Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

His First Flame (1927) - Harry Langdon Drops in from Another Planet...

Poor old Harry Langdon. Forever destined to be the distant 4th in the pantheon of silent comedy immortals. And if that wasn't bad enough, for many his position as 4th clown is really a temporary measure while they wait for critics and historians to trot out their theories and decide who should really be in his place. Who is it this week? Charley Bowers? Lloyd Hamilton? Well, enough of this nonsense, Harry Langdon deserves his spot and created enough of a legacy in silent cinema that his place, while still firmly in 4th is rock solid.

Even then, that's not enough for some people. Despite a string of excellent shorts, some of the most innovative and sophisticated of their time, his legacy all comes down to the involvement of the supposed creative force behind his success, Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra. Without them, the story goes, he was a directionless mannequin lacking in ideas or any real understanding of his own character. This idea took hold due to a couple of situations, the first being that Harry died in 1944 and when the silent revival hit in the early 60's he wasn't around to promote his own work (funnily enough, pretty much every one who is now accepted as an important comedian from that era was). Harry Langdon, like Raymond Griffith, Charley Chase and many others had to wait another few decades before their work was reappraised. Of course, being dead has other disadvantages (other than the obvious one) in that those who worked with you and who are still alive can exaggerate or misappropriate their part in your story. Leo McCarey and Hal Roach tried it after Stan Laurel died, and so did Frank Capra and others when Harry died. Luckily in recent years a backlash to this way of thinking has started and Harry is getting his due as a legitimate creative force under his own talents.

The historical truth to his story is as usual, a mix of both sides. Langdon was a gifted and innovative physical comedian with extensive success in vaudeville who excelled from the minute he set foot on the screen. When Capra and Ripley got involved Langdon had already developed his character (he did that on the vaudeville stage years before he came to Hollywood) and was comfortably ironing out the details. What they did was to add to what he had already created by giving more structure and shading. When they left, from all accounts Langdon's features still did well, though it was felt that his popularity had peaked. In reality though he worked hard he wasn't best suited to being a film auteur and he probably did shoot himself in the foot by trying to do much too soon. Capra would have moved on no matter what his relationship with Langdon was because his talent was taking him different places. Due to his later and much more lasting fame, Capra's time with Langdon was always written as a parable of the student outgrowing the master. When all was said and done, the importance of Capra in Harry Langdon's career has been greatly over stated.

A big problem was that Langdon perhaps came to the party too late. When he debuted in 1924 he was already middle aged and comedy and indeed movies were rapidly growing up, with tastes and fads quickly changing. Rather than having years and years to hone his craft like Chaplin, Lloyd and others, Harry stepped in at the deep end and found that his style of comedy, though cutting edge for a time, rapidly fell out of favour as the world hurtled towards the end of the 20's and the coming of sound. Also it didn't help that he was so unusual that audiences and critics often found it difficult to categorise his work and this lack of universal appeal hurt his box office and reputation, right up to the present day. You find you either like him or you don't, there is rarely a middle ground. However, that he made such an enormous impact in such a small space of time in a busy marketplace showed an undeniable talent as a comedian.

Another downfall for Langdon's brand of humour, and this applies to Stan Laurel as well, was the move away from shorts and into features. Despite it being an economic necessity Laurel was always uncomfortable with features, feeling that Laurel and Hardy's humour was ideally suited to short bursts. Despite all the excellent feature films the pair made, even at 60 minutes there was frequently an element of padding in a Laurel and Hardy film (A Chump at Oxford's indeterminable maze scene comes to mind). Laurel settled on a four reel film as the perfect length if he had to go into features (although ironically he only made one 4 reeler in the end) and Langdon, in His First Flame (originally a five reel film, though currently running at 44 minutes in the most complete version) shows that this logic is sound. Though slightly padded, it consistently gets laughs and never outstays its welcome.

His First Flame was Langdon's first attempt at a feature film, originally filmed and due for release in 1925. However, due to his leaving Sennett and setting up his own production company with First National, the film was held back and not released until 1927. As a result audiences saw it as his fourth feature and thus it was seen as a step down from its predecessors and had a mixed reception. The plot concerns Harry trying to stay away from girls to please his woman-hating fireman uncle. Throughout various situations and interludes Harry continually lets the uncle down until saving a girl from a burning building and getting a happy ending. By this time his uncle has changed his mind about women so Harry at last finds love. The plot really doesn't matter in these sort of comedies as the focus is always on the minute details of comic business involving the star as they wander from one situation to the next.

Make no mistake, His First Flame is not a masterpiece but it is a very, very funny film filled with the sort of inventive subtlety expected of Langdon in his prime. The best moments involve some of the key themes in Langdon's work, those of Harry's passive, non reactive nature and of the blurring of the lines of gender and perception. The first key scene happens when Harry meets a woman who he recognises, who happens to be a shoplifter. He walks towards her, hand outstretched. On the run from the police she runs in his direction. Friendship turns to fear and Harry starts running away, chased through the streets by the woman. From this simple and typical Langdon role reversal, he takes it one step further when he thinks he has lost her. Safe, he stands looking blankly at the camera as she suddenly hits him on the head. Langdon then does his patented standing lean (a la Michael Jackson), to the right, then the left before falling over. The woman switches clothes with him and escapes leaving Harry in her frock and hat (with a flower poking out the top). He staggers about with a goofy grin on his face as he tries to hitch a lift to the fire station. What is very unusual about Langdon in drag is firstly that it happens a lot, but more importantly that despite being dressed as a woman he makes absolutely no attempt to act feminine. To add to the confusion, everyone around him treats him as if he is a real woman, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary (he gets picked up by a driver only to eventually be thrown out the car). It makes for a rather odd situation, with a staple of comedy not being milked for all the obvious gags. Langdon's reversal of convention and minimalist underplaying of the situation just adds to the audience confusion.

Similarly, the other key scene involves Harry's frequent inability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the material from the immaterial. Later in the film he tries to rescue a girl from a burning building in an uncharacteristic burst of bravery and energy. Unfortunately the girl is in fact a wooden shop dummy. To heighten the gag, the dummy's limbs are positioned in the most unrealistic manner and it has a ridiculous wig on, but in the real moment of genius, in full view of the audience is a large price tag hanging from its neck. Harry carefully lowers the dummy down the ladder then stops half way to tell her that she's going to be alright. Then, to stretch the bizarre situation further he has a sort of tender moment face to face with the dummy. For a moment he acts hurt that his words get no response from her before the penny slowly drops and the veil of unreality lifts. He then ditches the dummy and scampers down the ladder. To end the sequence, as he leaves he notices the dummy's skirt has come up and he bashfully pulls it down for her. As if in response, the propped up mannequin moves suddenly and Harry runs away in abject terror. The sequence highlights how Langdon often played on awkwardly uncomfortable incongruities to demonstrate his ability to collapse boundaries between the real and unreal worlds. He then continues to push each situation as far as it can go, and sometimes further, to highlight his otherness in a way that would leave his audience bewildered and unsure what to think. There was literally no one doing comedy like this in 1925 but sadly audiences grew impatient with his approach and he was left to plow his field alone.

Having watched pretty much all the surviving Langdon shorts he made at Sennett (1924 - 1927), as presented on Facets' indispensable and awe inspiring box set Harry Langdon: Lost and Found, I have to say that it's an amazing body of work and in terms of short films certainly better overall than Harold Lloyd's (though to be fair Lloyd had given up on shorts before Langdon had even started). There is always an element of debate regarding silent comedians as to which ones seem the most "modern" to current audiences. Traditionally Buster Keaton always wins the argument with his stoic pioneer spirit coming up against the trials of modern life in his rather detached way. Lloyd is modern in so much as his films depict the modern world that he lived in and his character displays an admirable drive and determination. Personally Chaplin always fails in modernity for me, despite the universal ideals of The Tramp, due to eternally being stuck in that early 20th century world of poor houses and flower girls that even D. W. Griffith eventually gave up on. Langdon, on the other hand isn't modern. He's from the future.

The mere idea of a passive central comedian is one worthy of genius, but for Langdon to play him as a character who is completely oblivious to the world around him to the point of frequently looking as if he has wandered into the wrong film is the icing on the cake. Much has been made of Langdon's childlike innocence and dopey boy in a man's body behaviour, but it's really the blank look that gives him his edge. The round face, the slowly blinking eyes and blank stare is the look of Andy Kaufman fifty years later confusing audiences with his foreign man character (in fact Langdon's minimal approach to his stage comedy apparently got the same reactions in vaudeville). It's this confusion, both for the audience and for Harry that is most startling about his art. He's like an animal awakening from hibernation, unaware of how to control his extremities, looking at everything as if it's the first time he's ever seen them and unsure what is real. Mere normal objects become threatening monsters that could explode and a pretty girl's smile the most frightening thing in the world. And despite the confusion, Harry just looks, and looks, then blinks. Then frequently the moment will pass and his goldfish memory sets back to zero and he remembers to be scared of everything all over again, so then runs away. Then he runs back. Then he runs away again.

This disarming confusion, the passive apathy, the blinking face, the odd wave, the inexplicable juxtapositions and the frankly bizarre approach to female impersonation is what splits audiences over Harry Langdon today, as he did in the twenties but which makes me think that we're just not ready for him yet.

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