It came! After weeks of waiting for Trans-Atlantic deliveries to return to normality, yesterday HARRY LANGDON AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES 1929-30 finally dropped into my mailbox.
A DVD release of these much maligned, obscure little films is a wonderful thing indeed. These shorts have had a decidedly mixed reputation, but were well received at the time and deserve a fresh viewing.
Even in his best work, Harry Langdon always arouses quite visceral reactions, and these films are maybe the most contentious of his entire career. Partly this is because they were hugely obscure for a long time, and partly because when they were written about it, it was often by someone who didn’t enjoy them (most notably by Leonard Maltin in THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS) . Well, recent showings of some of the films on TCM have enabled people to at last judge for themselves. Now, they’re out in the real world again on this wonderful DVD from The Sprocket Vault, which collects all eight of the shorts, including the incredibly rare HOTTER THAN HOT and SKY BOY.
The shorts brought Langdon to the Hal Roach studios for the first time. His career in features had crashed, coinciding with the arrival of sound. Harry’s return to the short comedy was celebrated as a comeback, and though I have some favourites among his features, I do feel that this was the idiom that suited him best. Langdon’s comedy was all about creating his own little world, and in twenty minutes the real world doesn’t need to impinge on his fantasies too much.
Langdon fully capitalises on that here. His childlike ‘little elf’ character always tended toward the surreal (in one of his silent films he has a bearded woman as his leading lady!). These shorts continued that trend, with the new era of sound seeming to encourage him to be more experimental. Harry always babbled away in his silent films – now you can hear him as well as see him! Much has been made of his use of his voice, and it did take him a little while to get it right, but I think his voice actually suits his character really well. It’s not all talk, anyway. In the best of these films, there are terrific pantomime routines and some, like THE BIG KICK are practically silent comedies. There are some wonderful sight gags and images in these shorts that, if they weren’t quite so bizarre, might be considered iconic: Harry sat with his fingers in his ears and a firecracker fizzing away in his mouth, for instance, or in a cartoonish boxing match, his gloves floating around on the end of long poles coming out of his jumper!
It doesn’t always work, and the early sound technology does create some pacing problems, but there’s a lot to enjoy here. While films like SKIRT SHY and THE HEAD GUY are a little unsure of themselves, there is some vintage Harry on show, with THE BIG KICK and THE SHRIMP near-classics.
If you’re on the fence about Langdon (or his sound work), give this set a go; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There are some terrific moments, and you also get to enjoy some choice moments of Hal Roach players like Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy and Max Davidson into the bargain.
Of course, if you’re already a Langdon fan, then buying this set is a no-brainer. For one thing, this is your first chance to see HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY in 90 years!
These two films, contrasting tales of fire and ice, are among the most offbeat of all Langdon’s work (against some stiff competition!). HOTTER THAN HOT might just be one of my new favourite Langdon shorts. Harry plays a pyromaniac of all things, who is chasing a fire engine when Edgar Kennedy bribes him to take a ‘Dear John’ letter to Thelma Todd’s apartment. There are some lovely sight gags in this one, including Harry trying to cross a slippery floor, his attempts to retrieve a key that an unconscious Thelma has hidden in her dress, and his manipulation of a doll so that it seems to have Thelma’s legs. The film was based on Langdon’s own vaudeville skit THE MESSENGER, so he was intimately familiar with the material and pulls it off wonderfully.
SKY BOY has him marooned on an iceberg with Thelma, Eddie Dunn and a bear! The striking iceberg setting is an unusual but fitting backdrop for Langdon’s minimalism, and the centrepiece of the film is a long routine of Harry trying to shave the bullying Eddie Dunn. The angelic Langdon character often had darkness lurking not far away, and there’s a wonderful example here, as Thelma tries to persuade him to cut Eddie’s throat; add to this a fishing line attached to Harry’s wrist that causes his hand to jerk dangerously all over the place and you have a great little routine that’s suspenseful as well as funny.
Both these films are missing their original soundtracks, but subtitles and music from Andrew Earle Simpson carry them along nicely. After all, the visual is the essence of Langdon’s beautiful pantomime performances. Even if he never made me laugh, I could happily sit and watch him act for hours. Do you know what, though? He made me laugh a lot in these shorts. I laughed out loud, in fact.
Leonard Maltin got it so wrong when he called these shorts “horrible”. That’s like criticising Picasso for getting his faces all mixed up. Sure, they’re quirky, sometimes surreal and abstract, but that was Langdon’s vision. What you have here is a master comedian still pushing the envelope and creating something that no other comedian could have. Often, he manages to be very funny in the process. Maltin said that the “blame” for the films “surely lies with Langdon himself”. Change “blame” to “credit”, and now you’re talking!
As far as the DVD goes, the presentation of these films is exemplary. I once owned a print of LONG PANTS that was so bleached out that you could barely see Harry’s facial expressions. Without this ability, it became virtually unwatchable. You need to see every nuance of Langdon’s being, and the terrific digital restorations here make that possible. The films benefit hugely from this.
Like the previous Charley Chase and Thelma Todd DVD sets, all the shorts come with tremendously detailed commentaries from Richard Roberts. So, even if the films aren’t your cup of tea, you can still listen and learn a great deal not just about Langdon and these films, but about the Hal Roach studios in general.
Bravo to Richard Roberts and Kit Parker for making this, the most improbable of all DVDs, available for us to enjoy. The Sprocket Vault continue to give us chance to appreciate films that no-one else would even consider releasing, with the best possible presentation. If you’re still not convinced to buy, just remember that incredibly niche projects like this can only continue if we support them. Here’s the Amazon link… https://www.amazon.com/Harry-Langdon-Roach-Talkies-1929-1930/dp/B07ZW9Y36M