Harry Langdon: Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser (1927/1928) – By James L. Neibaur

 Kino on Video’s DVD release  of  Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser, the two self-directed Harry Langdon silent comedy features,  is an important contribution to the furthering of cinema scholarship. In limited circulation since their release, these two features are essential to our greater understanding of this fine comedian’s contribution to motion picture history.

Harry Langdon is one of the great enigmas of the silent screen.  Once a rival to Charlie Chaplin himself, Langdon’s star faded by the end of the1920s and his career never fully recovered.  He worked steadily until his death in 1944, but he was never again to achieve the super stardom he had enjoyed for a brief time during the mid 1920s.

For years it has been said that Langdon’s self-directed final features of the silent era were artistic failures that drew little at the box office and received critical condemnation.  Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser did not enjoy the same financial returns as did previous Langdon features, but artistically they are every bit as fascinating and impressive.  Perhaps this is revisionist thinking, but it can now be borne out with this DVD.  

Langdon’s 1926 feature The Strong Man, which was directed by Frank Capra, is considered his best film from this period.  Following his next film, Long Pants (1927),  Langdon fired Capra and chose to direct himself.  A bitter Capra made the claim in the Hollywood trade papers that Langdon was an egomaniac with limited skills.  Even decades later, after many of his own great film successes, Capra offered a similar assessment in his autobiography, referring to the now long-deceased Langdon as a feeble minded guy whose act was molded by Capra himself, along with collaborators Harry Edwards and Arthur Ripley, when Langdon was doing short films at the Mack Sennett studios.  Well, Langdon did achieve superstardom after the release of the Sennett-produced All Night Long (1924) which was his first with Capra, and his star rose significantly from that point on.  But Langdon had a real understanding of his character and its presentation.  Capra was beneficial, as were Edwards and Ripley, but Langdon’s own creativity cannot be overlooked.

Kino on Video had  long ago released a DVD containing the Langdon features that have been applauded as his finest, including The Strong Man, Tramp Tramp Tramp, and Long Pants.  However there had been little interest in restoring and releasing the long elusive Three’s A Crowd and The Chaser, chiefly due to their poor reputation. ( It should be noted that the third silent feature directed by Langdon, Heart Trouble (1929), is a lost film).   Yes, they were box office failures, but the fickle public of 1927 was simply tiring of Harry Langdon’s peculiar style.  Yes they were critically derided, but so were Buster Keaton’s The General, Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, and The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; all of which are hailed as artistic triumphs today.  Period critics did not often have the foresight necessary to offer proper acclaim to those films which have indeed withstood the test of time.

Three’s A Crowd is a far more serious piece than anything the comedian had done previously, but Langdon as director effectively tells the story of a lonely man who comes to the aid of a woman and her newborn baby with moving dramatics and wonderfully creative comedy.  It is a far milder style of humor than the raucous antics of many other comics active during the 20s, but even with Sennett, Langdon stood out as a quieter alternative.  

Putting together a makeshift cradle with one hand while holding a baby in the other, packing a lunchbox that contains nothing more than a full cup of coffee, running from a bully and stepping onto an errant pot which sticks to his foot as he scurries are just some of the outrageously funny sequences.  Harry blowing out a candle just as all the street lights go dark, and sitting still and quiet in the darkness of his home as a storm flashes lightning about the room are among many magical moments.  A dream sequence featuring Harry boxing the baby’s father for the affections of the mother (surrounded by total darkness, no less) is a surreal highlight.  And a hilarious closing gag is the film’s strongest moment, capping this movie perfectly.

Langdon’s direction is often accused of being too slow, allowing the characters (especially his own) to stand and do little or nothing for several long seconds.  None of these long “holds” are evident by this reviewer.  Any time a still shot occurs, it perfectly befits the film’s context.  The way a blizzard sequence is shot outdoors, and a lightning storm is presented from the indoors, are impressive examples of Langdon approaching his artistic vision as a filmmaker and not merely a comedian showcasing himself and his immediate supporting players.  Accompanying audio commentary by film historian David Kalat rightfullly considers Three’s A Crowd a long overlooked masterpiece.  It is, by all means, a far greater achievement than its sordid reputation would have one believe.

The Chaser is a much different film.  It is funnier, more surreal, and quite daring in its postmodern edginess.  Harry is a henpecked husband and lodge-attending carouser.  A judge decrees that he and his wife swap gender roles, forcing the wife into the workforce, complete with pants-suit, while Harry must don a skirt and maintain household chores.  Langdon the director places himself as actor completely into the role, not just via the superficiality of mopping the floor and cooking the meals.  Harry is enveloped into the housewife’s world, dealing  with a door-to-door salesman who so completely accepts Harry as a woman, he even resorts to flirting, as Harry gradually loses his sense of masculine identity.  His subsequent and darkly comic suicide attempt seems perfectly within reason in this context.  Defying conventional structure, The Chaser suddenly shifts gears around the midway point and explores the other extreme of the gender role when, later in the film, Langdon goes off with his buddy and discovers that his kiss is irresistible to women, causing them to faint dead away.  This offbeat approach to gender identification seems awkward now, so it must have completely baffled audiences of 1928.  However today its awkwardness can be construed as Langdon’s typically unusual style, his penchant for edginess, and his attempts to challenge the more coventional approaches to comedy.  It remains generally misunderstood in some quarters, but The Chaser is actually one of the most intriguing silent comedy features of its time.

These self-directed features prove, despite Capra’s sour grape claims, that Langdon fully understood his well-established offbeat character, and chose to place him in settings that emphasized his peculiarities.  From the lonely outcast of Three’s A Crowd to the bewildered lodge-attending, gender swapping outcast of The Chaser, Harry Langdon explored territory that was very offbeat.  In hindsight, both of these films are courageous, outrageous, and brilliant.

The prints of each film on the Kino DVD are beautiful except for some decomposition that mars a short portion of Three’s a Crowd, and the necessity to switch from a pristine 35mm negative source to a 16mm one to fill missing gaps in The Chaser.  But the very idea that these fascinating features are now available makes such trifling quibbles seem superfluous.

Harry Langdon has quickly gone from being one of the most poorly represented classic comedians on DVD to having virtually all of his extant silent films now available.  This accessibility allows future generations of film students to understand and appreciate the cinematic legacy of one of the most fascinating, misunderstood, and important comedians and filmmakers in the history of motion pictures.