Sunday, January 6, 2008

Harry in your pocket

Over at In the Balcony, Laughing Gravy has selected the Ford at Fox collection as 2007’s DVD of the Year. And really, it’s kind of hard to argue with that choice…with twenty-four films and a wealth of incredible bonus material, you’d be hard pressed to ignore that, humongous price tag aside, it’s an essential set for any classic movie fan. A few individuals have reported that Ford at Fox is available for about a third off the retail at Costco…but since we don’t have one within our neck of the woods I settled for one of the smaller Ford sets—the Silent Epics box—currently on sale at

In any other year where Ford at Fox was not released, however, my pick for DVD of the Year would easily go to Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection, a marvelous collection of the forgotten silent clown’s cinematic gems (including seventeen silent shorts, a respectable representation of most of the surviving comedies he made for producer Mack Sennett between 1924-26) released by All Day Entertainment, which I mentioned in a teensy preview back in October. The Langdon set did make the honorable mention list at ITB, which is available here along with previous winners of past years.

My introduction to Harry Langdon came about much the same way as I learned of Buster Keaton and Charley Chase, through the Columbia comedy two-reelers that I watched as a kid on WCHS-TV (Charleston, WV). I’ll be the first to say that Langdon really didn’t translate well to talkies—the sound shorts he made for producer Hal Roach are so abysmal I’ve only managed to be able to sit through one of them, 1930’s The Head Guy—but I think some of his Columbias are first-rate comedies, including His Bridal Sweet (1935), I Don’t Remember (1935) and Cold Turkey (1940). The sound comedies included on Lost and Found are two representatives from his Educational period, Knight Duty (1933)—which I enjoyed very much—and Hooks and Jabs (1933), which caused me to shrug my shoulders (though both of these shorts do feature Vernon Dent, best known for his myriad appearances alongside the Three Stooges although he was a mainstay in Langdon’s silent and sound shorts as well). There’s also a curio—kind of an early infomercial, if you will—called Love, Honor and Obey (the Law) (1935) that was used as a promotional contest gimmick for the Goodrich Tire people; the surprise is, it’s not a bad little two-reeler, with Harry as a groom unfashionably late for his nuptials and second banana Monte Collins (also a fixture in the Columbia shorts) as the “friend” who tries to sabotage him at every turn.

I was also exposed to some of Langdon’s silent work in my youth courtesy of Walter Kerr’s Silent Comedy Film Festival on PBS (a staple of my television schedule during the 1970s), so re-watching shorts like Feet of Mud (1924), All Night Long (1924) and Saturday Afternoon (1926; perhaps Harry’s best-known silent short) brought back a flood of memories for me. But there were a good many of the Langdons I hadn’t seen, and I particularly enjoyed The Luck o’ the Foolish (1924), The Sea Squawk (1925), His Marriage Wow (1925), Boobs in the Wood (1925) and Fiddlesticks (1926). (There’s a great gag in Boobs that literally made me roll off my bed with helpless laughter: Harry’s in a saloon, and he drinks a slug of whisky—the effects of which send him right on his ass to the floor. Moments later, when he’s handed another round, he lifts it to his lips…hesitates…and then sits down on the floor, where he proceeds to down the second drink. A brilliant bit and one that could only come from Langdon.) Seeing these shorts in chronological order allows you to see the development and progression of Langdon’s screen character, and lays waste to the myth (one that I must reluctantly admit I've bought into in the past) established in Frank Capra’s egomaniacal autobiography The Name Above the Title (which a chuckling Richard M. Roberts refers to as “wonderful fiction”) that Langdon floundered, film-wise, like a fish until Capra, Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards rescued him with their collective input. I’ve listed my favorite shorts here, of course, but the great thing is that all of the Langdon silents are entertaining…with the possible exception of Smile Please (1924)—which is too incoherent to remain particularly memorable.

Lost and Found also includes Harry’s first feature film, His First Flame (1927), which he made for Sennett several years earlier but was not released until after his third film for First National, Long Pants (1927). I posted about Flame sometime back after having watched a DVD of the film purchased from Grapevine Video, and I had hoped that this version would be a bit more watchable since the Grapevine print had a good deal of nitrate decomposition. (Alas, that decomposition is present on the Lost and Found version as well.) What I would really have liked to have seen was one of Langdon’s self-directed features: Three’s a Crowd (1927) and The Chaser (1928) apparently do exist (the third feature, Heart Trouble [1928], is believed to be lost)—but I’m not certain if their absence here is because of their rare availability or because they’re still under copyright (or perhaps a bit of both). Fortunately, Langdon’s first three features—Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), The Strong Man (1926) and Pants—are available on a must-have DVD set by Kino (Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown).

An original feature-length documentary appropriately entitled Lost and Found tops off this remarkable set; it’s an informative and clip-filled tribute to Langdon’s career with commentary from several film historians and silent comedy fans including Ken Gordon, Ben Model, Steve Massa, Bruce Lawton and William Schelly, author of Harry Langdon: His Life and Films. Several of these same individuals also contribute commentaries to the films, and offer cogent observations...despite the fact that a few of them (David Kalat, I’m talking to you!) often voice their opinions in a tone that suggests they’ve brought down major pronouncements from the Gods of Comedy. The Langdon set is also jam-packed with great bonus features; among the highlights are an excerpt from Horace Greeley, Jr. (1925), one of Langdon’s earliest comedies (filmed for producer Sol Lesser for Principal Pictures in 1923); a Eddie Quillan comedy from 1927 entitled Catalina, Here I Come (Mack Sennett tabbed Eddie to impersonate Langdon after Harry left the studio; except for the participation of Madeline Hurlock and Andy Clyde this short is an abysmal affair); and a 1942 “soundie” that features Harry singing (or, to be more accurate, lip-synching to Cliff Nazarro’s vocals) Beautiful Clothes (Make Beautiful Girls). One-reel versions of selected Langdon shorts (a couple are culled from an obscure 1961 syndicated TV series called The Funny Manns starring Cliff Norton) and appearances in short-subject series like The Voice of Hollywood and Hollywood on Parade also just barely scratch the surface of the goodies to be found on Lost and Found.

All Day Entertainment, in collaboration with Lobster Films and Facets/Cine-Notes, have brought silent comedy fans a treasure trove of vintage material that brings to light the largely forgotten (but nevertheless influential) career of the curious of all the silent clowns (it was Walter Kerr who once memorably described Langdon as looking like “a baby dope fiend”). With the recent announcement that Langdon’s finest silent feature, The Strong Man, has been added to the 2007 National Film Registry (a year that also saw the inclusion of Charley Chase’s classic Mighty Like a Moose [1926]), it’s fortuitous timing that this box set has arrived just in time to re-evaluate this great comedian and give him his proper due. If you are a silent comedy fan, and you haven’t picked up this collection—shame on you! And for those of you who have never experienced Langdon’s magic…Ivan-Bob says check it out.

1 comment:

John McElwee said...

Wonderful review of the Langdon set, Ivan. I picked it up as well, and what I've seen so far is excellent. Wish we'd had that Walter Kerr comedy series here in NC...