Harry Langdon: From Medicine Shows to Movie Stardom

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Something about America’s Breadbasket produced a lot of silent comedians: Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle were both born in Kansas. Harry Langdon came from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Born in 1884, he ran away at age 12  to join Dr. Belcher’s Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show. Over the next few years he worked a variety of medicine shows and circuses, doing acrobatics, singing in blackface**, and performing lightning sketches (drawing pictures really fast). In 1899, he entered vaudeville with a chair balancing act. climbing to the top of a mountain of chairs and bottles, and making the whole assemblage sway back and forth precariously.

In 1903 he launched the act for which he was famous over the next twenty years: “Johnny’s New Car”. With his wife and partner Rose Frances Mensolf, Langdon would appear onstage in a stalled car, and attempt to get it going again. The crux of the act was that it was a special gag car, which progressively broke into pieces as the act went on, until it was just a pile of parts on the stage by the end.

As clever a gimmick as this is, the real attraction was Langdon, a funny little man with a baby face and a slow reaction time, forever scratching his head and pursing his lips in underplayed consternation while appalling things happened around him. He began to bring this quality to the screen in 1923 in a series of shorts for Principal Pictures. The following year he was traded to Keystone and that is where he became a star. Working with director Frank Capra, Langdon developed his character further, into a sort of “baby man”, a very strange clownish character that had some of the qualities of a child and some of an adult. (Some assert that his character was the basis of Stan Laurel’s more famous later work; I think there is a strong argument to be made that this at least partially true). In the late twenties, Capra and Langdon began to do features. The first three The Strong ManTramp, Tramp, Tramp; and Long Pants) were very successful, but then Langdon, who’d let success go to his head, fired Capra and began to direct on his own.

His career began a rapid descent front point, but contrary to popular opinion (to the extent that there is one on the subject of Langdon) he was far from finished. Read my post about Langdon’s career in talkies here at Feet of Mud.  I have also blogged about nearly every one of his silent films; find those posts (and others related to Langdon) here. He died in 1944.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy and great comedians like Harry Langdon, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc, and to find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

****Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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