In discussing the hierarchy of the silent clowns, there is a tendency to keep referring back to a sort of holy trinity of clowns that critics have set in stone as the cream of the cinematic crop: Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
Interestingly, one clown whose name has been disappearing from such God-like status in recent years is Harry Langdon, perhaps the most misunderstood of the major silent clowns. He slowed comedy down, making it more deliberate and subtle, just as Chaplin did in 1915 when he left Keystone studios to pursue his own brand of humor at Essanay. Langdon's work is considerably slower paced and more deliberate than that of even Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. Langdon (1884-1944) at one time rivalled Chaplin both critically and commercially, yet two years later was virtually forgotten and being wasted in B-grade short subjects. Why is this?
To answer what went wrong with Langdon's career, we would need to go back to about 1924, when Langdon, already a vaudeville veteran of more than twenty years, accepted an offer to make motion picture short comedies for producer Mack Sennett. Sennett, or someone on his staff, had seen Langdon's act, and even had it filmed so that the writers could re-watch it and get a good feel for the type of comedy that they'd be writing for Langdon. The three men most closely associated with Langdon's film career are Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley, and a young gag man named Frank Capra.
Whether or not Capra was with the writing team from the beginning has become a point of debate. Capra, in his later years, claimed not only to have been instrumental in Langdon's success as a filmmaker, but also claimed to have created Langdon's character. We now know, thanks to photographs of Langdon's stage show, that the character Langdon played, the "Baby", was already fairly well-established in his early vaudeville days. Capra also expressed a sort of backhanded concern for Langdon in later interviews, frequently referring to the comedian as pitiful, sad, and pathetic.
Capra's claims have become the stuff of intense, heated debate among film scholars. Capra of course went on to become one of America's finest and most personal filmmakers, directing such masterpieces as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). From this lofty perch, it was easy to make these rather extravagant claims about his instrumental role in the career of Harry Langdon. But a look at how their relationship ended provides insight not only into the reasoning behind Capra's attitude toward Langdon, but also why Langdon's career came to a dead halt just a year after his peak of popularity.
In 1926, Langdon was signed by First National to appear in feature films. Leaving Mack Sennett's studio, he brought his gag men (Edwards, Ripley and Capra) with him. The first feature, TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP, was a resounding success, and seemed to establish Langdon in the highest ranks of screen comics. His popularity was almost unequaled at this point. The next feature, released in early 1927, was THE STRONG MAN, which did even better than TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP. THE STRONG MAN, which historian Kevin Brownlow considers the finest silent comedy ever made, is a fine showcase for Langdon's talents. It also happens to be the feature film directorial debut of Frank Capra. Capra remained at the helm for LONG PANTS, Langdon's next film. But while making THREE'S A CROWD, Capra was fired by Langdon. Capra later claimed that Langdon had "gone Hollywood" and began to think of himself as a virtuoso genius like Chaplin, whom the critics frequently compared him to. Langdon, it seems, fired his director and writing staff in a burst of creative egomania.
The truth behind this is open to debate. Capra's later comments about Langdon may very well have been nothing more than sour grapes over getting canned by the comedian. While it's true that Langdon perhaps overestimated his own virtuosity as filmmaker and actor, Capra's claims remain suspect. This is not to dismiss Capra's contributions. Any comic filmmaker of the 1920s would have agreed that it was a team effort that got these films made with the level of quality they maintained, and indeed, Langdon's career did downturn very quickly after Capra's departure.
This debate turns into a sort of chicken-or-the-egg rhetoric. What can be seen, though, is that as Langdon's career spiraled downward, Capra's took off.
After two more features in 1928, Langdon's star burned out. He appeared in some talkie shorts for Hal Roach before spiralling off into low budget fare unworthy of his talent. Capra, directing a series of action pictures and dramas, at the same time set himself up as America's premier director of social comedies championing the little guy. Capra's training as a gag man served him well, and he continued to show flourishes of his silent comedy background throughout his career.
Langdon, unfortunately, had few memorable jobs left. Career highpoints included a supporting role in the Al Jolson musical HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM (1933), and a co-starring role opposite Oliver Hardy in ZENOBIA (1939). Aside from a string of two-reelers for Columbia's short subject division, Langdon did some gag writing for Laurel and Hardy before dying, rather sad and broken, in 1944.
Langdon's legacy was championed by James Agee, who profiled Langdon in his excellent Life magazine essay, "Comedy's Greatest Era" (1949). Langdon enjoyed a fair amount of exposure in the Robert Youngson compilations of the 1960s, and was written about with great love and respect in Walter Kerr's book, "The Silent Clowns" which, for better or worse, has become a sort of bible for comedy aficionados.
As the work of other silent comedians becomes available, especially that of Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Chase, Max Linder, to say nothing of the silent Laurel and Hardy shorts, Langdon has seen his reputation wane somewhat. While critics initially praised his pantomime ability, the evidence shows there were a number of other comedians who equalled him in ability. Langdon, perhaps, will always be remembered as the "Baby" character, and his films offer delights for those willing to watch them in context.