Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harry Langdon

Harry L. Langdon (June 15, 1884 – December 22, 1944) was an American comedian who appeared in vaudeville, silent films (where he had his greatest fame), and talkies.

Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he began working in vaudeville then joined Vitagraph Movie Studios. He eventually went over to Keystone Studios where he became a major star. At the height of his film career he was considered one of the four best comics of the silent film era. His screen character was that of a wide-eyed, childlike man with an innocent's understanding of the world and the people in it. He was a first-class pantomimist.

Most of Langdon's 1920s work was produced at the famous Mack Sennett studio. His screen character was so unique, and his antics so different from the broad Sennett slapstick, that he soon had a following. Success led him into feature films, directed by Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra. When Langdon had such good directors guiding him, he produced work that rivaled Charlie Chaplin's, Harold Lloyd's, and Buster Keaton's. His best films were The Strong Man (1926), Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and Long Pants (1927). After his initial success, Langdon took creative control of his films and career, but his appeal faded soon afterward. His last starring silent feature was made in 1928. Capra later claimed that Langdon's decline stemmed from the fact that, unlike the other great silent comics, he never fully understood what made his own film character successful. However, Langdon's biographer William Schelly among others have expressed skepticism about this claim, arguing that Langdon had established his character in vaudeville long before he entered movies, added by the fact that he wrote most of his own material during his stage years.

Harry Langdon's babyish character didn't adapt well to sound films; as producer Hal Roach remarked, "he was not so funny articulate." But Langdon was a big enough name to command leads in short subjects for Educational Pictures and Columbia Pictures. In 1938 he adopted a Caspar Milquetoast-type, henpecked-husband character that served him well, he also contributed to comedy scripts as a writer, notably for Laurel and Hardy. Langdon continued to work steadily in low-budget features and shorts, always playing mild-mannered goofs, into the 1940s. As a point of interest, when Hal Roach was in a contract dispute with Stan Laurel, one-half of the great Laurel and Hardy comedic pair, the studio paired Langdon with Oliver Hardy in a 1939 film titled Zenobia.

Harry Langdon kept busy right up until his death in 1944 (in Los Angeles, from a cerebral hemorrhage). He was interred in the Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. At the height of his career, Langdon was making $7,500 per week, a fortune for the times. Upon his death, The New York Times wrote, "His whole appeal was a consummate ability to look inexpressibly forlorn when confronted with manifold misfortunes--usually of the domestic type. He was what was known as 'dead-pan'...the feeble smile and owlish blink which had become his stock-in-trade caught on in a big way, and he skyrocketed to fame and fortune...

In 1997, his hometown of Council Bluffs celebrated "Harry Langdon Day" and in 1999 named Harry Langdon Boulevard in his honor. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Harry Langdon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6925 Hollywood Blvd.