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Harry Philmore Langdon
June 15, 1884
Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S.
|Died||December 22, 1944 (aged 60)|
Los Angeles, California
|Resting place||Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California, U.S.|
Rose Francis Musolff
(m. 1903; div. 1928)
(m. 1929; div. 1932)
Life and career
Langdon on “The Serious Side of Comedy Making”:
- ”I am convinced that comedy is much harder to achieve than drama.”
- ”There are few more tragic businesses in the world than the making of funny pictures.”
- "Comedy is a satire of Tragedy...deliciously comic moments, on the outside, are full of sad significance for those who realize the sinister characterization of the situation.”
- “Have you ever analyzed why you laugh at things? It is the concentration on the physical, as opposed to the spiritual.”
- “The four greatest stimuli to laughter are rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness and unsociability.”
- “The enjoyment of comedy, just like the enjoyment of tragedy, is the result of the feeling of remoteness from the situation characterictured.”—Langdon in Theatre Arts Magazine, December 1927.
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 performed variations in the years that followed. In 1923, he joined Principal Pictures Corporation, a company headed by producer Sol Lesser. He eventually went to The Mack Sennett 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 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 to be 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, he 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 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 Bill Schelly, among others, 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. 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 due to 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.
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. He 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, during the shooting of Swingin' on a Rainbow, due to a cerebral hemorrhage on December 22, 1944. All funeral arrangements were handled by onscreen cohort and friend Vernon Dent. Langdon was cremated and his ashes interred at Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
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.
Film historian Richard Koszarski offers this assessment of Langdon's career:
That Harry Langdon’s once high-flying career came to so abrupt an end should have surprised no one. First, his comic style was so idiosyncratic that it seems a wonder he ever achieved widespread recognition at all. Infantilism as the root of a comic character has inborn limitations, and sound would inevitably have dealt it a death blow. But more important, when success was achieved Langdon dismissed his collaborators and foolishly attempted to run both the creative and financial sides of his operation himself. A failure at both ends, he personally ground his career to a disastrous halt, but not before producing some of the most personal and perplexing works of the American cinema.
† – denotes entry part of the Columbia Pictures short subject series
Langdon (center) with the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson.
- Obituary Variety, December 27, 1944, page 39.
- Koszarski, 1976 p. 177-178: Excerpts from essay in Theatre Arts Magazine, see Kolszarski for complete text.
- 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. p. 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
- Barrier, Michael (2003). Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. Oxford University Press. p. 214. ISBN 978-0195167290.
- "Hollywood Bids Farewell to Comic Harry Langdon". The Los Angeles Times. December 27, 1944. p. 6.
- Wilson, Scott (2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company. p. 424. ISBN 9780786479924.
- The New York Times, Obituary, December 23, 1944.
- Koszarski, 1976 p. 176
- Charles Reed Jones, Editor. Breaking Into The Movies. The Unicorn Press, 1927.
- William Schelly. Harry Langdon: His Life and Films. 2nd edition. McFarland, 2008. ISBN 978-0786436910
- Koszarski, Richard. 1976. Hollywood Directors: 1914-1940. Oxford University Press. Library of Congress Catalog Number: 76-9262.
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