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Mirthy Harry

Langdon has been called the fourth genius of film comedy, and these new releases show why.

March 27, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who was Harry Langdon?

In his study of silent film, "The Parade's Gone By," Kevin Brownlow describes Langdon as "the fourth genius of screen comedy" after Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Now comedy fans can see for themselves why Langdon endeared himself to both critics and audiences 70 years ago, thanks to Kino's latest video collection, "Harry Langdon . . . The Forgotten Clown."

The Kino collection ($30 each) features digitally remastered color-tinted prints of Langdon's three best-known feature comedies--"Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," "The Strong Man" and "Long Pants."

Born in 1884, Langdon traveled the country for 20 years performing in minstrel shows, burlesque and vaudeville before producer Mack Sennett signed him in 1923 to appear in two-reel comedies. By 1926, Langdon was so popular he was starring in feature comedies.

He adopted his unique man-child persona during his vaudeville days. While at Sennett, director Harry Edwards and a young writer named Frank Capra helped Langdon hone his screen character.

When Langdon made the leap to features, he took Edwards, Capra and cinematographer Elgin Lessley with him to Warner Bros.

In his films, Langdon's eerily baby face was covered in white makeup. He wore a little hat, big pants and a small, tightly buttoned jacket. His character was a sweet, wide-eyed innocent who used small, fluttery gestures and possessed a shy grin. Langdon's best comic bits built slowly, like the extended sequence in the 1926 film "The Strong Man," in which he tries to cope with a bad cold.

"Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," from 1926, was directed by Edwards and penned by Capra. It's a charming little comedy that finds Langdon playing the ineffectual son of a shoemaker. He ends up entering a cross-country footrace to win the $25,000 first prize so his father won't be evicted from their home. Along the way, Langdon is sentenced to serve on a chain gang (for eating a farmer's berries) and is caught in a violent twister. A very young Joan Crawford plays his love interest. Included on the tape is the 1924 Mack Sennett short "All Night Long."

His best film, "The Strong Man," marks Capra's feature directorial debut. Langdon plays a gullible Belgian soldier who comes to America after World War I to find his pen pal (Priscilla Bonner), the blind daughter of a minister. He encounters numerous obstacles searching for her, especially from his boss, a vaudevillian strong man, and a floozy. When the strong man gets drunk before a show, Langdon is forced to perform his act. It's a terrifically funny sequence in which the slight Langdon attempts to entertain the rowdy crowd. His bit with the birds is priceless. Brownlow described the film as "one of the most perfect comedies ever made." Also included is the 1925 Sennett short "His Marriage Vow."

Langdon's 1927 comedy, "Long Pants," also directed by Capra, is truly offbeat. Langdon plays a young man, still in short pants, who dreams of love and romance. After he's given his first pair of grown-up trousers by his father, he immediately becomes infatuated with a drug-smuggling sophisticate (Alma Bennett) and tries to win her affections by performing a series of complicated bicycle tricks. He ditches his hometown sweetheart (Priscilla Bonner) on their wedding day after he reads the ruthless sophisticate has been sent to prison. Though "Long Pants" is uneven, the scenes in which Langdon helps the shady lady escape from prison are very entertaining. The video also includes the delightful 1926 Sennett short "Saturday Afternoon."

So why did Langdon drift into near oblivion?

After the success of these three films, he fired Capra and wrote and directed his own material. Langdon's next three films were commercial and critical failures. Warner Bros. soon terminated his contract, and he filed for bankruptcy in 1931.

Langdon, though, appeared sporadically in short films and features, most notably in the 1933 Al Jolson film "Hallelujah I'm a Bum." He also worked as a writer for other comics. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944.

To order the videos, call (800) 562-3330.

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