The Picturegoer’s Who’s Who for 1933 had no entry for Langdon, so complete had been his downfall. Nothing that he could do in his last eleven years restored him to his former glory. But the fact that he lived on so haplessly has by now become part of the Langdon legend, the glum postscript to yet another career blighted by Hollywood’s callousness.
However, people should be given credit for bad films and mistakes as much as for their successes. Langdon handled his affairs unwisely and, more important, he had an insecure grasp of why he was funny. Whether we think of comedians as instinctive, good-natured clowns or as disenchanted men who make us laugh to stop themselves from crying, neither interpretation fits well with the comedian himself as a professional technician. There seems to be, intrinsically, a gulf between actorly intelligence and the screen's image of guileless innocence at the center of comic disaster. Audiences tend to be less inquisitive about the manufacture of comedy than about the resources of drama. And the men who have run the industry have sometimes treated comedians with such brutality that they might be acting on the assumption that no comedian was really in charge of his or her career. The dramatic reversal in Harry Langdon’s tortunes may even stem from his attempt to step outside the baby-faced, baggy-trousered simpleton that he played so well if in so few films.
Langdon had knocked around so much before he got into movies that it was a wonder lie still seemed vulnerable. He was part of a Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show, a juggler, a circus clown, and a newspaper cartoonist before lie entered vaudeville. He stayed there some twentv years without getting anywhere near the top. In 1923, Mack Sennett recruited him, probably on the advice of gagman Frank Capra. Langdons moony daydreamer was evolved in a series of two-reelers, and guided bv director Harry Edwards and gagmen, Capra and Arthur Ripley. Langdon had a small part in the Colleen Moore Ella Cinders (26, Alfred E. Green), but left Sennett for Warners and formed the Harry Langdon Corporation lor his first feature, Tramp, Tram)). Tramp (26, Edwards), with six credited gagmen, including Capra. Sennett then released an earlier feature, His First Flame, also directed by Edwards, and with the assistance of Capra and Ripley.
There is no question about the success of the team: in Tramp . . . and the next few films, Langdon is a most beguiling dope. Yet it could be that this is only a very skillful manipulation of Langdons dullness. There are moments when he seems casual or indifferent, as if not fully aware of what is going on around him—imagine Laurel without Hardy, imagine Laurel preoccupied with the loss, and you are surprisingly close to Harry Langdon, not just in looks but in the self-absorbed dismay.
Nevertheless, Langdon was now immensely popular. His next film was his best. The Strong Man (26, Frank Capra). Why Capra took over is not clear, nor can the extra sharpness be proved as coming from him. But the group was splitting. Long Pants (27, Capra) was made with Capra, Ripley, and Langdon quarreling, and when it was finished, Capra was fired. Capra reacted fiercely in a letter to the press that charged Langdon with vain and harmful interference. Talented people often fight, but how much of this is the disparity between the real Langdon and the figure Capra had helped invent? The Langdon Corporation persevered and Langdon himself directed his next three films: Three’s a Crowd (27), which has a new and unwelcome gravity; The Chaser (28); and Heart Trouble (28). They are inferior films and their returns fell away.
Warners let him go and he was out of work. Then Hal Roach made a series of shorts with him, and in 1930 Universal teamed him with Slim Summerville in See America Thirst (30. William James Craft). He went back to Warners for A Soldier’s Plaything (30, Michael Curtiz), but next year he was bankrupt.
Thus, two years later, the removal from reference books. Sound only underlined the lack of personality. On and off during the 1930s, he made more comedy shorts and appeared in a few features. They were, generally, minor works and nothing Langdon did suggested he was worthier of better things: Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (33, Lewis Milestone); My Weakness (33, David Butler); There Coes My Heart (38, Norman Z. McLeod); with Oliver Hardy in Zenobia (39, Gordon Douglas); All-American Co-Ed (41. LeRoy Prinz); Spotlight Scandals (43, William Beaudine); Block Busters (44, Wallace Fox); and Swingin' on a Rainbow (45, Beaudine). lie also helped to write the Laurel and I lardy picture, A Chump at Oxford (40, Alfred Goulding).