Friday, 5 May 2017

The Buster That Could've Been: Ten stone-faced alternate realities

“I’ve had a very interesting career. In other words, I have no complaints.” – Buster Keaton to Tony Thomas, 1960

Interesting is an understatement. Buster Keaton’s tumultuous 65-year career in vaudeville, film and television was a literal rollercoaster of ups, downs, missed opportunities and fascinating “what if’s”. If the fates had played out just a little differently, what could Buster’s alternate reality have looked like? 

#1 Hollywood's first child star. Apparently, in 1913 or thereabouts, William Randolph Hearst approached Joe Keaton with the idea of casting The Three Keatons in a screen version of George McManus' comic strip, "Bringing Up Father".  Nix, said Joe. “Nobody’s going to see The Three Keatons on a dirty sheet for a nickel.” (Or words to that effect.) 

But imagine the highly visual, hugely physical Keaton family act on the big screen. It’s a natural, I tell ya. And though the chronology isn’t quite right (Buster would have been 18 in 1913, not exactly a “child”), picture pint-sized Buster as celluloid’s original enfant terrible, bedevilling parents Joe and Myra in a series of split-reel slapstick escapades. Because there’s no filmed record of The Three Keatons’ act, it’s easy to forget just how big-time Buster was as a kid. What a shame there aren’t even a few fragile frames of nitrate where we could “keep our eye on the kid”. 

#2. Huge in France. 1934. With his Hollywood career in tatters, a bad marriage, depressed, alcoholic, unemployed — why not a completely fresh start? After all, Josephine Baker and le jazz hot were just a few of the American imports impacting Parisian culture at the time, and “Malec” had already been embraced by the French intelligentsia. If Hemingway could find his muse in Paris, why not Buster?

So let’s imagine an alternate reality where Buster sails to France to film “Le Roi de Champs Elysees” and figures, “I think I’ll just stay”. He finds a small studio willing to give him creative freedom, and the language barrier actually works to his advantage, minimizing dialogue and accentuating pantomime in his Parisian productions. His creative use of sound informs (to a greater point than it ultimately did in reality) the work of Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix, and ultimately he joins his old friends Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, playing the “Antoine” role in their Franco-Italian production “Atoll K”. 

#3. Fred Mertz. Buster’s established stoneface persona would have captured the same good natured curmudgeonliness William Frawley brought to the role of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo’s landlord and best friend. Plus Fred Mertz was allegedly an ex-vaudevillian, creating the perfect rationale for Buster to engage in some slapstick shenanigans with Lucille Ball. 

Btw, is it just me, or is it weird that Lucy — who professed a huge admiration for Keaton, considered him a mentor, and who’d forged a friendship with him on the MGM lot in in the ‘40s — never had Buster as a guest star on "I Love Lucy" or her later "The Lucy Show"?* It wasn't until the summer of 1965 that they "officially" performed together, in what was technically Buster's final television sketch, on "A Salute to Stan Laurel". At least we have that, but seriously, WTF?

*Same goes for Red Skelton, who never invited Buster on his TV show. What’s up with that?

#4. A B-Western sidekick, just like Al St. John.  Buster’s old Comique cohort Al St. John enjoyed an entire second career (and gained a certain immortality) as “Fuzzy Q. Jones”, a bearded, bumbling but brighter-than-he-seems codger in countless horse operas alongside Lash Larue, etc. etc. 

From the dawn of talkies to the advent of television, B-westerns were legion — and the lone prairie turned out to be the last refuge for many a silent comedian; Andy Clyde, Snub Pollard, Jimmy Aubrey, Poodles Hanneford and even Max Davidson found themselves bringing comic relief to any number of B-westerns from the ‘30s into the early ‘50s. Could Buster have found a home in the cinematic sagebrush?

He certainly had an affinity for the old west, as seen in his silent classics “The Paleface” and “Go West”. Obviously, Buster belongs in the wide open plains. Into the ‘40s he has a secondary sidekick role (literally the sidekick to grizzled sidekick #1 Si Jenks) in the less-than-aptly named Action Pictures’ less-than-classic Cinecolor nature film, “God’s Country”. The film isn’t really a western, but anything where Buster’s porkpie hat is replaced by a coonskin cap gets by on a technicality. 

Buster came closest to reaching true “western sidekick” status in the early ‘60s, when he was cast as Ernie Kovacs’ native American partner-in-crime in the pilot for the half-hour sitcom, “Medicine Man”. Sadly, Kovacs’ tragic death in a car crash kept more than one episode from being filmed. What a damn shame on so many levels. While the finished pilot isn’t great (Kovacs can’t quite pull off the con-man-with-a-soft-heart, and Buster’s role — imagine Chief Rotten Eagle from “Pajama Party” — would draw plenty of PC winces today), who wouldn’t have loved seeing Buster popping up on their TV screens, week after week after week, with one of the era’s most idiosyncratic comedy stars?

#5. A pioneer in sound film. Buster Keaton, the quietest of the silent clowns, had a simple philosophy when it came to sound: “We talk when we’re supposed to talk, but we lay out material that doesn’t call for dialogue.” In other words, unless you have a reason to talk, don't.

With the advent of talkies, Chaplin managed to avoid sound. Keaton didn’t have the luxury — or the interest, frankly — to do so. He had every intention of embracing this new technology… on his own terms. MGM, unfortunately, had other ideas. “So the minute they started laying out a script, they’re looking for those funny lines, puns, little jokes, anything else.” 

Unfortunately, due to MGM's approach to talkies, Buster wouldn't have the opportunity to put this theory into practice until his first Educational shorts. "The Gold Ghost" gives Buster a full three lines of dialogue (one of them being “Stop!”) in the first reel. Ultimately, the Educationals would acquiesce to “modern” expectation (these churned out cheapies affording very little time or “artistic vision), although a few gems still reveal Buster’s austere approach to sound (notably "One Run Elmer").  

But given the opportunity, it’s easy to imagine Buster creating films in which silence is anything but silent, and the aural experience would be every bit as quirky as the visual. The French comic filmmakers Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix were masters at this, and both readily acknowledged the influence of Keaton in their work. 

Finally, look at 1965’s “The Railrodder”. Technically, yes, it’s a silent film — but really the only reason it’s silent is that Buster has nobody to talk to. So why talk? A more recent equation would be Robert Redford’s 2013 solo performance in “All Is Lost”, with its single line of dialogue: “fuuuuuuuck”. Give me a moment while I picture Buster in that role. 

#6 MGM’s comeback kid. By the end of 1932, Buster was given the boot by MGM and was pretty much washed up in Hollywood. The road back led to Florida, Paris, England and ultimately Educational’s address on Poverty Row. A humbling return to MGM as a gagman seemed to cement Buster’s bottom-tier status at the studio where he once reigned — until he was offered a high-profile (and well publicized) supporting role in the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald operetta, “New Moon”. 

How thrilling must this have been for Buster? An opportunity to vindicate himself in a major MGM production, far away from the Columbia “cheaters” currently bearing his name. A role like this could have re-established Keaton’s worth to MGM — if not as a star, then as a solid, reliable, laugh-getting contract player. He must have been salivating at the opportunity.

But it never happened, and of the many dashed dreams Buster encountered in the wake of his initial MGM firing, this one must have really hurt. In the end, Keaton was cut from the final film (although he can be glimpsed in a few frames). One theory was that he was “too funny”, upstaging everyone and stealing the picture.  (Buster being “too funny” and having his scenes cut accordingly is always a great story, as in the legend of “Limelight”.) The real story, it seems, was that Buster shared a number of scenes with Nat Pendleton, who fell ill and couldn’t complete the picture. With Pendleton gone, and Keaton’s role so dependent on his presence, the easiest thing to do was simply to scissor Buster. 

MGM never gave Buster a second chance after that — not when he needed it, anyway. (You could argue they did with “In The Good Old Summertime”, but it was too little too late. And by that time his later career renaissance was on the rise. Buster did fine without MGM after that, thank you.) 

#7. A dramatic actor. Buster’s onscreen stoicism automatically suggests a certain gravitas to his comedy, and we know him to be a man who took his comedy very, very seriously. His best films all had a sober undercurrent, and anyone who’s seen “The General” or the finale of “Battling Butler” knows just how fine a dramatic actor Buster could be. (At his best he’s more authentic than Chaplin, and more interesting than Lloyd.)

Various rumors and publicity blurbs had Buster making his “formal” dramatic debut in MGM’s “Grand Hotel” (supposedly in the role played by Lionel Barrymore). I can only assume that would have been magnificent, and could have carved out a very different career for Buster at MGM beyond the endless iterations of “Elmer”. But it never happened. 

Ultimately, it took television to give Buster some all-too-rare dramatic opportunities. One of his finest performances is “The Awakening”, an adaptation of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” presented by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as part of the Rheingold Theatre anthology series. Buster portrays a bureaucrat content in his role within the system until he, himself, becomes a victim of it. His impassioned speech at the film’s climax is a Keaton we’d never seen before and, unfortunately, one we wouldn’t really see again.

A later TV drama, “The Silent Partner” is a solid piece of mid-‘50s hokum completely saved by Buster playing, essentially, an alternate reality version of himself. “Kelsey Dutton” is a washed up silent comedy star, hiding from his past behind a glass of beer. It had to have cut pretty close to the bone for Buster, but his superb underplaying makes Kelsey neither pitiful or a caricature. In fact, it’s the re-creations of silent slapstick that torpedo the show; if Buster’d been left to his dramatic devices while the “flashbacks” were represented by actual clips from Keaton’s silent classics, “The Silent Partner” might have been a classic of its own kind.

#8. Karl Dane.  The silent comedy graveyard is littered with those who succumbed to drink and/or despair. Larry Semon, Lloyd Hamilton, Charley Chase all died young and haunted. Harry Langdon clung on as long as he could before finally slipping away. Perhaps most tragic of all was Buster’s best friend, Roscoe Arbuckle, who scandal hoped to destroy but couldn't, but whose mighty heart gave out on the dawn of what could have been a glorious comeback. 

Then there’s Buster’s MGM stablemate, Karl Dane. Unlike Buster, it wasn’t loss of creative control and alcoholism that ended his career at MGM. It was his voice; a thick Danish accent mangled his attempts at comedy in the talkie era. Ultimately, MGM let him go… within a few years, Karl Dane ended it all with a revolver. 

It’s not hard to imagine Buster at the end of his MGM tether — drunk, frustrated, angry, at a loss for how far and fast he fell — staring into the barrel of a gun. Once again, Buster’s work ethic saved his life. As he’d done in his family vaudeville act so many times when his father threw him into a backdrop, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and started all over again.

#9. A wax works. By 1950, the silent stars of a generation ago had a permanent address in has-been-land. Buster could have just as easily taken up residence alongside H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nillson on Sunset Boulevard. But nope. Buster had already embraced television with his own local (later syndicated TV show) and was busily engineering a comeback. 

Yes, TV too often portrayed him as an old-timey pie throwing Kop (something that started with Hollywood Cavalcade in 1939, and a persona Buster was quite willing to adopt if it meant a paycheck) — but beyond that, Buster refused to live in the past, quite vocally expressing dismay when, at a reunion of silent Hollywood icons, “Some of them had never heard a Beatles record. They haven’t kept up with the times.” If keeping up with the times meant doing the twist with Bobbi Shaw over the end credits of “Beach Blanket Bingo”, then let’s twist! 

#10. A very old man. He could've been on Laugh-In. He could've taken all of Burt Mustin's kindly codger roles. He could've been a mainstay on Carson, regaling audiences with stories of his triumphs and tragedies over the course of showbiz history. All I know is 70 is waaaay too young to have left us.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Langdon & Laurel & Hardy & Hal (Part 5)

Gone, but not forgotten

While Harry’s performing career took a serious blow (you might even say “fatal” – there would be no big comeback hopes after Zenobia), he was back on the script-writing team for Stan & Babe’s “reunion” film at Roach, A Chump At Oxford.

For some reason, 1939 seemed a particularly uninspired year for Laurel & Hardy… too few moments of brilliance cushioned in all-too-familiar material.  Maybe they were too battered and bruised by the bickering with Roach to come back stronger. Roach was likely too disengaged to care, preferring to focus on potential blockbusters such as One Million B.C. instead of the slapsticky clown he'd built his reputation –  and studio – on. Whatever the reason, rather than returning feeling refreshed and risky, the duo retreated to rehashes of past successes and proven ideas.  Just as Block-Heads remade Unaccustomed As We AreA Chump At Oxford resurrected chunks of From Soup To Nuts.  The Flying Deuces drew inspiration from Beau Hunks (and, reportedly, an unfilmed scene originally written for The Live Ghost).  Saps At Sea is an unlikely amalgam of Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Three Stooges’ Punch Drunks, with a dash of County Hospital thrown in for good measure.  Originality didn’t seem high on anybody’s agenda. This goes for Harry too.

Charley Rodgers, Harry, Hardy, Laurel and director Alf Goulding
on the set of A CHUMP AT OXFORD.

As a screenwriter, Harry doesn’t seem to have a discernible style at this point.  The non-Laurel & Hardy films where he receives writing credit – a smattering of his post-Roach two-reelers, his later feature House Of Errors – demonstrate nothing that’s distinctly Langdonesque. (The forays into darkness found in his later silents such as Long Pants and Three's A Crowd are nowhere to be seen.) So in assessing his contributions to Laurel & Hardy’s final three features of their “classic” era, all you can do is look at the similarities to earlier Langdon films.  For example, the disguising-the-girl-as-furniture routine from Block-Heads, first used by Harry in Ella Cinders.  Or the knuckle-cracking bit in Saps At Sea, where Stan tugs at each finger, with a delayed “pop” on the final tug… a favourite Harry gag that shows up in a couple of his Educationals.

Or this one, also from Saps At Sea...

Ollie suffers a hornophobia-induced nervous breakdown, and is sent home from his job at Sharp & Pierce horn factory to recuperate.  Another car has the boys’ Model T hemmed in and Stan (being Stan) honks loudly at the barricading driver.  The horn gets stuck, rattling Ollie further, until Stan takes a hammer to it… causing the entire engine to plummet to the asphalt.

Some same old same old...from Saps At Sea...

Harry would open his 1942 feature House Of Errors with this exact gag: Harry trying to quiet a blaring horn while Charley Rogers naps a few feet away.  It’s an ideal scene for Harry, and he gets more mileage from it than Stan does.  He squats.  He squints.  He sticks his fingers in his ears, hoping for the best.  He rassles the horn out from under the bonnet.  He shushes it loudly – and successfully (if only momentarily).  He hides it in an echoey garbage can and smothers it under his apron.  He finally beats it into submission with a hammer, clobbering it a dozen times before finally waking up Charley.  Harry performs the sequence flawlessly, in a single, uninterrupted take.

This gag’s genesis can actually be found in Langdon’s fifth Roach talkie The Big Kick.  Gas station attendant Harry spends several minutes trying to quiet a noisy, rattling engine – allowing Harry to perform in pantomime while having the soundtrack serve a purpose (beyond delivering clumsy dialogue).  The perfect silent comedy gag for the sound era.

Scouring these films for signs of Harry will bring a few obvious Langdon sightings (the hobo Stan at the end of The Flying Deuces, eerily akin to the wandering Harry of Remember When?).  Overall, the only real impact seems to be the fact that Stan’s a bit dumber than usual… his mental soundtrack about a second out-of-synch with what’s going on around him. This starts to take his character into a slightly surreal realm, more cartoony, more disconnected.  (Stan unpeeling the multi-layered banana in Saps At Sea.)  Also, there’s an odd obsession in three out of four of these films with “splitting up” Stan and Ollie (their 20 year separation in Block-Heads; the suicide pact and “death” of Ollie in The Flying Deuces; Ollie denouncing Lord Paddington in A Chump At Oxford) – coincidence, wishful thinking on Harry’s part (was there still a possibility of Zenobia 2?), or simply art imitating life (acknowledging the rocky realities of L&H's current Hollywood status)?  Again, it’s difficult to say how much of this is Harry’s doing. Maybe his dark side was shining through after all.

 ...and The Flying Deuces...
 ...and A Chump At Oxford. 

But if Harry didn’t provide truly innovative scriptwriting support at this point, perhaps he provided something else.  Stan, like Harry in 1928, saw himself on the cusp of potential greatness – he would soon be free from Roach, and able to produce his own films exactly as he saw fit.  Certainly, Harry had been through this before.  He knew the downside, even if Stan only saw the up.  Did Harry serve as support, or as a symbol – a living example of “don’t let this happen to you”?

But as 1940 loomed ahead, in Stan's eyes, anything seemed possible.  And with the strains of “There’s No Place Like Home” underscoring Ollie’s final Roach-era “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”, and Laurel & Hardy heading off to what they hoped would be greener pastures, Harry had to wonder if he indeed had a home anymore.

Alf and Bert, together again

With Laurel & Hardy out of the picture, Harry wasn’t completely out of work.  Roach kept him around for two more outings released in 1941: a scriptwriting credit for Road Show, and a supporting role in the streamliner All-American Co-ed.

Variety had actually announced Road Show as the second Langdon & Hardy outing back in October, 1938; the zany farce doesn’t suit either one of them.  (Although Babe could have had a great deal of fun as eccentric Colonel Caraway, played here by Adolph Menjou.)  There isn’t really much to suggest Harry’s participation in this screwball comedy that isn’t quite as screwy as it should be; the closest it comes is Charles Butterworth’s hypnotic fascination with a taffy-pulling device.

Harry’s appearance in All-American Co-ed received none of the buildup that accompanied Zenobia (he’s billed sixth between Esther Dale and The Tanner Sisters). He plays Hap Holden, wisecracking publicity flack out to recruit new co-eds for stodgy Mar Brynn Horticultural School For Girls.  It’s the kind of supporting role Harry would specialize in for the rest of his career.  He does get a few choice moments and a ton of double-takes, tearing strips out of his shirt with an electric razor while being serenaded by lingerie-clad cuties, and feeding a sandwich to a meat-eating plant.

A more interesting turn in Harry’s post-Roach career is a pair of team efforts he made with Charley Rogers, Laurel & Hardy’s longtime gagman, sometime director, and a fellow scribe on Harry’s four Laurel & Hardy collaborations.  Charley was never much of an on-screen performer (he’s the detective in Habeas Corpus, Finlayson’s butler in Our Wife and Pack Up Your Troubles, and Simple Simon in Babes In Toyland), and his brittle, stuffy Englishman characterization is hard to warm up to.  But he’s a surprising partner for Harry.  They have a tremendous chemistry together (more than, say, Harry with El Brendel), their mutual timing is razor sharp, and Charley provides one thing that Harry thrives under: an authority figure that Harry strives eagerly to please.  Their two films together, Double Trouble (Monogram, 1941)[7] and House Of Errors (PRC, 1942) are delightfully playful second features that effortlessly overcome their non-existent budgets.

House of Errors. That's Vernon Dent fourth from left; Monty Collins far right.
Harry and Charley Rogers are smack in the middle.

In both films their names are Alf and Bert (shades of Our Relations), and Harry is once again in his familiar costume, in a somewhat geriatric version of his silent character.  Double Trouble has Charley and Harry as Alf and Bert Prattle, British refugees who arrive at the home of a wealthy American sponsor (who’s expecting children, not two very mature twits).  Describing their disastrous journey across the Atlantic, they share a terrifically timed dialogue exchange, with Harry’s hiccups constantly interrupting Charley.  With each hiccup, Charley says “Boo!” and frightened Harry responds, “All gone!”  (Offered a glass of water, Harry declines: “I prefer his boos.”)  The two engage in a non sequitur laced discussion of their travails (see Stan and Ollie’s “shiphiking” story in Sons Of The Desert), and Harry is once again distracted by sandwiches and apples.  Some things never change.  Later, Harry’s given a few minutes to himself to silently flirt with an assembly-line worker at the bean cannery where he and Charley are working – doing magic tricks, juggling cans, getting his finger caught in a mousetrap.  She’s charmed, and so are we.

The plot of the next Langdon/Rogers union, House Of Errors, plays like a mash-up of Laurel & Hardy’s Fox features, Dancing Masters and The Big Noise – odd, since those two films had yet to be produced (Charley Rogers plays a brief bit in Dancing Masters).

Harry and Charley (or Bert and Alf) are wanna-be reporters who pose as houseboy and butler for the inventor of a new superweapon.  An oily, pencil-mustached smoothie woos the inventor’s daughter while attempting to steal the invention for himself.  Sound familiar?  Story credit for House Of Errors went to Langdon, with scriptwriting support from Ewart Adamson (from the Columbia shorts department’s stable of comedy writers; other Columbia stalwarts in the picture include Harry’s old Sennett sidekick Vernon Dent and Monty Collins, who would later provide gags for Laurel & Hardy’s final film, Atoll K).

Charged with guarding the super-secret weapon, Charley and Harry engage in some spooky, darkened house antics reminiscent of the haunted maze in A Chump At Oxford (complete with exploding cigars).  After some conversation over who’ll sleep first (as in The Big Noise), Charley busies himself with knitting, as the bad guys try to nab a set of keys from Harry’s side using a fish hook and a slingshot.  Of course things start moving about mysteriously, including Harry’s hat, hanky and his suddenly out of control legs.  Blame goes to the pickles and pie Harry had for dinner, much like Stan’s “dizzy spells” in Chump.  And like The Big Noise, and The Flying Deuces before it, the whole thing culminates in a wild aerial chase.  Harry gets the girl (actually, she’s accidentally swooned into his lap) and plants a few fluttery fingertip kisses on her mouth.  A lovely little fadeout for Harry’s final starring feature.

Harry still had a few films ahead of him, but his career had finally run out of steam.  He would continue to play bit parts in poverty row B-pictures and share screen time with the likes of El Brendel and Elsie Ames in a rather sad series of what he derisively coined “Oh – Ouch – Oh” two-reelers back at Columbia, where the director would holler “go faster” until Harry looked just plain tired, all momentum and hope exhausted.  He died on December 22, 1944, at the age of 60.

Harry Langdon may have been forgotten by Hollywood, but there was at least one man who never forgot him.  Stan Laurel kept a photo of Harry on his wall well into the 1940s, and probably until his dying day.  Of Harry he said, “A great comedian who had it in him to be a great actor, like Chaplin.”

Harry's portrait hangs on Stan's wall in the mid '40s. What I'd give to read that inscription.
That Harry Langdon achieved greatness – and that his greatness remains apparent today, as seen in the remarkable Harry Langdon: ‘Lost and Found’ DVD collection[8] – is undeniable.  His legacy may be clouded in myth, banged and bruised by time, his tale told by those who outlived and overshadowed him, but the proof is in the work… and in the impact he had on two of our most beloved comic figures.

So the next time you laugh at Stan Laurel gnawing on a wax apple, or one of those lingering close-ups of Mr. Laurel standing helplessly by as Mr. Hardy suffers through another nice mess, give a little thanks skyward to Mr. Langdon.  It couldn’t have happened without him.
NOTES – Nobody’s Baby
[7] Double Trouble was directed by William West – better known as Billy West, the silent comedian notorious for his Charlie Chaplin imitation.  The Laurel & Hardy connection: Babe Hardy played the heavy in more than two dozen Billy West comedies, and was later teamed with Bobby Ray in a pre-Laurel & Hardy partnership for West’s Cumberland Productions.

[8] All Day Entertainment's Harry Langdon: Lost and Found is unfortunately out of print. Do yourself a favour and check amazon and ebay to nab a copy while you can! 

Special thanks to: Nicole Arciola, Richard Bann, Ian Elliot, Paul Gierucki, David Kalat, Del Kempster, Glenn Mitchell, Ted Okuda, Patrick Picking, Richard Roberts, Roger Robinson, Ulrich Ruedel and Dave Stevenson.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Langdon & Laurel & Hardy & Hal (Part 4)

Exit Laurel. Enter Langdon.

Hollywood, Aug. 17, 1938 (U.P.) – “Stan Laurel, pickle-faced little screen comic, Wednesday was given his walking papers at Hal Roach studio which immediately signed Harry Langdon to form a new team with rotund Oliver Hardy…The new team of Hardy and Langdon, according to Roach, will do only full-length features.”

By the summer of 1938, Hal Roach was a man of huge artistic aspirations and very little patience for the pickle-faced” comic who thought he knew more about filmmaking than Roach did. He had already abandoned the two-reel format and jettisoned short subject stalwarts Charley Chase and the Our Gang troupe. Laurel & Hardy (and good old reliable Patsy Kelly) were the only reminders of his slapstick past. And Roach considered them expendable.

Roach had ended his partnership with MGM, who seemed to merely tolerate his non-Laurel & Hardy feature sin order to ensure a steady stream of bankable product from the popular duo. Roach’s new distribution deal with United Artists would free him to establish himself as a serious filmmaker.

To United Artists, however, Laurel & Hardy were part of the deal. Unknown to UA, Roach was now without his most marketable commodity. United Artists couldn’t have been happy. Their arrangement was to include a certain number of Laurel & Hardy comedies and suddenly – poof! – no Laurel. The Roach/UA publicity machine would have to go into high gear to convince exhibitors, audiences (and themselves) that Langdon & Hardy was somehow preferable to Laurel & Hardy.

The teaming of Harry Langdon and Oliver Hardy received a lot —a lot— of press. The permanent split of Laurel & Hardy seemed like a done deal, with Harry stepping in to bring his own childlike innocence to the role of Ollie’s sidekick. Laurel was out, Langdon was in – for good.

Hopeful, hard-luck Harry's dilemma

Here was another opportunity for the newspapers to print more stories about hopeful, hard-luck Harry. He was in the ultimate catch-22… cautiously optimistic about what a pairing with Oliver Hardy could mean to his career, and very aware that, ultimately, he was no replacement for Stan Laurel. “Stan got me my writing job here at Roach’s. I never dreamed that his partnership with Oliver Hardy would be broken… I honestly hope they’ll patch things up, even if it means Hardy and I won’t play in a picture together.

But Roach wasn’t interested in creating another Laurel & Hardy. Roach was more interested in creating “important” pictures based on “important” stories by “important” authors. The story chosen was ‘Zenobia’s Infidelity’, the tale of a sideshow elephant who falls in love with a country doctor. (Roach seemed to have a fondness for genteel tales of the Old South – or maybe he just wanted to recycle sets and costumes from 1936’s General Spanky.)

So in Zenobia Harry isn’t emulating Stan, he isn’t even the vacuous Harry of old; as sideshow medicine man J. Thorndyke McCrackle he’s putting his own slightly dim spin on W.C. Fields (aka Eustace P. McGargle). He even performs a patented Fields’ gag lifted from The Old-Fashioned Way: hawking his curative elixir, McCrackle’s voice devolves into a raspy whisper until, swigging from a bottle of the snake oil, he’s able to bellow out his sales pitch at full force.

Langdon and Hardy share very little screen time together. Rob Stone, in his excellent book on the boys’ solo films, ‘Laurel Or Hardy’, makes the interesting observation that Hardy was saddled not with one Laurel replacement, but with three: Langdon, Stepin Fetchit and Billie Burke. (On viewing, Billie Burke’s performance as Dr. Tibbett’s flibberty-gibbet wife is scarily similar to Stan’s portrayal of Mrs. Hardy in Twice Two.) So the film belongs to Babe Hardy, delivering an amiable variation on his own personality, as a courtly Mississippi medico more concerned with following the tenets of the Declaration of Independence than feeding sugar pills to hypochondriacal matrons.

Much hat and Hardy crushing about to ensue.

The big slapstick scene involving the new team revolves around Dr. Tibbett’s examination of the ailing Zenobia. The expected mayhem ensues. Zenobia crushes the doctor’s top hat, later she crushes the doctor himself; she trumpets the hat off Tibbett’s head, wallops him with her trunk, and lifts him high over her head. There’s even time for Tibbett and McCrackle to reenact a gag from Block-Heads:

Tibbett: “Maybe she’s deaf.”
McCrackle: “Say, that’s possible.”
Tibbett: (shouting into Zenobia’s ear) “Hello!”
McCrackle: “Hello, how are you?”
Tibbett: “I’m fine…” (big take and lingering glare)

With the examination over, McCrackle expresses his thanks to the good doctor with an unnecessary comment on Tibbett’s heft.

McCrackle: “She’ll always remember. Remember, an elephant never forgets!”
Tibbett: “Yes, but I’m not an elephant!”
McCrackle: “No…well…not exactly…”

Stan and Ollie they’re not.

So the grateful goliath follows Tibbett everywhere for three reels, embarrassing his family, discomfiting the oh-so-import Carter family, and driving McCrackle to sue Tibbett for alienating the affections of an elephant. Harry has some good scenes in the courtroom, leaping to his feet to recite his overly rehearsed speech (“In the first place, Zenobia and I…”) and breaking into his sideshow spiel at the slightest provocation.

All’s well that ends well, of course, and as with There Goes My Heart, the fadeout belongs to Harry, strolling off into the horizon and waving to the audience as the end music swells.

The critics were genuinely pleased to see Harry back, and the reviews were optimistic if not overly enthusiastic. The New York Times embraced Harry’s comeback: “Harry Langdon’s pale and beautifully blank countenance (as the elephant’s owner who sues Dr. Hardy for alienation) has probably already excited the artistic jealousy of Mr. Laurel.” Meanwhile, Variety cautiously anticipated the pair’s next film: “Langdon has but a few moments to work with Hardy, so an estimate of their work as a team must wait for future pictures.

But future pictures never happened. What seemed like a good idea on paper died a quick death onscreen. Langdon & Hardy have next-to-zero chemistry in their scenes together; the only time Babe seems uncomfortable in the film is when he's sharing the screen with Harry. He's too busy "acting" — trying not to be Ollie —  to make the team work

In the end, Zenobia couldn’t live up to the hype, and audiences quickly wised up to the ruse. It didn’t take long to sound the death knell on the Langdon & Hardy team. On May 13, 1939, just a month after Zenobia’s release, Motion Picture Herald announced that Laurel & Hardy were back together. Langdon was out, Laurel was in — for good.

An early version of this blog post was originally published in Nieuwe Blotto Magazine.