Langdon (center) with the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson.
June 15, 1884|
Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S.
|Died||December 22, 1944
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Rose Francis Musolff (1903–1928)
Harry Philmore Langdon (June 15, 1884 – December 22, 1944) was an American comedian who appeared in vaudeville, silent films (where he had his greatest fame), and talkies. He was briefly partnered with Oliver Hardy.
Life and career
Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Langdon began working in medicine shows and stock companies while in his teens. In 1906, he entered vaudeville with his first wife, Rose Langdon. By 1915, he had developed a sketch named "Johnny's New Car," on which he would do variations in the years that followed. In 1923, he joined Principal Pictures Corporation, a company headed by producer Sol Lesser. He eventually went over to Keystone Studios where he became a major star. At the height of his film career he was considered one of the four best comics of the silent film era. His screen character was that of a wide-eyed, childlike man with an innocent's understanding of the world and the people in it. He was a first-class pantomimist.
Most of Langdon's 1920s work was produced at the famous Mack Sennett studio. His screen character was so unique, and his antics so different from the broad Sennett slapstick, that he soon had a following. Success led him into feature films, directed by Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra. With such directors guiding him, Langdon's work rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Many consider his best films are The Strong Man (1926), Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), and Long Pants (1927). Langdon acted as producer on these features, which were made for his own company, The Harry Langdon Corporation, and released by First National. After his initial success, Langdon fired Frank Capra and directed his own films, including "Three's a Crowd", "The Chaser", and "Heart Trouble", but his appeal faded. These films were more personal and idiosyncratic, and while they seem courageous and interesting today, audiences of the period were not interested. Capra later claimed that Langdon's decline stemmed from the fact that, unlike the other great silent comics, he never fully understood what made his own film character successful. However, Langdon's biographer William Schelly among others have expressed skepticism about this claim, arguing that Langdon had established his character in vaudeville long before he entered movies, added by the fact that he wrote most of his own material during his stage years. The truth most likely lies somewhere between these two points, but history shows that Langdon's greatest success was while being directed by Capra, and once he took hold of his own destiny, his original film comedy persona dropped sharply in popularity with audiences. This is likely not due to Langdon's material, which he had always written himself, but with his inexperience with the many fine points of directing, at which Capra excelled, but at which Langdon was a novice. On the other hand, a look at Langdon's filmography shows that Capra directed only two of Langdon's 30 silent comedies. His last silent film, and the last one Langdon directed, "Heart Trouble", is a "lost film", so it is difficult to assess whether he might have begun achieving a greater understanding of the directorial process with more experience. The coming of sound, and the drastic changes in cinema, also thwarted Langdon's chances of evolving as a director and perhaps defining a style that might have enjoyed greater box office success.
Harry Langdon's babyish character did not adapt well to sound films; as producer Hal Roach remarked, "he was not so funny articulate" (he featured Langdon in several unsuccessful sound shorts in 1929-1930). But Langdon was a big enough name to command leads in short subjects for Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures. In 1938, he adopted a Caspar Milquetoast-type, henpecked-husband character that served him well. Langdon continued to work steadily in low-budget features and shorts into the 1940s, playing mild-mannered goofs. Langdon also contributed to comedy scripts as a writer, notably for Laurel and Hardy, which led to him being paired with Oliver Hardy in a 1939 film titled Zenobia during a period when Stan Laurel was in a bitter contract dispute with Roach.
Harry Langdon kept busy in pictures and completed his final Columbia short Pistol Packin' Nitwits only weeks before his death of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 22, 1944. All funeral arrangements were handled by onscreen cohort and personal friend Vernon Dent. Langdon was interred in the Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery (Glendale, California) at the West Mausoleum located to the left of the main entrance.
At the height of his career, Langdon was making $7,500 per week, a fortune for the times. Upon his death, The New York Times wrote, "His whole appeal was a consummate ability to look inexpressibly forlorn when confronted with manifold misfortunes—usually of the domestic type. He was what was known as 'dead-pan'...the feeble smile and owlish blink which had become his stock-in-trade caught on in a big way, and he skyrocketed to fame and fortune..."
In 1997, his hometown of Council Bluffs celebrated "Harry Langdon Day" and in 1999 named Harry Langdon Boulevard in his honor. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Harry Langdon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard.
† - denotes entry part of the Columbia Pictures short subject series
(Rationing extra in black hat)
- Obituary Variety, December 27, 1944, page 39.
- Harry Langdon at the Internet Movie Database.
- Harter, Chuck and Michael J. Hayde; Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon (BearManor Media, 2012).
- Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers) 689.
- Okuda, Ted and Watz, Edward; (1986). The Columbia Comedy Shorts, pp. 115-123, 221-222, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. ISBN 0-89950-181-8
- Katz, Ephraim. Ibid.
- The New York Times, Obituary, December 23, 1944.
- Charles Reed Jones, Editor. Breaking Into The Movies. The Unicorn Press, 1927.
- Rothwell-Smith, Paul. Silent Films! the Performers (2011) ISBN 978-1-907540-32-5
- William Schelly. Harry Langdon: His Life and Films. 2nd edition. McFarland, 2008. ISBN 978-0786436910
- Harry Langdon at the Internet Movie Database
- Harry Langdon at AllMovie
- Harry Langdon at Film Reference
- Harry Langdon at The Harry Langdon Society (biography and filmography)
- Harry Langdon at Find a Grave
- Photographs and literature
- Feet of Mud a website dedicated to Harry Langdon
- Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde at BearManor Media
- The Silent Films of Harry Langdon by James L. Neibaur