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|Index||13 reviews in total|
Harry Langdon's brief career as a top-ranked silent comic stands as a
good definition of "meteoric." He was a late bloomer, already pushing
40 (though eerily baby-faced) when he was signed to make shorts for the
Mack Sennett Studio in 1923, but his rise to popularity was rapid, and
within three years he was starring in feature films while highbrow
critics such as Robert E. Sherwood sang his praises. And yet, within
two more years he was floundering, and by the '30s Harry was just
another aging trouper, slogging his way through low-budget talkies,
often re-workings of his best silent material.
Clues to this sudden and mysterious downfall are not hard to find: one need look no further than the opening credits of his films. Although he was a gifted performer, Langdon owed much of his success to the creative team assisting him on the Sennett lot, Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra, who helped him shape his child-man persona and seemingly understood the character better than Langdon did himself. Capra exaggerated his own role in later years, but he did know how to efficiently craft funny, satisfying comedies. This becomes clear when one compares Langdon's first three feature films, all of which involved Capra as either writer or director, to the features made after Capra was fired (i.e. just after Long Pants finished production), when Langdon took over the directing chores himself, with wobbly results. The conclusion is inescapable: Harry's best work was crafted by a team.
Long Pants is the third of the features generally said to be Langdon's best, and the last one made before the descent into sentimentality and weirdness that drove audiences away. But frankly I've never been able to enjoy this film much, and in viewing it again it looks to me like Harry was already losing it, Capra or no Capra, despite the occasional funny moments. The introductory sequence is promising, but once the story proper gets rolling the enterprise goes awry.
Harry is presented as something of a freak, an aging boy-man in short pants who lives vicariously through romance novels but still lives at home with his parents. When his father brings home a pair of long trousers -- apparently, Harry's first pair -- the mother states that keeping him at home in shorts has kept him out of trouble. The uncomfortable implication is that Harry is "special" and can't handle the pressures of the world outside the family home. Once Harry dons his long pants, ventures outside, and starts interacting with others, we suspect that Mom was right: the Harry we find here isn't merely a simple soul, he's disturbingly stunted, almost moronic. We get the queasy feeling we're being encouraged to laugh at a simpleton.
This queasiness kicks in early, when Harry instantly falls in love with bad girl Bebe, who is passing through town, and decides that he must therefore kill Priscilla, the sweet hometown girl his parents want him to marry. As Mark Twain demonstrated there is legitimate (if dark) humor in examining the thought processes of an immature mind, so when Harry fantasizes about taking Priscilla out to the woods and shooting her, well, it's dark all right, but not necessarily fatal to successful comedy. However, the mood changes when Harry actually attempts to carry out the murder. We're supposed to find humor in Harry's clumsiness, in his ineptitude as an assassin, while dim-bulb Priscilla remains doggedly unaware of what he's trying to do. It's one thing when Laurel & Hardy fail at building a house or fixing a boat, we can all relate to that, but it's something else again to watch while this pasty-faced man-child attempts to bump off his girlfriend -- who, it would appear, is almost as mentally limited as he is. In a word, it's icky.
To make matters worse, all of Harry's choices in this story are motivated by an unworthy object: the girl he's fallen for, Bebe, isn't just naughty, she's a career criminal and a drug smuggler, as revealed in a letter she receives in her introductory scene. (One genuinely funny touch, probably unintended, is her correspondent's fastidiousness in using quotation marks when referring to the "snow.") Everything Harry does is motivated by his delusional love for Bebe, a result of his excruciatingly limited experience of the world. Was Harry's Mom right in locking him up?
During the 'failed murder' sequence another of the film's flaws surfaces: many of the gags feel labored, with unusual props suddenly appearing in unlikely places, apparently just to give Harry the opportunity to be funny, extend a sequence, or conclude it. Items such as guns, light bulbs, changes of clothing, a ventriloquist dummy, and even an alligator turn up at the darnedest times, but our enjoyment is undercut by the knowledge that a team of gag writers obviously worked overtime to think up these gags. It's also worth mentioning that the editing of Long Pants is curiously sloppy, and I'm referring not to the rough jumps that are common in older films when bits of film are missing, but rather to the jarring moments which result when the images or movements in a medium or long shot don't quite match after an edit because the shots weren't properly trimmed. There are several of these moments I noticed, but then, the firing of director Frank Capra just after principle photography was concluded might have had something to do with this film's somewhat rushed look.
For Harry Langdon at his best I recommend The Strong Man, or the better short comedies made for Sennett. But for me, Long Pants stands as a strange and unsatisfying milestone in the unhappy career of Harry Langdon, who could have achieved so much more with the proper guidance.
Making a comedy movie isn't just about firing off jokes for an hour or
two. The audience needs a bit more of an experience. That's why the
greatest screen comics of olden times were also great storytellers, and
created for themselves comedy characters who were likable as well as
funny. Harry Langdon was one of a small number of slapstick comedians
from the silent era who made the leap from shorts to full-length
features. However, unlike his mightier contemporaries Charlie Chaplin,
Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Langdon's screen persona simply didn't
have the weight to take on such an endeavour.
Long Pants sees the baby-faced comic step into Harold Lloyd territory as a shy youngster making his first awkward steps with the ladies. Here the similarities end though. Even with his cherubic features, the forty-three year old Langdon was perhaps pushing it a bit as a teen getting his first pair of eponymous pants. Furthermore whereas Lloyd had a sort of geeky charm, Langdon is at best bland, and at worst a little bizarre, here verging on the outright disturbing. After Harold falls for a vampish femme fatale, he has to finish things with the sweet and innocent girl-next-door he was previously engaged to. Some people would do this with a note, others with a sit-down talk. Langdon decides to lure the girl in to the woods with the intention of killing her. This sort of thing may be acceptable if you're the guitarist in a Norwegian black metal band, but not if you're a supposedly sympathetic comedy character. Langdon doesn't actually succeed in bumping her off, and his bungled attempt to do so is actually one of the vaguely funnier moments in Long Pants, but regardless of that we're being asked to root for some kind of Jeffrey Dahmer type, and the audience will be lost.
The other big problem with Harry Langdon is that he simply isn't very funny. He doesn't have that ability to conjure up comedy from his environment or his props, and the gags don't exactly flow. Granted, a lot of Langdon's style is in his reactions and his funny ways of doing things, but even in this area Langdon is second-rate, doing poor copies of Chaplin's mannerisms and Keaton's deadpan expressions. Of course, a lot of the fault here lies with the writers of Long Pants, and its director Frank Capra. Capra was always a massive egotist, later shown in the way he tried to claim complete authorship for his greatest pictures, but back at this stage it comes out in his camera-work. For Long Pants he uses all sorts of showy techniques, mobile point-of-view shots, god shots looking down over action, all quite unnecessary for silent comedy. It looks like the work of some green film student trying to get himself noticed. Compared to his even weaker direction for Langdon's The Strong Man, Capra at least seems to be learning the rudiments of physical comedy direction, a good set-up being the one where a cop is in the foreground making a telephone call, while Harry completely oblivious is cracking open a crate behind him. He is also now allowing scenes to play out without lots of cutting. It's just a shame Langdon isn't really worthy of such lengthy attention.
Unlike the moderate successes of The Strong Man and its predecessor, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (which is actually in my view the best, or rather least worst Langdon picture), Long Pants was a box-office flop. As oppose to Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, whose stars only began to fade once the talkies came along, it's fairly clear Langdon was a fad who disappeared as quickly as he emerged. And the main reason I have consistently compared him to those three is that he is occasionally touted as the "fourth" genius of silent comedy, a title he is a long way off meriting. In the recent resurge of interest he has enjoyed, he has been branded as "The Forgotten Clown" and "Chaplin-esque", or had his links to Frank Capra emphasised, even though the two Capra-directed Langdon pictures are hardly representative of the director's entire output. Many avid buffs will no doubt want to check Langdon out if only out of curiosity, but those who are purely fans of good quality comedy would be better off steering clear.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Anyone desiring to know the great comedy movies of the "silent" era would be well advised to see Keaton's "The General"; and Lloyd's "The Kid Brother" and "Safety Last." But the notoriously dark comedy "Long Pants"? Yet, strangely, "Long Pants" -- starring the often overlooked comedy genius of Harry Langdon -- is a movie on an edge, with more appeal almost a century after it was made.
Harry Langdon was once mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. He still is sometimes added as a fourth pillar supporting silent comedy. But his position as that pillar is iffy.
Langdon's problem was a limited character. Most of the silent comics were grotesques. Even Laurel and Hardy -- the fat one and skinny one -- were grotesques in a minor way. Chaplin was considered the greatest of the grotesques: a little tramp with a little mustache who lived in an alternate universe. Two of the most popular comic actors of their time -- and today -- were not grotesques: Buster Keaton with his "stone face" (unsmiling but not unemotional); and Harold Lloyd, the boy-next-door. Both these personas proved extremely elastic. The obvious greatness of Keaton and Lloyd as film makers, then and now, throws into question whether grotesques were necessary at all.
Langdon arrived in films at the age of 40 after 20 years of vaudeville fame, and he developed his film persona in a series of shorts for Mack Sennett, the king of freewheeling slapstick. Langdon's character was another grotesque. He looked young for his age, and he used lots of extremely white make-up, making him baby-faced. He also developed wonderfully childlike mannerisms. His child-man persona, however, did not stretch too far. Langdon had a limited bag of tricks (he used the same act, with variations, in vaudeville for two decades). By the time of "Long Pants" his bag was nearly empty. He had to take his character to another level.
Langdon's new direction was to push the envelope on what was acceptable in comedy. "Long Pants" -- directed by the famous Frank Capra but no doubt strongly influenced by Langdon -- stretched the child-man's comedy as far as it could go without deforming it.
Today, it would hardly be shocking. Langdon plays a small-town 18 year old (he's not a man-child but a child becoming a man) who reads too much romance. He seems destined to marry a local girl; but when the car of a cocaine-smuggling vamp breaks down in his neighborhood, Harry wants to make a romantic impression on her. He first tries to impress her by showing off the "long pants" he's wearing for the first time. Then he tries a number of bicycle-riding tricks around her car. When she amuses the boy by kissing him (and knocking him literally off his feet) he is smitten. When Harry finds letter written to the vamp by a lover that gets left behind -- and which Langdon thinks she wrote to him -- he falls head-over-heels in love with her.
The letter makes Harry think the vamp is returning to marry him. She doesn't return, and Harry is pressured by his folks into marrying the local girl.
On his wedding day, Harry sees in the paper that the vamp he's in love with is in prison. Desperately wanting to help her, Harry brainstorms ways of getting out of the wedding, including taking his bride out into the woods and shooting her in the back of the head.
Soon after this vision, Harry, taps at the window where the girl is donning her bridal clothes. He suggests a stroll together in the woods. The bride is game and she climbs out -- and the viewer glimpses the pistol in Harry's pocket.
Needless to say, the dream of calmly taking someone out and shooting them is lots simpler than the reality. Everything goes wrong that can go wrong, including Harry's losing the pistol in a pile of leaves and getting himself tangled up in barbed wire. The girl proves uncooperative as well. And Harry himself gets the jitters. Finally, he gets the girl to cooperate by turning away and counting to 500; and after the count she turns to see Harry, after several little accidents, sitting on a log with his high hat pushed down to his chin and his right leg caught in a bear trap.
There's not really much shocking about the scene these days, in the wake of comedy inspired by the likes of the Farrelly brothers. Considering that the girl is utterly sweet and stupid, a modern audience would probably be cheering Harry on.
If you don't start laughing at Harry's appearance at the window and at the sight of the gun, and not stop until you see Harry with his dreams of murder shattered, with his hat over his eyes and his foot in a bear trap . . . perhaps this movie's not for you.
If it is for you, you'll see Harry arriving at prison just in time to assist his unladylike-love in a jail break. He nails her in a packing crate, where she suffers several indignities. Harry also suffers, at the hands of a dummy policeman -- yes, a *dummy* policeman -- and at the teeth of an alligator.
In the end, the "snow queen" tracks down the woman who betrayed her to the authorities, and there is a cat-fight in a small-room in the back of a dance-hall. Harry's final rejection of his lover is hilarious.
There is a coda where Harry learns a lesson that shocks him out of his day-dreams. The movie ends on a laugh, but it is muted by bitter-sweetness.
The best way to take this movie is to watch how Langdon develops his character through his shorts; then by watching two main-stream Langdon features, "The Strong Man" and "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp."
I personally like Langdon's 'Long Pants' and feel that it is the best of the three films presented on Kino's 'The Forgotten Clown' disc. Contrary to some writers on the subject, I am inclined to believe that 'The Strong Man' is really the weak film. 'The Strong Man' begins poorly with an overlong scene of Langdon doing nearly nothing. 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' is a silly film with little substance, but it offers clean light-hearted entertainment. The relationship between Joan Crawford and Langdon should have been strengthened to bring out dramatic tension, and to make it connect with the final cyclone scene. 'Long Pants' is in several ways, a unique film. A boy caught up in his imagination gets his first pair of long pants. A rapid transformation occurs that delivers him from boyhood innocence into the actual world of his fantasies. With these new pants, he can't quite control himself, and soon thereafter, he meets up with a mysterious woman of questionable character who introduces the boy-man to the seedier parts of life. Langdon already has a finance, but she lacks the erotic nature the other possesses. But the pants do nothing more than to provide an allusion of manhood. As he allows himself to be seduced by the vixen flapper, his thoughts turn to doing away with his bride-to-be in a funny, yet slightly disturbing scene in the forest. But it's all in jest.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Harry Langdon's third released feature is widely regarded as his last
great work in the silent era. Yet it is a striking paradox that so many
dislike the film, or at least consider it an uneasy experience, best to
ignore. The film was made under hard pressure, most of which erupted
due to the disagreements between star Harry and director Frank Capra,
who was in fact fired shortly after completion of shooting. Capra
wanted to tell the story somewhat differently than Langdon had
suggested, and the uncomfortable atmosphere on the set can be glimpsed
in some parts of the film that feel rather rushed and forced. However,
I totally disagree that the film is nearly as unfunny or flawed as some
historians like to claim; there is at least no doubt that LONG PANTS
provides the most fascinating exploration of the "Elf character's"
I must be fair, though, and admit that the first time I watched this film, I found little amusement in it; I found it plain disturbing, everything from Harry's (sort of) affair with the beautiful but deeply troubled drug-smuggler to his attempt at murder. In the film, we first find Harry reading romantic novels, with whose worlds he is totally obsessed; much like a modern Don Quijote, Harry is a boy without any experience in the real, often ugly world, which leads him to believe in the fictitious, romantic world of his books. His mother has never let him wear a set of long pants as she is convinced that once his son enters adulthood, it is likely to get him into trouble. Finally, the boy's father persuades her to let him throw away his shorts and become part of adulthood, something which we understand, even though Harry's age is never specified, has taken a far too long time that it will turn out well. Harry falls in love with a vamp of the city, but is forced to marry a country-girl. Frustrated to marry a girl he can never love, and to rescue the vamp (who barely knows of Harry's existence) from prison, he decides to kill the girl. He does not succeed, but elopes to the city anyway, whereupon he finds himself trapped into many threatening predicaments.
Harry's fascination in the vamp is not hard to figure, as his illusion of love singlehandedly has its origins in a mystified fantasy world; his dreams make him blind for the real world. What seems to bother most people to a far larger degree, myself included at first, is Harry's attempts to shoot the naive girl with whom he's engaged. Buster Keaton, who admired Langdon, said in an interview that it was ridiculous for a comedian playing innocent to do attempts at murder and believe it would gain any laughs; had he turned it the other way around, and let the girl try to murder naive Harry, it'd perhaps have had potential, he claimed. Many share Keaton's sentiments; some even take this sequence for proof to the unending myth that Langdon did not fully understand his character. In my eyes, however, it rather proves, if anything, the opposite. If we twist the story the other way around and place Harry in the girl's position, we might have some funny business going which would suit Harry's childlike persona perfectly. But this is not the Harry we know from other films: Harry the child has now been forced into adulthood, and the question to ask next is, how does a man who can't grow up react when the world expects him to do so? What is certain is that Harry has no clue as to how the real world works or what it wants from him. His distorted understanding of things is justified by his very innocence; he is not inconcerned about the world, just lost in it. He had always been lost of course, but saved by the lack of people's expectations in him as a child.
Further complaints concern the apparent lack of gags. The film does move slowly at times, something which I suspect would have been of less bother had the Langdon-team been on better terms at the time of shooting. Yet there are many amusing sequences to mention, at least to people well acquainted with Harry: his confrontation with a cop, a brick and an alligator is superbly timed and executed, and feels like a nice, light contrast to the otherwise dark atmosphere of the film. Capra's direction is also worthy of acclaim; even at such an early point he's maturing as a first-rate director with great speed. He provides us with a few clever camera-angles which add to the mystification of the film, if only because it escalates the action.
I say it once more. LONG PANTS is an odd movie about identity confusion, symbolized through dark comedy which you may not want to view for young children. It is unlike anything else ever done in the silent era, and provides, in my opinion, the most fascinating exploration of Harry Langdon's character, precisely due to his apparent transformation OUT of character. If that makes any sense. Maybe it doesn't. But did Harry ever make sense?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a very dark and maudlin style of film--a bit departure over
previous Langdon films I have seen. While he, of course, looks like a
little cherub, in this film he's not quite the sweet guy you might have
come to love. After falling for a woman (who he didn't know was a
one-lady crime-wave), he didn't want to follow through with his
upcoming marriage. So, to get out of it, he tries to bring himself to
kill his fiancée on their wedding day!! I told you--this is NOT your
typical sweet Langdon film! After breaking up and NOT killing her,
Langdon goes to see this other lady who he THINKS is being falsely
imprisoned. When he arrives, she's just escaped and she drags him along
for a wild crime spree.
Unlike some other Langdon full-length films, this one is relatively short (at 58 minutes) and well-edited--without the usual overly long scenes. After having just seen three of Harry Langdon's full-length films on DVD (and a couple others years ago), I am left feeling that perhaps Langdon's reputation as a comedy great is a bit exaggerated. Having seen these films and a few of his shorts, I feel that there is a bit of a gap between his work and those of the truly great comedians of the 1920s--Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. At no point did TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP or THE STRONG MAN or LONG PANTS ever approach the greatness of these other star's better films (such as THE KID BROTHER, OUR HOSPITALITY or THE GOLD RUSH). Still, this is an entertaining film and it's too bad that apparently Langdon's ego destroyed his career--I've read about this several places (including IMDb). It seems that this is the last of Langdon's best films--as afterwords, he fired his amazingly talented director (Frank Capra--yes, THAT Frank Capra) and he never regained his original comedic touch.
Overall, this is a funny film and worth seeing. However, it's far from a great film and I wish they'd left all the darker elements out of the movie as they seemed to compromise the integrity of the character.
I have said in other reviews of Langdon that I am not a great admirer
of Capra and think that Langdon's best work on the whole was done with
Harry Edwards directing at Sennett in 1924-1925 before Capra joined the
team as a gag-man.
Of the First National features, I think the best is Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, directed by Edwards. The Strong Man is a badly paced film that tries to place Langdon in a dramatic context that does not really fit his performance-style and for which the script is not sufficiently strong. Moreover the whole film is in doubtful taste (the blind daughter, the "pseudo-miracle" with which the film ends). While the inspiration is obviously Chaplin, Chaplin's elements of social commentary were much more lightly sketched and often irreverent and, although he too was inclined to be sentimental, he was never falsely and manipulatively so in the Capra manner.
This film is also in very doubtful taste (even Keaton was shocked by the idea of the baby-faced comedian trying to murder his wife) but not this time in the service of false sentimentality. What sets Long Pants apart (and is its redeeming feature) is that it is a black comedy, a relatively rare bird in the Hollywood skies at that time and in a black comedy bad taste works and the scene of the attempted murder is quite the best in the film - in truth it is the sole real interest of the film.
The slow pace is again a fault as in The Strong Man and the scenes that one reviewers considers the highlights - the bicycle stunts and the policeman-dummy - are exactly the one that I would point to as extremely drawn out and tedious (and not very funny in the first place).
So I rate neither of the Capra-directed films very highly (nor for that matter the later Sennett shorts with which Capra was involved) but this film has a real interest that The Strong Man lacked and reveals a dark side of Capra that he was usually careful to camouflage.
Langdon's career after Capra was a disaster but, like Keaton, he was never likely to have been a success in the era of the "talkies". Both men had coarse and ugly voices, which would not necessarily in itself have mattered (think of Eugene Palette), except that the voices were in both cases a complete mismatch with the silent screen-image of the artists. Chaplin had a weak, reedy little voice (he had enormous theatre experience but very little of it vocal) but it was a much better fit with the "little tramp" character, especially as it had evolved in the feature films. Langdon had the additional problem that an ageing baby face is not at all a pretty sight. Alas, nobody loves a fairy (or an elf who has turned into a gnome) when they are forty!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There are three highlights in this film. The first involves bicycle tricks, the second is an escalation of mishaps as Harry attempts but fails to kill his bride, and the third are the ways in which he tries to distract a policeman, without realising it is just a mannequin. Unfortunately they last for maybe 10 minutes of the 50 minutes runtime between them, and are actually overly long themselves. With a deadpan expression, Langdon often appears to be doing his best Keaton impersonation, but often appears lost, unsure what to do next, and one can't help but think the true stone face master would have raced through those gags in half the time, and given us countless more to boot, or at the very least, some snappier editing. Even the attempted murder of the bride doesn't sit very well, for who could find such a thing funny? It is only that the bad guy (Langdon, even though he's supposed to be playing the innocent good guy, it is impossible to sympathise with him) manages to screw it up totally that we can laugh. I can imagine it being funnier if given different context. All this is fitted into an unfathomable (even by comedy of the era standards) story of the innocent guy falling for the femme-fatale thief - a common story in the silent era. I can only imagine they included the dancing and gunfight finale in attempt to prop up weak material with something racy. There is nothing remarkable about Capra's camera-work either. His best was clearly yet to come. It is all pretty misguided.
In his rustic country home, baby-faced Harry Langdon (as Harry Shelby)
acquires his first pair of "Long Pants" - and they go immediately to
his head. Quickly, Mr. Langdon is reading Eugene O'Neill's "Desire
under the Elms" and showing off his pants for bewitching city woman
Alma Bennett (as Bebe Blair). The drug-smuggling siren meets a
bicycling Langdon when her fancy car suffers a flat tire. She throws
him for a loop with a kiss. These scenes are all well and good Langdon.
Langdon is expected to court childhood sweetheart Priscilla Bonner (as Priscilla), but cannot stop fantasizing about Ms. Bennett. The pretense works well for most of the early running, but slacks off during the second half. Langdon plotting to kill Ms. Bonner, and some later scenes, do not fit as well as others. After peaking with "The Strong Man" (1926), Langdon seemed to be getting a little too big for his britches, even firing Frank Capra due to difficulties putting on "Long Pants".
****** Long Pants (3/26/27) Frank Capra ~ Harry Langdon, Alma Bennett, Priscilla Bonner, Gladys Brockwell
By the time silent comedian Harry Langdon made his third feature the
strain behind the camera was beginning to show on screen: the storyline
was more contrived; the gags more forced; and the premise even thinner
than usual for a silent comedy. What's left to give the film any
distinction is the compelling perversity of Langdon's character: an
immature, innocent small town boy more than willing to be corrupted by
an alluring big city siren.
As always Langdon's comic style was a curious mix of adolescent longings, adult responsibilities, and almost infantile facial tics and gestures, all of which worked best when the camera simply stood back and watched him improvise. This may not have involved anything more than an occasional, tentative change of posture or expression, and the process was so intuitive not even Langdon could define it. He later fell out with Frank Capra and tried to direct himself, with disastrous results, the worst (in the long run) being the sad fact that a unique and once unforgettable talent is today all but forgotten.
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