The King of Silent Comedy

Apr. 10, 2017
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Seeing the photographs in a new biography, Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy, one can’t help but think of Pee-wee Herman. A star of the 1920s, Langdon had a similarly boy-man face, petrified yet prankish. And like Herman he climbed from obscurity to the summit of his field, only to fall while scrambling for work.

Author Gabriella Oldham gives Langdon’s wife, Mabel, co-credit for writing King of Silent Comedy. Mabel Langdon had tinkered with a biography of her late husband for decades and the manuscript, rescued from storage by their son Harry Jr., became Oldham’s most significant source. However, Oldham, a prolific scholar of film and especially silent film, contextualized Mabel’s recollections, balancing the widow’s hagiography with historiography.

What emerges is a portrait of a gentle and humble man, a talented comedian whose career faltered in part from clashes with rising director Frank Capra and from his own creative overreach. Compared by critics to Charlie Chaplin, Langdon decided to follow the Little Tramp into writing and directing as well as starring in movies with messages wrapped in slapstick. But unlike Chaplin, the mechanics of constructing a cinematic story eluded him. His late 1920s efforts were often greeted with hoots of disdain from critics and theater owners.

“Though he sometimes failed, he still survived, which is all a human can do,” Oldham concludes. “When he succeeded, Harry Langdon gave the world his greatest gift—a gentle and abiding comedy.”

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