A jigsaw puzzle, unfortunately missing some crucial pieces
When Harry Langdon made this film he was down on his luck and struggling to regain his footing. His second divorce left him all but penniless, his career as a star of feature films appeared to be over, he'd been fired by Hal Roach and now found himself cranking out short comedies for Poverty Row studio Educational Pictures. On top of all that, he was still straining to adapt his unique style, so suitable for silent cinema, to the very different demands of film-making with sound. As it happens, some of the talkie shorts Langdon made for Educational are surprisingly enjoyable, while others are awkward retreads of his silent material. But there was reason to expect that The Stage Hand might be something special: Harry co-authored the script and directed this short, his first directorial job since his ill-fated hitch at First National five years earlier. Under similar circumstances at the same studio in the mid-1930s Buster Keaton pulled himself together and produced Grand Slam Opera, his best film of the period; could Harry manage the same feat?
Sadly, it's difficult to judge the quality of Langdon's work based on what survives of The Stage Hand. I've seen two prints of this film and both seem to be missing a middle section that's crucial to the plot. The surviving footage runs about as long as a typical two-reeler, so it's unclear whether this film originally had a longer running time or if Harry's bosses at Educational compelled him to trim it prior to release. It's also possible that the short was edited for TV in the 1950s, and the edits were lost. Whatever happened, this is a comedy that begins promisingly with a couple of good bits and then falls apart during the climactic sequence, when gaping holes in the plot become obvious, unfamiliar characters suddenly pop up, and nothing makes any sense.
The story is set in the village of Oskaloosa, which is in Iowa -- Langdon's home state. A silent movie-style opening title informs us that the town needs a new fire engine, so they decide to stage a play to raise the money. (Nothing more is heard about this, but the finale involves a fire emergency at the theater.) In the opening scene the community players rehearse at the home of the director, a pompous lady named Mrs. Winters. Harry, of course, is the stage hand. He's expected to supply a doorbell sound vocally, but when his "Br-r-r-r-ring!" is pronounced inadequate he offers another, more vigorous ring-tone that is ridiculously over the top. (This gag may also have been designed to demonstrate that Langdon could be just as funny with sound as he was without it.) Before long, another stage hand lures Harry into what looks like a broom closet but turns out to be Mrs. Winters' private liquor pantry—Prohibition was still in effect—where the two men proceed to get sloshed. This is the film's comic highpoint; Harry would almost always shine in extended sequences like this one, set in confined spaces.
After this routine I think there must have been a scene introducing Harry's love interest, an actress in the troupe, whose father works for the fire department. But as the film stands we jump instead right to the big performance, where everything goes wrong in time-honored fashion. Harry, who has a bit part in the show as a messenger boy, gets pushed onto the stage at the wrong moment; an actress has her dress partly ripped off just before her entrance; and patrons hurl food at the players. (I guess people used to bring cabbages to community theater productions, just in case.) Some of the gags along the way are pretty good, but the sequence lacks momentum, and then when the fire department gets involved the plot goes haywire. Abruptly we meet Harry's girlfriend, who is on screen for about five seconds, and then when Harry rushes to the fire station for unclear reasons we meet an older fireman who seems to know him already, but nothing is explained. At the fade-out, when the girl rushes up to Harry and exclaims: "You saved my father's job – I love you!" we have no idea what she's talking about. On top of that, the "Harry" in this finale is obviously not Langdon but a double who remains mum.
Perhaps a complete print of The Stage Hand will surface one day, and all will be explained. In the meantime, this comedy is another bewildering mystery in the star-crossed career of Harry Langdon.
P.S. Since writing this piece a couple of years ago I've come across more information about this short, thanks to Richard Kozarski's book "Hollywood on the Hudson." The Stage Hand was made, or at least begun, in 1932 before Langdon was hired by Educational Pictures. It was shot in New Jersey for the Royal Grand Studio and was apparently planned as a short feature, but it was never released in that form. The completed material was transferred to Educational when Langdon was signed, and then chopped down into the two-reel comedy that exists today. So it would seem that the "mystery" has been solved, but it's certainly too bad the feature wasn't completed. It looks like it could have been a promising comeback for poor Harry.
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