Sunday, January 28, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The Strong Man' (1926) and the problem of Harry Langdon


The Strong Man

Dir: Frank Capra

Scr: Arthur Ripley, Hal Conklin, Robert Eddy, Reed Heustis

Pho: Glenn Kershner, Elgin Lessley

Ed: Harold Young, Arthur Ripley

Premiere: Sept. 19, 1926

75 min.

Who can explain the popularity of silent-film comedian Harry Langdon in the 1920s? Not me.

Primarily on the strength of three successful features in a row made in 1926 and 1927, he was dubbed by famed critic James Agee in 1949 as one of the four great silent clowns, alongside Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

However, Agee also famously referred to Langdon as having the demeanor of a “baby dope fiend” – giving performances that only read as creepy and disturbing today.

The Strong Man title is ironic as Langdon is here the meekest of the meek and the weakest of the weak. He is dimwitted to the point of imbecility.

In this film, Harry is a World War I Belgian solider who comes to America after the war to find his pen pal, Mary Brown, who is lovely, kind, and touchingly blind (then how did she write those letters?).

He falls in as the assistant to Zandow, the strong man. They travel until they wind up in Mary’s home town. Harry finds his love, and goes onstage, woefully, for his drunken master, displeasing the crowd until he fires Zandow’s cannon at them (his one non-impotent act) and he brings the local palace of sin down and drives its ugly and rapacious mob out of town.

It is extremely difficult to watch Langdon now. His comedy is grounded in the premise that he is childlike and naïve. However, Langdon pushes these traits to their extreme, giving us a character that is so passive that he is blown from one plot point to another without any exercise of will whatsoever.

You wonder how he can make his way across a room, let alone through an entire film. He is fate’s plaything, coy and innocent, slow-blinking and staring off into the middle distance. He gets the girl, but he can’t for the life of him figure out how he managed it. Even at film’s end, he stumbles and his blind girlfriend picks him up and guides him along, into the distance.

For some reason I can’t fathom, audiences found this persona enchanting, and he made a lot of money for First National Pictures. This is the second of the three key Langdon films, and the first feature directed by the soon-to-be-wildly-renowned Frank Capra, who got his real start in the industry years previous as a gagman for Our Gang and Mack Sennett. This film demonstrated Capra’s talents, and he directed the next and last memorable Langdon feature, Long Pants (1927).

There is no real hint of the earnestness of Capra’s strong future outlook and style, unless you think of Langdon as hopelessly, helplessly earnest in his obliviousness to the complexities of existence. After the success of Long Pants, the story is that Langdon now thought he was a genius and parted ways with Capra, who went on to better things as Langdon wasted away into obscurity in self-directed mediocrities, and finally odd comedy jobs for small studios.

He is not a transformational comedian like Chaplin, or an architect and engineer, as Keaton was. He doesn’t have Lloyd’s energy and optimism. Langdon can’t seem to do anything. He just, barely, is. He is condemned to a waifish insubstantiality, and requires the full attention of a benign world in order to exist.

It’s understandable that certain kinds of comedy go out of style. It’s just unfortunate that Langdon didn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Battle of the Century.


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