Musings on people who make me laugh... most of them dead.
Saturday, 26 March 2016
Langdon & Laurel & Hardy & Hal (Part 2)
“Well well well well well!”The Talkies and the Lot of Fun With Harry’s First National
contract over and done with, Hal Roach was in a position to capitalize on the
opportunity: He would finally have Harry Langdon on his payroll.
It seemed like the perfect home
for Langdon at this critical point in his career. Harry’s quiet,
methodical technique was completely in synch with the situational approach of
the Roach studio, and with comedy strategists like Leo McCarey and Charley
Chase defining the Roach style, he’d have strong support on par with Capra,
Ripley and Edwards.
And Roach was nothing if not an
opportunist in such situations; he had built his “All Star” series by signing
former dramatic stars such as Lionel Barrymore and Theda Bara for two-reel
comedies. Hollywood cast-offs Priscilla Dean, Herbert Rawlinson and Mae
Busch were supported by Laurel & Hardy in some of the team’s first films
Reportedly, Harry was offered a
contract in 1928 to star in four silent 4-reel comedies with synchronized
scores. The featurette format had met with some success with another
faded star, ex-Sennett comedienne Mabel Normand, whose 1926-27 series with
Roach came to a premature end due to Mabel’s ill health. Harry would fill
that void nicely.
But in the early days of sound,
plans and press releases seemed to change daily. On November 4, 1928,
newspapers announced: “Harry Langdon has signed a contract to make full-length
talking pictures for Hal Roach… the coast producer and cinema comedian will
become pioneers in the field of the feature-length talking comedy.”
That honeymoon didn’t last
long. On December 29th it was reported: “Harry Langdon has cancelled his
contract with Hal Roach after refusing to accept a three-months’ layoff in
prospect at the studio.” It was during this time that Roach would shut
down the studio to wire it for sound. But not long after production
resumed, Harry would have a home. (Although not immediately – three
All-Star talkie comedies were produced before Langdon took over the series.)
Rather than features, Harry
would make his comeback in a series of eight talkie 2-reelers. Roach’s
new star was ballyhooed in the trade press with four colour ads, and by a
singularly bizarre short film we’ll call, for lack of an official title, Hal
Roach Presents Harry Langdon. Harry first stood before MGM executives
(and the studio microphone) in an in-jokey, name-dropping, double entendrelaced
promotional reel that’s just the kind of thing to amuse a roomful of cigar-chomping,
back-slapping salesmen. It’d be impossible not to get laughs.
"Have you got any little Quimbys?"
The film opens at the front
door of a modestly affluent home. A knock at the door is answered by
Thelma Todd, who opens it to reveal Harry. After some initial hesitation,
Harry’s first words are “Well well well well well” (ten “wells” in all).
He engages in some risqué dialogue with Thelma, who portrays “Mrs.
Quimby” – a reference to Fred Quimby, then the New York head of sales for MGM’s
short subject division but later the producer for MGM’s fabled animation unit,
home to Hanna-Barbera and Tex Avery.
Harry: “You’re Mrs. Quimby,
Harry: “Not Mrs. Rogers…”
Harry: “No, no… you’re Mrs.
Harry: “Have you… have you got
any little Quimbys?”
Harry: “Oh you haven’t got any
Harry: “Not one… not one little
Thelma: “Not one!”
Harry: “Tsk tsk tsk. If
you were Mrs… if you were Mrs. Rogers would you have any Quimbys?”
Realizing that Mr. Quimby isn’t
home (with some remarks about Quimby making “boom boom” and doing some “gap
closing” with fellow MGM-exec Howard Dietz), Harry wonders how Thelma would
react to a drunken husband coming home.
Harry: “Supposing he did come
home intoxicated? Would you raise a rumpus?”
Thelma: “I don’t think so!”
Harry: “You wouldn’t raise one
little rump?” (Thelma lets out an audible giggle.)
Finally, Harry drags in a drunken Eddie
Dunn (as Mr. Quimby) for the black out joke, and as the film fades back Eddie steps out of
character to announce Harry’s arrival at Roach.
Eddie: “Mr. Roach has the
greatest confidence in the world in Mr. Langdon, and I know that Harry is with
Mr. Roach heart and soul.”
The message is clear: Mr. Roach
wants to reassure MGM that the newly-chastened Harry will no longer indulge in
prima donna behaviour. You have Mr. Roach’s word.
There lies the problem with the
entire series. Roach’s most successful series were always dependent on a
strong guiding hand (Stan Laurel, Charley Chase, and Robert McGowan on the “Our
Gang” series). But there was no way that Roach was going to allow Langdon
that level of control, particularly after the escalating fiascos of his three directorial
efforts at First National. Unfortunately, Roach was more a businessman
than a true comedy craftsman, and the directors assigned to the Langdon
series – Fred Guiol, Charley Rogers, Roach studio manager Warren Doane(!) –
were hardly the men to guide Harry through the treacherous waters of the new
talkie medium. So who is ultimately responsible for these strange,
strange films? Roach the hammer-fisted businessman? Or Langdon, the
From Whimsical Pixie to Literal Halfwit
Harry’s talkie “debut”
demonstrates a seriously wrongheaded approach to sound. While this type
of stuff must have been uproariously funny to Mr. Quimby, Mr.
Rogers and Mr. Dietz (you can just see them laughing their heads off at Harry’s
point-blank ad lib “You got a bathroom in there?”), it positioned Harry as a
But Harry’s way with words must
have — must have — worked for him. After all, Harry had
spent decades on the stage, and had just finished up a successful vaudeville
tour before signing with Roach. So he obviously knew how to use his voice
— and it must have earned him laughs. One has to believe that Harry
simply took what worked for him while performing live, and put it into action
on the Roach soundstages. And why not? After all, Harry-the-character
was a talker. If you watch Harry in his silent films, he’s a non-stop
chatterbox, constantly seeking approval or giving his foes a childish tongue
lashing. But silence wrapped this odd figure in the protective veil
of otherworldiness; the cold, cruel reality of the talkies transforms him from
whimsical pixie to literal halfwit.
So with a new and unfamiliar
creative team behind him, and nobody to guide him, Harry was back to square
one. The first two Roach/Langdon shorts are missing-in-action (a shame,
because Sky Boy – which features Harry marooned on an iceberg
with Thelma Todd – sounds utterly fascinating!), but the earliest survivor, The
Head Guy, demonstrates precisely where the series went wrong. Its
centrepiece – a bizarre stream of consciousness monologue featuring Harry, a
sandwich, and an apple, all performed in a single take – is literally like
watching a car wreck. You simply can’t look away. For three and
three-quarter indescribable minutes (which I will now attempt, in vain, to describe),
Harry contemplates the fact that his girlfriend running away with a traveling
vaudeville troupe. The only solution is suicide:
Contemplating suicide ...and the merits of eating an apple in a timely manner. WATCH THE SCENE.
Harry sits himself down and
sobs uncontrollably… a squeaky, gasping blubber. “If Nancy don’t want me
I wanna die.” His eyes widen with the realization of what he’s just said.
He repeats his death wish, eyes widening again. He really means it.
More sobbing… until Harry becomes distracted by a pencil and
absentmindedly picks at his fingernails. “I will die I will die!”, he
proclaims, banging his fist on the table. Suddenly, Harry becomes
resolute… who needs Nancy? “I’ll get myself another girl. Maybe a
pretty girl and maybe a bigger girl!” But Nancy really is the only girl
for him, and the suicidal sobbing continues… while the lunchbox on his desk
grabs Harry’s attention. Stuffing a sandwich into his mouth between tears
(and coughing on the bread like a child who’s eating too fast), he snuffles his
way to dessert before deciding, “I could jump in the lake I will I don’t want
no apple now I don’t want no apple now I’ll eat my apple after now”.
See? I told you it was
Langdon excels in silent, solo
set-pieces, and each film goes out of its way to provide him
opportunities. There’s two such turns in Skirt Shy: Harry,
disguised in grandmotherly garb, stumbles and catches the boxing gloves which
serve as his bosom on a tiny sapling. The sapling sways, pulling the gloves out
of his bodice and swinging them back into Harry’s face. Harry swats the
gloves; they swat him back. This goes on countless times, with infinite
variations, each funnier than the first… it’s Harry at his best. A few
minutes later Harry, standing under an apple tree, takes a bite of a fallen
apple. Finding it sour, he drops it to the ground… only to have another
apple fall from the tree (or, in Harry’s mind, from Heaven) straight into his
With the fifth film in the
series, The Fighting Parson, things start to click.
Harry gets a terrific introduction, playing the banjo aboard a stagecoach
before splaying out his hands to receive alms that will never come. (We
actually get to hear him play, unlike his earlier banjo strumming in the silent Lucky
Stars.) Later in the film, Harry takes the stage in a tough western
saloon, singing Frankie and Johnnie (again accompanying himself on the banjo)
and performing an eccentric soft-shoe. Like Charley Chase in his own
Roach series, Langdon uses the early talkie medium to deftly display his
vaudeville origins. The film reverts to silent sight gag comedy for its
climactic boxing scene: Harry, with two boxing gloves at the end of lengthy
poles shoved up the sleeves of his oversized sweater, looks like human praying
mantis… a hallucinatory variation on the boxing scene in Three’s A
Crowd, and certainly a child’s view of the type of creature he’d have to be
to overcome his nemesis (Leo Willis).
TheBig Kick is probably the best of the group.
It’s virtually silent from fade in to fade out, and the first Langdon
short to benefit from a musical background (mostly cobbled together from
Vitaphone scores created for earlier Roach silents). Harry says next-to-nothing
throughout the entire film, instead performing a series of pantomime routines
against a non-existent plot involving rum-runners at Harry’s gas station.
All the old Langdon standbys are here: dummies too easily confused with
real people, a menacing balloon, and a rather charming stretching-and-yawning,
rise-and-shine sequence that predates the opening of Pee-Wee’s Big
Adventure by more than half a century. Harry even introduces a
gag that he’d resurrect a decade later in Laurel & Hardy’s Saps At
Sea. But more on that later.
Langdon’s two final outings, The
Shrimp and The King, are trifling slapsticks with a
distinctly oddball approach –The King, in particular, with its
roots in Soldier Man and The Chaser, and yet
more dialogue involving suicide and an apple – but neither recaptures his
silent magic. (Photoplay on The King: “The dialogue is deadly
dull, and the fear grows upon us that Harry’s enormous gift for pantomime is
lost in the talkies.”)
A critic had once described
Harry as a wind-up toy; in the Roach films he’s literally wound too tight,
sproinging wildly out of control for two reels. Frank Capra would
famously tell the story of watching Harry film a two-reeler at Columbia (1938’s Sue
My Lawyer), while the director hollered “go faster!”. This exact
scenario could have easily applied to Harry’s stay at Roach ten years earlier;
the hectic results are neither pure Roach nor pure Langdon – they’re a step
backwards into early Sennett territory. In the end it’s not surprising
that Harry’s contract wasn’t renewed, Roach very graciously “releasing” Langdon
to co-star in Come Easy (later re-christened A
Soldier’s Plaything) at First National.
But what does all this have to
do with Laurel & Hardy? Well, a couple of things. Looking at
the Langdon and Laurel & Hardy series being produced at the same time, one
quickly sees how differently they approached sound. One method works, one
doesn’t. Harry tends to work in a vacuum, and feels the need to fill
silence with chatter… often talking to himself “just because” that’s what you
did in this strange new medium. Laurel & Hardy’s partnership, on the
other hand, allowed them to establish a “speak only when you’re spoken to”
technique. Laurel & Hardy naturally engage in dialogue; Harry
There’s also a subtle shift in
Stan’s performing style during this period; one that becomes particularly
noticeable around the time of Below Zero and Hog Wild (released
as Harry’s final two Roach films were reaching theatres). Stan’s
performances seem more ethereal, like he doesn’t quite belong in this world any
more. Witness his doleful gaze in the opening scenes of Below
Zero – empty, but just a little sad. Or his utter uselessness in Hog
Wild, where even the simplest task seems beyond his blank comprehension.
It’s at this point that Stan really starts to transcend reality… from a
somewhat dim yet feisty sidekick to Mr. Hardy, to the vacant,
void-of-any-thought Mr. Laurel. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Langdon’s
proximity played a role in this – but Stan had now officially stepped into the
role of cinema’s master of comic inertia.
Finally, and perhaps most
importantly, it was likely during this period that Laurel and Langdon
would forge their friendship, one that would last Langdon’s lifetime and have a
considerable impact on his career as Harry stumbled through the 1930s.
 In a February article in
Photoplay Magazine entitled “Whatever Happened To Harry Langdon”, Katherine
Albert wrote: “Not so long ago he signed with Hal Roach to make two-reelers.
He’d never met Roach before. The first thing said was, “Now, see
here, Langdon, none of that high handed stuff you’d pulled at First National.”
 Harry’s lack of dialogue in The
Big Kick may be due to the fact that it was his first multi-lingual
film. Like Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang and Charley Chase, Langdon also performed
phonetic versions of his films for foreign markets. Among Harry’s titles
were La Estacion de Gasolina (The Big Kick, Spanish), Pobre
Infeliz (The Shrimp, Spanish) and Der Konig (The
 A week after the release of The
King, Roach released A Tough Winter, an Our Gang comedy
featuring African-American comic Lincoln Perry [aka Stepin Fetchit]. The film was apparently
a test for a starring series for Fetchit – Roach may have already been looking
for a replacement for Langdon. Harry’s series was ultimately supplanted
by The Boy Friends; Fetchit eventually appeared with Harry in Zenobia.
 In June 1932, syndicated
newspaper column “In Hollywood” reported that Langdon’s contract with Al
Christie would be “assumed by Hal Roach”. It seems Harry and Roach still
needed each other. An early version of this blog post was originally published in Nieuwe Blotto Magazine.