wear, and how she would stand at the window and watch for handsome Harry to come home each night, and what a dear, cozy life they would lead, loving each other so dearly.”
So, I think this gives us a rather tidy thumbnail sketch of Mary’s personality and behavior in the film, does it not?
The players, particularly Langdon and Dent, fight valiantly to entertain and they succeed more often than not but there are definite draggy spots and strange changes in humor and tone. This is a two-reeler that has been padded out to four-and-a-half-reels and it looks it. It’s possible missing footage is to blame (the film had to be reassembled from partial prints) but I am not sure if any additional material would have smoothed things out.
Feedback from silent era theater owners was inconsistent to say the least. One owner described the picture as terrible while another raved that it was funnier and better than anything Langdon made at First National. Then as now, it seems, there was no agreeing on Harry.
His First Flame is no masterpiece but the scenes that allow Langdon to be Langdon are successful. You should find this entertaining if you are a fan but I don’t necessarily recommend it as your entrance to Harry’s world of comedy.