Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Sunday, 10 October 2010

House of Errors (1942) - Harry Langdon on Poverty Row

I read a fascinating article years ago that theorized what could have happened to Laurel and Hardy had they chosen to join a studio other than Fox in 1940. Ideas were put forward as to the artistic and financial merits of signing with Columbia, Universal or even poverty row studios such as Monogram or Republic. Obviously Stan Laurel thought he could convince the big studios to let him exercise some creative control over his pictures, but ultimately it didn’t work out that way and years of artistic frustration were to follow. However, other comedians of the silent era down on their luck didn’t have the box office power of Laurel and Hardy and had no option other than to find a home with the likes of Educational or Pathe. It stands to reason that in a non-corporate, low budget setting the likes of Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon would be given more creative control in which to create their brand of comedy. I mean, surely a small time operator would bend over backwards to have a bona fide star (albeit a faded one) headline one of their productions?

Sadly, in Harry Langdon’s case, the freedom of a small studio did not equal a funnier, more creative film. Sure, some of his Educational shorts are very funny, but like Keaton he’s mostly just an actor rather than a creator. Perhaps in Langdon’s case it was just too late in the game for him to put himself heart and soul into the making of a new picture. Perhaps his reputation in the industry by the 1940s was such that producers merely saw him as a jobbing actor and not an artist. Perhaps he himself just saw movie work as a paycheck and was pleased to have income, no matter the quality of the material. Most likely he found, like his peers that the business model of the movie industry had changed since the 20s and that producers now called the shots.

This all brings us to House of Errors, a 1942 comedy starring Langdon for the Producers Releasing Corporation, a poverty row company mostly known for westerns. The movie is cheap and mostly cheerful, but what makes it interesting is the pairing of Langdon with former Laurel and Hardy gag man and director, Charley Rogers. The two had previously teamed up in Monogram’s Double Trouble in 1941 and the result must have garnered enough interest to warrant a second go. The pair work brilliantly together and despite the movie being slightly below par, they really come across as a double act with real chemistry. Harry Langdon by this time had evolved his “man-child form Mars” routine into a sort of permanently confused Hugh Herbert or Frank McHugh type of character, which played especially well off Charley Rogers’ fast talking, scheming Englishman. In fact, Rogers is so good at the character that I think he really missed his calling by not returning to his native land after the war, as he would have fitted in perfectly with the cast of music hall comedians making films in Britain in the late 40s and early 50s.

The plot of the film concerns wannabe reporters Langdon and Rogers (interestingly named Bert and Alf, the names of Stan and Ollie’s alter egos in Our Relations, a movie which Rogers had a big hand in writing) disguising themselves as home help for reclusive inventor in order to get a scoop on his latest idea, a new machine gun. Luckily, The Producers Releasing Corporation seemed to have had some faith in Harry Langdon as he is credited with the film’s story, and although it’s difficult to say with authority which bits were his, there is definitely an air of familiar Langdon-esque whimsy in the paper-thin plot.

What is really nice about the film is the little moments of comic business. Most of these come from the perfect timing and reactions of Langdon and Rogers. Langdon at times comes across a little like Stan Laurel but with the added layer of punch drunk buffoonery one associates with him (especially in sound). There’s lots of the usual vacuous blinking, bleary eye rolling, inept pointing, and inability to use limbs as nature intended, which due to Langdon’s advancing years (he was 57 when he made the film) make the whole childlike act all the more bizarre and incongruous. He also has an odd way of talking which involves saying…a lot of his lines…with…funny pauses. All in all he’s wonderfully entertaining and when paired with the fast talking Rogers, with his expert timing they produce a real winning combination.

The movie also has a number of quite charming visual gags which you have to assume were the work of Langdon, but which sadly never get the chance to evolve. On a side note, I’ve always found it interesting that Laurel and Hardy could easily pack a fully-fledged plot and a ton of well-worked gags into a 65 minute feature whereas movies like this at the same length collapse under the boredom of an inconsequential story interspersed with half formed routines. House of Errors (and its ilk) seems to take forever to end but Sons of the Desert does twice as much, ten times as good in less time. It raises the question, why did 40’s comedy producers feel the need to sideline comedians? Watching House of Errors, I could not care less about the nominal lead and his budding romance, and this goes for every Abbott and Costello or Ritz Brothers movie too. But I digress…

The aforementioned gags include Langdon’s heart beating out of his chest only to be moved by him to his other side (the accompanying line "I think he's got heart trouble", a sly mention of Langdon's final silent?), Langdon and Rogers doing housework and pushing air from a vacuum cleaner all the way under a carpet as well as playing a tune on a kettle. Also, in a flophouse the pair get involved with a flea circus (a nice cameo from Monte Collins) and Langdon traps his hand then does some ridiculous pantomiming as he tries to fix a crooked painting. All these situations are lovely while they last but unfortunately are brushed aside in favour of reporters, spies and plans for guns.

However there is a bit of redemption at the end where Langdon fires the new gun accidentally and in hitting some stock footage appears (I think) to kill the obnoxious hero! This done, the girl neatly falls into Harry’s lap, where being Harry he kisses her with his fingers then uses them to “eat her nose”! She seems a bit surprised as the credits roll…

House of Errors is by no means a good film, in fact it’s pretty terrible and sadly Harry Langdon is actually hardly in it. What makes in interesting is watching a former great in reduced circumstances, and regardless of the reasons for being there we can see tiny little glimpses of genius. I’d like to think that if Laurel and Hardy had ended up at the Producers Releasing Corporation that their films would have been just as awful too, yet similarly filled with glimmers of hope. In fact, anything they made for a poverty row studio would’ve been an improvement artistically over their 40s output at Fox and MGM.

The other interesting and unrealized part of the film is the pairing of Langdon and Rogers. It’s a more traditional double act than Langdon’s long-standing partnership with Vernon Dent (as good as that was) and really deserved more screen time. If only Columbia had seen the double act and decided to incorporate them into Harry’s then current series of shorts, it might have reached a degree of potential. As it is, all we have are a couple of films and a whole load of what ifs. But then again, Harry Langdon was probably pleased to get the work and a script credit and after all he had been through in his career perhaps that was more than enough.


  1. Really fascinating stuff. I am hopelessly drawn to poverty row; there's something about Monogram and PRC that I adore...
    There's no question that a comedian on the skids is a sad sight, but I'd always rather see them working at something than nothing. For that reason I've always rather enjoyed the forties L&H films.
    I'm guessing the article you refer to at the start was by Scott MacGillivray, who wrote the definitive book on their later films. You may be interested in my interview with him:

    This was one of the most interesting blog posts I've read in ages.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. The article was more than likely by Scott MacGillivray as it was in an old issue of the Intra-Tent Journal in the mid 90s. It always stuck with me for some reason - I must dig it out!

    I know what you mean about just being pleased to see someone working (though with some of the depths plumbed in Buster Keaton's career I don't know if pleased is the right word) but I've always felt particularly bad for Stan Laurel as he still had so much to give. There's an argument that Keaton had already been chewed up and spat out by the system so wasn't likely to be capable of much by the 40's but Laurel, under Hal Roach conditions could have gone on a lot longer.

    L&H's later films are fine but it takes some getting used to to see them as actors reading lines, especially since the writers didn't understadn their characters.

    I'll check out the interview, and thanks again!