Harry Langdon. He’s been called The Baby. The Little Elf. An alien. The critic James Agee likened him to a baby dope fiend. In his acclaimed book The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr compared him to “a comma”. One title card simply christened his character “the Odd Fellow”. Of the man himself, Frank Capra branded him – perhaps permanently – as “an impossible, opinionated, conceited, strutting little jerk” and “the only real honest-to-goodness human tragedy that I have personally seen from start to finish”. Call him what you will, Harry Langdon remains one of the most enigmatic – both as a comic creation and as a man – performers in the history of cinema comedy. During his 20-year maelstrom of a film career, Langdon found himself in and out of the Hal Roach Studios more than once, and served as friend, collaborator, confidant and hugely influential inspiration to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
This rapid one-two-three punch decimated Harry’s career and helped forge what became the legend of Harry Langdon: an overgrown egomaniac whose ambition far outranked his talent and his understanding of his own character; whose own blindness to his limitations and insatiable desire to out-Chaplin Chaplin deservedly destroyed his career.
|Stan Laurel, pre-Hardy. Half child / Half fop.|
Stan in "Half A Man" has his moments of childlike innocence, but he’s really nothing like Harry. There's a scene where he’s walking along the beach and taken by surprise by the oncoming surf. Stan chases the waves back into the sea, chastising them, emphatically stomping on the ground to make his point. Just like Langdon would do. But the scene has no subtlety or grace. It comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. He’s just a silly child, spanking the ocean and licking his lollipop.
ul scene in "Saturday Afternoon" where Vernon and his girlfriend chat over a picket fence. They’re positioned to the left- and right-hand sides of the frame, with Harry smack in the middle, watching curiously. He momentarily looks away, and the lovebirds share a quick smooch… startling and confusing Harry. This is very strange… He’s never seen anything so perplexing in his life. He watches carefully as they kiss again – what exactly are they doing? – and when they lean in for a long, long kiss, Harry studies it with wide-eyed fascination: this is information he can use on his own girlfriend. Putting his plan into action, he whistles for his girl – and is chased away by an angry dog.
|Harry baffled by kisses.|
WATCH THE SCENE
|Laurel stares blankly and snoozes blissfully. As does Harry.|
An early version of this blog post was originally published in Nieuwe Blotto Magazine.