Friday, April 17, 2020
New on DVD: Langdon vs. Microphones at The Lot Of Fun
"The films are frequently bizarre and sometimes bewildering, but often hilarious, and certainly much better than they’ve been given credit for." Matthew Ross, The Lost Laugh
"It’s a sad but undeniable fact that these are among the worst two-reelers ever made." Leonard Maltin
"Even though Langdon's character in the Roach shorts is not too drastically different from his character in his feature films from the late 20s, I feel that with the addition of language, the effect of Langdon's man-child is heightened." Magnolia's Musings
"In these Roach films, Harry is exploring how he can retain the integrity of his established comic persona while working in the sound film medium." James L. Neibaur, author of The Silent Films of Harry Langdon: 1923-1928
"Some will see Harry's fearlessness and determination to stick with his bizarre little character as pure comedy genius. Others - and that would be many classic comedy buffs - will see a performer smashing boundaries and experimenting with offbeat ideas way beyond the point where the results are funny." Paul F. Etcheverry, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog
In one of those amazing accidents of fate, Laurel & Hardy's Hats Off still remains a lost film in 2020, but lo and behold, arguably the most controversial of all series produced by the Hal Roach Studios, the eight short subjects starring Harry "The Little Elf" Langdon, are now available on DVD. Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog applauds this release!
All eight Harry Langdon Hal Roach 2-reelers, including the heretofore lost films Hotter Than Hot and Sky Boy, which still only exist as silents - the sound discs have yet to be found - are on this 2-DVD collection.
As remains the case with Andy Kaufman's standup comedy, flavored coffees, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Carolina Reaper peppers, the solo records of Syd Barrett, reality television, Carrot Top, tenor banjos, avant-garde modern jazz and Worcestershire sauce, there are no half measures regarding Harry Langdon's 1929-1930 series - and his approach to comedy in general. The response to the Hal Roach talkies starring Harry Langdon, invariably, even among diehard classic comedy buffs, remains either "this is A SCREAM - FREAKIN' HILARIOUS!" or "this is the worst thing I've ever seen!"
We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are strongly of the former persuasion and consider it a given that Harry's approach is unconventional and unusual.
Rule of thumb #1 for appreciating the Langdon cinematic universe: accept that Harry's mind does not work in anything remotely resembling a conventional way - and just roll with it!
Count this blogmeister among those who laugh out loud throughout the infamous "sandwich and apple" sequence in The Head Guy, even though it is longer than the long version of Light My Fire by The Doors. Harry's m.o. is to build the tension in a scene by extending it - and this elicits quite the cathartic belly laugh when that tension is finally burst.
Having seen utter drek masquerading as comedy produced in the silent and early talkie eras by the likes of William M. Pizor Productions, Josh Binney/Florida Film Corporation, the Stern Brothers and the Al Christie studio, this writer begs to differ with the opinion that the Hal Roach sound Harry Langdon short subjects represent a nadir in the short comedy field.
They are not even the worst 2-reelers produced by Roach - that would be The Taxi Boys comedies which feature Ben Blue, a manic, over-the-top performer whose m.o. throughout is "hey, look at me - ain't I funny?"
Had the opportunity to view six of the Langdon Roach comedies on Turner Classic Movies and was pleasantly surprised, given that quite a few film historians have described them as train wrecks.
Especially enjoyed the hilarious The Big Kick, much of which plays essentially as a silent and includes both way-out concepts and several scenes of astonishing pantomime by Harry. Was ROFL through an indescribably funny scene involving a row of mannequins, who Harry mistakes for real-life humans.
The western comedy The Fighting Parson, enlivened by Harry's singing, banjo playing and dancing, is another standout in the series.
The Shrimp exemplifies the "little guy turns tiger and turns the tables" sub-genre, along with the Laurel & Hardy comedies Early To Bed, One Good Turn and A Chump At Oxford, and delivers quote well on the premise. Harry's transformation from bullied nebbish to tough guy is quite extraordinary.
These were among the first season of talkies produced by The Lot of Fun, along with the 1929 films starring Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy. All experienced an adjustment period from silents to sound films, with such part-talkies as Our Gang a.k.a. Hal Roach's Rascals in Boxing Gloves proving to be particularly awkward and primitive in sound technique, but nonetheless quite funny.
Today's post is titled Langdon vs. Microphones at The Lot Of Fun not because Harry was uncomfortable working in sound films, but because the experience of hearing his addled-brain man child character as well as seeing him remains fundamentally different from watching The Little Elf in silents. Harry's essential characterization is in utter uncensored, unvarnished, undiluted and unabashed form in the Hal Roach talkies and we hear his circular dialogue with himself.
What's different about the Hal Roach series as compared to most of his silent starring vehicles, with the exception of the darkest of them, Long Pants, is that Harry appears to up the "strange behavior" quotient just a tad. They present the character Harry developed in stage and vaudeville at its most out-there, discombobulated and cosmically befuddled. Now, when the Hal Roach series was produced, this characterization was not necessarily anything new or unheard of; Harry can be seen muttering onscreen in the 26 Mack Sennett silent short subjects he starred in.
While the criticisms of how weird and unsympathetic Harry's character is in the Hal Roach series compared to the more Chaplin-esque Little Elf who successfully evoked pathos in the silent features The Strong Man, Tramp Tramp Tramp and Three's A Crowd are well taken, if one is familiar with such latter-day standup comedians and comic actors as the aforementioned Andy Kaufman, Bobcat Goldthwait, Martin Short, Emo Phillips and the Saturday Night Live performances of Kristen Wiig, by comparison, Harry's space cadet character in his 1929-1930 films doesn't seem all that weird. Compared to Jiminy Glick, Harry looks like Cary Grant - and Jiminy would agree!
Among Harry Langdon's short comedies, these, in this writer's opinion, are a great deal better than many of the Columbias, which attempt to replicate the Three Stooges slapstick formula with all comedians on the lot, but are far surpassed by the subsequent Educational Pictures series.
We hear those will be remastered later this year and on DVD in 2021.
Harry essentially plays his character silent and lets his perennial onscreen foil and offscreen best friend Vernon Dent do the talking in these 1932-1933 comedies. In such classic 2-reelers as The Hitch Hiker and Knight Duty, this works beautifully.
Unfortunately, the 1934 Paramount short subjects produced by the same crew as the 1932-1933 Educational series at this juncture are lost films.
The lineup on the two DVDs is as follows:
Hotter Than Hot - Released to movie theaters in the United States on August 17, 1929
Sky Boy - Released on October 5, 1929
Skirt Shy - Released on November 30, 1929
The Head Guy - Released on January 11, 1930
The Fighting Parson - Released on February 22, 1930
The Big Kick - Released on March 29, 1930
The Shrimp - Released on May 3, 1930
The King - Released on June 14 1930
Commentaries by author, film historian and Harry Langdon expert Richard M. Roberts
La estación de gasolina (Spanish language version of ”The Big Kick”)
”Hal Roach Presents Harry Langdon” (1929)
”Hal Roach Studio Auction”(1963)
Supplemental music composed and performed by Andrew Earle Simpson
Harry Langdon At Hal Roach: The Talkies 1929-1930 is a followup to previous DVD releases by The Sprocket Vault of Hal Roach studio films featuring director-writer-comedian Charley Chase and the series co-starring Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts.
All of these releases are fantastic additions to the classic movie buff's DVD/Blu-ray collection and also offer an opportunity to introduce young people, very unlikely to see them unless they or a friend has TCM, to the world of classic movies and early sound era comedy. Just add the Marx Brothers Paramount films Blu-Ray to start that process! Those who are interested will be fans for life.
For more info on Harry Langdon, read Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde.
As well as William Schelly's terrific biography.
Last but not least, for the cool vintage graphics (frame grabs, posters and lobby cards) throughout today's post, we extend respectful tips of the Max Linder top hat to the review of the infamous The Head Guy that was a fantastic read on Magnolia's Musings: the Black & White Comedy Cinema Review, Langdon scholar Tim Greer's Feet Of Mud and Dave Lord Heath's Another Fine Mess: The Films Of Laurel & Hardy websites. Nice work, all of you - and thanks again!