Harry Langdon’s movie career peaked in 1926, the year two of his best films were released. He had come to Hollywood after nearly 30 years in vaudeville and refined his gently bumbling stage persona into a unique child-man character referred to as “The Little Elf.” Having graduated from two-reel shorts to feature films in 1926, he was cited along with Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd as one of the kings of film comedy. By the end of the following year, however, critics began to voice dissatisfaction with Langdon’s latest work, which seemed, according to one contemporary reviewer, “seldom plausible and not often funny.” He spent the rest of his career in relative obscurity.
Langdon first appeared onstage in 1896 at age 12 when he performed his own comedy routines at amateur shows in his hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The following year, the stage-struck teen hit the road with a medicine show and began his apprenticeship as a clown, acrobat, singer, dancer, musician, impressionist, and ticket-taker. On the Midwestern theater circuits, he met singer Rose Mensolf, who became his partner onstage and off. They married in 1903 and developed a variety act of lively banter, pantomime, stage effects, and songs, which they polished over the next 20 years.
During this period, Langdon crafted his Little Elf character, with his baggy pants, floppy tie, punched-in hat, and snug jacket that strained its enormous buttons. This clueless boob character, popular with vaudeville audiences, used a slow, wide-eyed double-take and Langdon’s speechless eloquence later became the hallmark of his silent films, even as the slapdash pace of the two-reelers almost killed it. As one of the writers of Langdon’s later shorts observed, “[T]he moment you tried to speed him up and make an ordinary two-reel comic out of him, you were dead. He wasn’t funny unless he could pace himself.”
By 1911, the Langdons were headlining in vaudeville and, by 1923, earning $1,500 a week. That same year, Harold Lloyd caught their act and recommended it to comedy mogul Mack Sennett, who decided that Harry had strong possibilities as a solo act. (Rose had little interest in making movies, and the team split privately as well as publicly; the Langdons divorced in 1929). The comic signed instead with Principal Distributing Corporation, making an unknown number of comedy shorts during the second half of 1923, none of which were released. Sennett bought out Langdon’s contract, and his two most ambitious writers, Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley, joined director Harry Edwards to create some of Langdon’s best work.
In September 1925, the sought-after, highly paid Langdon signed a deal with First National that would allow the newly formed Harry Langdon Corporation full creative control to produce feature films at the Burbank studio. He brought Edwards, Capra, and Ripley with him, and together they began their first feature. Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) was a hit with public and critics alike, but ran $50,000 over its $250,000 budget. Although Langdon’s growing entourage was the likely source of the overage, Harry Edwards took the blame. “Having guided Langdon from a frightened little actor to a star owning his own company,” Frank Capra later wrote in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, “Edwards couldn’t take Langdon’s present approval or disapproval of his every move. He bowed out of the second feature film, suggesting to Langdon that I become his director.” Whatever hard feelings followed the dismissal, they didn’t last. Edwards acted as Langdon’s best man when he remarried in 1929, and they collaborated on shorts for Paramount and Columbia in the 1930s and early 1940s.
For Langdon’s second feature The Strong Man (1926), Capra inserted elements of his own story to make his mark on the popular screen persona. The protagonist is a gullible immigrant in a heartless, corrupt new world where he’s always searching for the ideal girl whose image has brought him thus far. He’s seduced and swindled until he arrives at what biographer Joseph McBride describes as “the archetypal American small town, Cloverdale (read: Hollywood) … [I]t seems more like a Frank Capra film than a Harry Langdon film.” While The Strong Man did not make as much money as Tramp Tramp Tramp, critics elevated Langdon to the ranks of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Photoplay raved, “Ask Harold Lloyd who gives him the biggest celluloid laugh. Ask any star. They will all say Langdon. Now he’s the comic idol of Hollywood!”
Long Pants (1927) began production under a cloud. When Ripley disagreed with Capra’s proposed opening scenes showing Langdon’s character as a child, Langdon sided with Ripley. While Capra insisted that the character remain on “the narrow beam of his range,” Langdon believed that the cruel absurdities of life were the stuff of comic gold. “Harry was emotionally and artistically more compatible with Ripley’s darker view of the comic universe,” said one writer. Amid numerous delays and production overruns, the disagreement became an impasse. Finally, Ripley and Langdon took over the editing, while Capra, whose career had advanced with the Little Elf character that he’d helped to refine, began referring to Langdon as “the little bastard.” A week before Long Pants was delivered to the distributor, Capra was fired, to his enduring rancor. In his memoirs, he alleged that Langdon threw frequent tantrums during the shooting of Long Pants: “‘Pathos,’ he’d scream at me, ‘I want to do more pathos.’ … The virus of conceit—alias, the fat head—hit Langdon hard.”
Following tepid critical and popular response to Long Pants, Langdon announced in Variety that he would direct all his forthcoming films. Capra responded with a scabrous letter, which he distributed to trade papers and movie columnists. The vendetta was not made public until five years later when “What Happened to Harry Langdon” appeared in Photoplay. “The news was flung all over the world that Langdon was impossible on the set and dabbled in everything. Other writers picked up the story. Almost every newspaper carried it and it gathered power as it went spinning into the world. Movie fans saw it, but more important, it was read by producers.”
Rumor morphed into accepted fact: Harry Langdon, on top of the world in 1926, was considered a has-been just a few short years later. The truth lies somewhere in between. Harry Langdon continued working, onstage and in films, for the rest of his life. He directed and starred in three features before First National shuttered his production company in 1928. The closure could be blamed on poor critical and popular reception of his work and on audiences’ perception that the Little Elf character was growing darker and slightly more perverse. Between 1929 and his death in 1944, Langdon appeared in 16 feature films and at least 45 two-reelers. He contributed jokes to Hal Roach productions at United Artists and RKO, including four Laurel and Hardy shorts. He also made occasional personal appearances and gave interviews that made it plain that he had simply exited the pressure cooker: “All this business of being a big shot—I’ve found it really doesn’t mean much after all. I’ve seen all the Hollywood parties and nightlife I want to see. What I want now is a fireplace, a wife, and my police dog. Contentment means much more to me than money.”
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Stephen Horne