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. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Langdon & Laurel & Hardy & Hal (Part 3)

The fine Italian hand of Harry Langdon

So by March 1930, Harry was out of the Hal Roach lot… but not out of work.  He played supporting roles to Slim Summerville and Ben Lyon in two features, vanished into a vortex of bankruptcy and divorce lawyers, and resurfaced two years later at Educational to regurgitate old successes from The Strong Man and Long Pants in a series of low-budget two-reelers.  He came close to a comeback with a juicy, fourth-billed role in Al Jolson’s heavily promoted Hallelujah, I’m A Bum, but the oddball rhyming musical, while delightfully charming today, was a disaster with audiences of 1933.  In 1934 he joined Columbia’s newly created short subject department, where he abandoned his familiar costume and character, grew a moustache, and reinvented his comic persona as a slightly befuddled, decidedly un-magical, middle-aged man… Leon Errol or Hugh Herbert, without the bite.

In 1935 Harry abandoned the Hollywood who abandoned him to tour Australia, performing in a stage revival of Anything Goes. Heading home after a successful run, he stopped in England to do a small part in Mad About Money.  Back in Hollywood he churned out two quick two-reelers for Columbia before landing, of all places, back at the Hal Roach studios.

Who knows exactly what caused Harry to return to Roach in 1937?  Stan Laurel, according to Harry in a later interview, was responsible for getting Langdon a job as a writer.  But an August 12, 1937 syndicated newspaper report may hold the real answer: “Reports persist that Stanley Laurel won’t return to the Hal Roach lot, and that Harry Langdon will replace him as a comedy co-star with Oliver Hardy.”

Here’s where you can start to connect the dots.  The year-long gap between the filming of Way Out West and the scripting of Swiss Miss was the result of yet another contract dispute between Stan Laurel and Hal Roach.  Roach was getting progressively more fed up with his studio’s biggest – and most argumentative – breadwinner.  Laurel was, to Roach in 1937, what Langdon was in 1930: a “high handed”, temperamental, pain in the neck.  A much-humbler Harry might be just the solution Roach was looking for.

But first, let’s go back a few months, to the summer and fall of 1936 and the creation of Way Out West.  It would seem Langdon was in the air at the Roach studios.  Stan, Roach or somebody must have screened Harry’s masterpiece The Strong Man recently, since Way Out West mirrors many of The Strong Man’s core comic ideas: the melodramatic battle of good vs. evil in a western saloon; a stagecoach sequence centred around comic annoyance; the search for a young innocent named Mary (“Roberts” in Way Out West; “Brown” in The Strong Man); and a masquerade by a duplicitous, platinum-haired seductress out to “de-flower” the comic innocent (Stan/Harry). Even Stan’s pantomimed account of his horrific seduction to Mary Roberts (behind the meat locker door) echoes Harry’s retelling of the tale to Mary Brown in the earlier film.  
Way Out West vs. The Strong Man: a tale of seduction and a stagecoach encounter.

Way Out West turned out to be enough of a box-office success for Roach to tolerate another four-film pact with Stan Laurel Productions – scotching any immediate need for a Langdon & Hardy partnership.

Regardless, here was Harry back at Roach (as an insurance policy against Laurel?). This “just in case” mentality may have resulted in Harry’s first appearance in a Hollywood feature in three years, an unbilled cameo in Roach’s There Goes My Heart.  As a milquetoast minister cajoling bickering lovers Frederick March and Virginia Bruce into matrimony, Langdon’s return to the screen receives particularly loving treatment from director Norman Z. McLeod, one that must have inspired a happy “welcome back” from moviegoers.  Harry’s placid interpretation suggests interesting opportunities as a character actor… a “what might have been” scenario similar to Oliver Hardy’s uncredited bit in Riding High. He even gets the final shot to himself, a true leave-‘em-laughing homecoming.[6]

Laurel & Langdon... together at last

At the same time Harry was making his minor come-back in Roach’s first United Artist release, he was also hard at work on Roach’s final release for MGM: Laurel & Hardy’s Block-Heads.  Even before its release, Block-Heads was announced as the team’s final film.  For some critics it was “good riddance” to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, and time for a belated appreciation of Mr. Langdon.  “R.W.D.” in the The New York Herald-Tribune began his Block-Heads review thusly:
“The fine Italian hand of Harry Langdon is discernible in the latest Laurel and Hardy feature-length film at the Rialto.  Langdon, who in his heyday was undoubtedly a greater comedian than either the sad-faced man or the fat fellow ever could be, helps to create a comic tour de force which lifts this offering well above the entertainment level of the recent Swiss Miss. Block-Heads is, pardonably enough, a film without a point, unless it is to massage the spectator’s stomach muscles, so the other four authors may breathe freely with Mr. Langdon.”

Well, somebody liked Harry.

Three minds without a single thought.

That Block-Heads was superior to Swiss Miss goes without saying.  What is hard to say is exactly what Harry contributed to the script.  Block-Heads is a noisy remake of the boys’ first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are, padded out with some uncharacteristically frantic comedy and a hefty dose of “white magic”. But the first two reels are delightfully genteel – even melancholy – with an obvious foundation in Langdon’s Sennett three-reeler Soldier Man. Some have even gone as far as calling Block-Heads a remake of Soldier Man. (Calling Block–Heads a remake of Soldier Man is like calling A Chump At Oxford a remake of Langdon’s Feet Of Mud. Both have street sweeping scenes, and both Stan and Harry play golf with a broom and a manhole. Harry seems content with recycling old gags on his Laurel & Hardy assignments.)

But the similarities end at the initial comic set up: an innocent doughboy unaware that World War I is over. Put Stan and Harry in exactly the same situation, and their key differences become apparent.

In Block-Heads, Stan steadfastly patrols the trenches he was left to defend twenty years earlier. Pivoting in place for the umpteenth time during his umpteenth march back-and-forth, blowing his umpteenth reveille, dining on his umpteenth can of beans, Stan is the ultimate literalist – he could do this forever.  (“When I’m told to do something …”) Confronted with the reality of having wasted twenty years on his pointless watch, his only reply is, “How time flies!”.

Harry, on the other hand, wanders aimlessly and alone, encountering bundles of dynamite, panicky faux-Euro peasants, and a rather mystifying set of cow’s udders.  The udder sequence is one of Langdon’s most celebrated routines; hiding under a cow while taking aim at a foreign “enemy”, Harry is mesmerized by the teats… he can’t keep his eyes, or his fingers, off them.  (It’s hard to concentrate on your target with these things dangling in your face!)  In a typically convoluted Sennett twist, Harry is led to believe the cow has eaten some dynamite.  As he dashes off to fetch a pail of water, the cow runs away…just as the dynamite blows up a butcher’s discarded basket.  As chunks of meat rains down on Harry, he scolds the smoldering carcass: “I told you to cough it up.” Just then the butcher’s basket, still smoking, lands in front of Harry… a heaven-sent barbecue perfect for preparing dinner.

It’s interesting to think what Stan would have done with the same material.  He had recently taken to doing solo pantomime routines in their features (bottling wine in The Bohemian Girl, finagling brandy from the St. Bernard in Swiss Miss), so it’s very easy to imagine how Stan might react while taking cover beneath a bovine.  Think of the broken statue gag in Wrong Again – it could have been wonderful.

But the character of “Stan” simply doesn’t possess Langdon’s childlike curiosity. Beans, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, wax apples… it’s all the same to Stan. If Ollie wants to carry him to his car, who is Stan to question why?  He doesn’t stop to wonder about such things. Sure, Stan has his childlike moments – packing his toy boat for Atlantic City in Be Big, finding a spinning top in Tit For Tat, poking a chalk drawing of Ollie in the eye in Towed In A Hole – but total acceptance of what’s in front of him is generally Stan’s response to any situation.  An udder might distract him for a moment or two, but he’d be more likely to get himself entangled with his gun.

Stan channelling Langdon...and very nicely.

Still, Langdon’s influence is felt in subtle ways through-out the film.  As Block-Heads gallops to its climax, it revisits a typical Laurel & Hardy gag lifted from Unaccustomed As We Are.  Ollie enters a gas-filled kitchen, lit match in hand, to ignite a stove.  A pause, then the inevitable ka-boom!  Here’s where Harry’s “fine Italian hand” comes in.  Stan, startled, bolts from his chair and hurtles himself down thirteen flights of stairs to the safety of the street.  Once outside, he comes to a flat-footed stop and examines the building.  He approaches the high-rise warily, giving the building a tentative shove before dashing back into the street – just in case it crumbles from the force of his mighty hands.  Approaching again, he pushes it, pushes a little harder, then leans against it with his shoulder.  Satisfied that it’s not going to crumble into dust, he tips his hat to the doorman and returns to Ollie’s apartment.  If anything is a scene from a potential “Langdon & Hardy” comedy, this would be it… Stan’s derby is even crumpled into an approximation of Langdon’s trademark dented fedora.

So it was no surprise that, when Laurel refused to indulge in Roach’s demand for retakes on Block-Heads climactic scene (check out Stan’s gangly double in the shotgun finale), Hal Roach would once and for all turn to the man who could be Mr. Laurel’s comic cousin: Harry Langdon.

[6] In June 1938, just as Block-Heads had wrapped production, it was announced that Harry would star in Follies On Horseback for producer Jed Buell.  Stan Laurel had partnered with Buell that same year to produce a series of westerns starring singing cowboy Fred Scott.  Following Laurel’s departure from the Roach lot, Buell was slated as associate producer on Stan’s announced first feature for Mack Sennett: Problem Child. (Buell was well suited to this story about a full-grown child of midget parents; he had earlier produced the all-midget western Terror Of Tiny Town.) It’s very likely Stan was doing Langdon a favor by putting Harry and Buell together; Langdon would ultimately star in 1940’s Misbehaving Husbands for producer Buell at PRC.

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