Saturday, July 5, 2008

The trouble with Harry

Back in January of this year, I reviewed the 2007 DVD box set Harry Langdon: Lost and Found and mentioned in my review that it would have been nice if All Day Entertainment (producer of Lost and Found’s contents) had been able to secure one of the remaining feature films that Langdon directed, either Three’s a Crowd (1927) or The Chaser (1928). (Heart Trouble [1928] is considered a lost film.) Well, this past June, Kino Video came through in the clutch by providing us a disc with both films, part of their Slapstick Symposium series. (The Langdon films were released in tandem with a second volume of Stan Laurel silent comedies, and the 1923 Mabel Normand feature The Extra Girl—and a bonus short from 1913, The Gusher.)

Since my choice of TCM viewing last night was The Music Man (1962)—a musical I have seen multiple times—I decided to take a peek at the Langdon films, particularly since the disc has been sitting on one of my shelves for some time now. In Crowd, Harry plays his usual “only-God-can-help-this-little-twerp” role, an assistant mover who rescues a pregnant woman (Gladys McConnell) from the streets and finds himself the recipient of an instant family. His new “wife” has run away from her husband (Cornelius Keefe), who had been engaging in strong drink but has since cleaned up his act and wants both she and the newborn to return.

Finally getting the opportunity to see Three’s a Crowd, I’ve learned that there are plenty of misconceptions about the film. For example, Leonard Maltin described it in his book The Great Movie Comedians as “astonishingly clumsy—not only in the construction of gags and element of story and character, but also in its physical makeup. Matching shots do not match, others are held for too long, and so on.” I didn’t see any evidence of this while I watched the movie, so perhaps Maltin either had access to a different print or he should schedule a second viewing to re-familiarize himself with its contents. However, Leonard is unswervingly correct in one aspect of his judgment of Crowd:

The movie just isn’t funny.

But don’t say this to film historian David Kalat, who provides one of the few extras on the DVD: an audio commentary extolling the virtues of the film, labeling it “the most misunderstood masterpiece of the silent era.” Kalat further asserts that outside of himself, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to defend Crowd as vehemently as he. (I know that the masses aren’t always right…but you'd think Kalat would pick up on that as a sign.)

Kalat, a self-described Langdon fan who contributed heavily to the Lost and Found box set, fervently believes that Crowd is “less a slapstick comedy than a dark tragedy…a nightmare,” blithely unaware of the double-edged interpretation of his comments. I’ve not met Kalat, and I’m sure he’s a very fine person, but I have listened to enough of his DVD commentaries to know that a) he delivers these pronouncements as if they were issued forth on stone tablets by the Gods of Comedy, and b) if he had it to do all over again, he would still fall in love with the sound of his own voice.

Kalat takes two approaches to defending Langdon’s “misunderstood masterpiece.” The first is that he explains away its lack of laugh content with phrases like “avant-garde” and “minimalist” and “this movie has opted out of every mainstream comedic convention.” To quote Kalat: “If you’re the kind of person who objects to a Picasso painting, saying ‘Well, that’s not what a woman looks like’—well, then maybe this isn’t the movie for you.” (Translation: “It’s your fault that your tastes are too plebian to recognize a true masterpiece.”) In other words, Langdon’s intention to make a comedy completely devoid of laughs was all part of his “master plan”:

These three films [Long Pants, Crowd, and Chaser] cost Langdon dearly in terms of his audience. But the reason was not that he pursued romantic plots misfit to his oddball character—but that he did so in ways that deliberately sacrificed any pretense to audience sympathy or identification. From Long Pants onward, Harry took what was always outsider, eerie sort of character and put in him in situations in which he all but dared the viewer to reject him. Does a comedian require audience sympathy and identification? Certainly his peers and competitors at the time assumed so. But for audiences today, the notion of comic anti-heroes has become somewhat more routine. Steve Martin in The Jerk. Ricky Gervais’ David Brent from the original BBC version of The Office. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. These are not lovable characters. And the comedy is often in the disparity between their egregious behavior and our conception of social norms. The more with sympathize with him, the less funny this is…the more horrible it is. Langdon is performing a joke designed to make us feel bad if we laugh. (Ivan: Perhaps this may explain why most of Harry’s Columbia shorts suck. Do you suppose Jules White knew about this?)

Kalat confuses likeability with sympathy in his statement. Martin, Gervais and David play unlikable characters, to be sure—but that doesn’t keep audiences from laughing at them or being sympathetic to their plight (mostly because, though we hate to admit it, we can clearly see a part of ourselves in these individuals). W.C. Fields’ various screen incarnations weren’t particularly likable—but he was able to win over the audience by presenting a character at odds with others in his world; a underdog determined to let the small-town bluenoses know just what he thought of their “morality.” This is also true, to a large extent, of Groucho Marx; again, not likable—but sympathetic when he (aided and abetted by brothers Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) would deflate the pomposity of puffed-up authority figures and verbally cut them down to size.

Kalat’s second defense rests on his debunking the long held fiction that after Langdon fired director Frank Capra from his production company, his career took a nose dive; if he can discredit these types of naysayers then resistance to Three’s a Crowd will fall like a row of dominoes. Deflating this claim really isn’t so hard to do; since both the autobiographies of Capra and former Langdon boss Mack Sennett assert that they and they alone were responsible for Harry’s success—though Capra (clearly nursing a grudge) participated a great deal more in Langdon’s character assassination. But in viewing the shorts on the Lost and Found collection, we now know that Capra’s claims of having “created” Harry’s “innocent” character should be taken cumo graino salto—no one knows for certain when Frank started working on Langdon’s shorts but the first onscreen credit he receives is for 1925’s Plain Clothes…and Langdon had completed some fifteen or so shorts before that production in that time period alone.

It’s no trade secret that both Capra and Sennett made frequent hiking trips up Mount Ego, and that many individuals who reviewed Crowd were probably influenced in small ways by the out-and-out fiction in the two men’s autobiographies. But let’s give these critics a little credit: despite playing fast and loose with some of the facts, Capra’s observation that Langdon had got it into his head he was a second Chaplin is pretty much on-the-money, and the proof in the pudding is Three’s a Crowd. You need only to listen to the narration from Robert Youngson’s When Comedy Was King (1960) (narration that Kalat strenously disagrees with) to be able to discern that Youngson didn't need Capra or Sennett to tell him that Langdon's films were starting to become comedically-challenged:

Langdon rose rapidly to stardom…then, at the height of his career, he turned—in films directed by himself—to a new, strange, offbeat kind of comedy full of pathos and even despair. (Emphasis mine.) It was like a trumpeter reaching for a celestial high note somewhere beyond human range. Audiences stopped laughing, and the little fellow slid into oblivion.

So where is the disagreement here? Apart from arguing about the semantics of “oblivion,” there are no untruths in this observation: Kalat himself acknowledges that Langdon’s “master plan” was to hold his audience at arm’s length. In an interview given around the time of Three’s a Crowd’s release, Langdon observed: “I must be wretched—wretched and constantly ludicrous.” (Hey, Har—you’ll get no argument from me on that one.)

The second feature on the DVD, The Chaser, is the funnier of the two films—though this should not be interpreted as necessarily being better. It’s an offbeat, kinky vehicle with Harry as a carousing party boy hauled into court by his wife (McConnell again) and mother-in-law (Helen Hayward)…and rather than granting the Langdons a divorce, the judge (Charles Thurston) decrees that Harry and the missus must switch places for the next thirty days—so the wife takes to wearing butch clothing and Harry ends up in skirts. (Sort of like Thorne Smith's Turnabout, without the fantasy elements.)

There’s a funny bit in Chaser that’s pretty much a running gag throughout the film: Harry, held prisoner in his domicile in his new role as “the lady of the house,” gets a visit from a repo man (Frank Brownlee) looking to collect for a baby cradle purchased by the couple a year ago. Harry brings the item downstairs (along with a potty chair), asserting to his visitor that they’ll probably have no cause to use them. Learning that Harry is unhappy in his marriage, the repo man starts to put the moves on Harry—leading to his ousting by an enraged Langdon. (I guess it’s true what they say…a repo man’s life is always intense.) A few frames later, a despondent Harry is seated in the kitchen when the ice man pops in…and after replacing the ice, the gentleman plants a big wet one on Harry’s lips. (In a “suicide” note to his wife, Harry writes: “p.s.—don’t trust the iceman.”) Still later, Harry has an encounter with the milkman on the back steps of their porch, Harry mechanically crooks his head and the milkman gives him a peck on the cheek. (The look Langdon gives the milkman afterwards is hysterical.)

I wish Kalat had taken the time to do commentary for Chaser because on Crowd, he’s critical of Buster Keaton’s decision to “retreat to safer ground” (after the poor reception of The General [1927]) with what he feels is a remake of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), College (1927). His hero Langdon has done the same thing here: he’s returned to the Mack Sennett-like plots of his earlier career—the last twenty minutes of Chaser is unshakably reminiscent of 1926’s Saturday Afternoon (with Bud Jamison in the Vernon Dent role, an admitted plus), and even the climactic car-careening-uncontrollably-down-a-hill hechoes a similar scene in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926).

In his closing argument for Three’s a Crowd, David Kalat opines: “There are silent comedies funnier…more iconic…more entertaining…more accomplished as works of cinema…but this achieves something they do not: it worms its way behind your eyes and the dark places where your deepest fears lie.” So in that case, I suggest you pick this one up a la Netflix rather than purchasing it. (Seriously—who wants that sort of thing lying around the house?)

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