Harry Langdon: His Life and Films (2008) – By James L. Neibaur

 This has been a very good year for the work of Harry Langdon, one of the finest and most misunderstood of the great silent movie comedians.  Flicker Alley has released a multi-DVD set containing every extant short film Langdon made for Mack Sennett, as well as his first feature-length film.  Kino on Video recently come out with a DVD double feature of his long elusive self-directed features Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser, having long ago released a set containing Langdon’s greatest feature-length films;  Tramp Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man, and The Chaser.  And now McFarland and Company has published a second edition of William Schelly’s thorough biography of the babyfaced comedian.

Harry Langdon:  His Life and Films is a critical biography that approaches Langdon’s life and career by examining his screen work.  Langdon was not like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd.  While he was able to reach their creative level, his style was markedly different.  He employed a slow pace, his character pondering the setting before reacting, approaching his gags and situations with the sort of cerebral presentation that does not always appeal to the masses.  His short films for Sennett, from 1924-1927, allowed his mass popularity to rise.  His initial three subsequent features for First National Pictures made him a superstar.  But his peculiar style did not wear well over time.  The fickle public lost interest.  By the time Langdon fired his director, Frank Capra, and took over directing chores himself, his time as a superstar had ended.

William Schelly’s book, originally published in 1982, but updated for this most recent release, does a good job tracking Langdon’s long and varied career, from vaudeville to motion pictures.  It examines the evolution of the Langdon style, how he arrived upon the enigmatic character, his taste for the bizarre and surreal, and his various conflicts with collaborators.  It dispells the long held belief that it was Capra who was instrumental in creating Langdon’s character, said to be proven by Harry’s subsequent failures once Frank was no longer at the helm.

Along with discussing Langdon’s silent movie triumphs, Schelly gives strong coverage of Harry’s career in talking pictures, ending yet another incorrect assumption that Langdon’s career did not survive the sound era.  Appearances in feature films, and two starring short subject series during the sound era kept Harry in front of audiences until his passing in 1944 at the age of 60.

While the book’s original publication was coveted due to their being so little written on Langdon up to that time, this new edition is updated with further insights as more of the comedian’s films have become accessible in the past quarter-century.  Now that DVD allows us a nearly complete look at Langdon’s silent screen output, Schelly’s book is even more welcome.

The book’s insightful text is followed by a complete filmography, and is densely illustrated with many great photos, some never before published in other sources.

Harry Langdon:  His Life and Films, is an essential addition to any library that has a section on film history, and deserves a coveted spot on the shelf of any film enthusiast who is able to understand and appreciate the offbeat work of one of the screen’s most brilliant contributors.