Even those who don’t know much about silent comedies know the names of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Those who dig a little deeper may know of Harold Lloyd, but today we’re going to look at a silent comedian who is probably unknown to most casual viewers…Harry Langdon. Langdon appeared in a long string of films for producer Mack Sennett, who also worked with such famed silent artists as Chaplin, Lloyd, Mabel Normand, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The film is an odd little short from 1924, The First 100 Years.
I’ll say from the beginning that watching this short today is a little bit of a disjointed experience as only about 14 of its original 20 minute running time still remains. The films starts quite abruptly with Harry saving his girl (Alice Day) from the clutches of the evil Black Mike, who gets pushed off a very high cliff by our hero. The couple, now reunited, head off to get married and live happily ever after. Now, the couple finds that they need to hire a cook. The woman who comes to fill the position is a gruff, cigar-chomping lady who looks a bit too much like Popeye the Sailor Man. The new cook quickly takes over the house…and spends a bit too much time chatting on the phone. But when Harry goes to show her who’s boss, he ends up regretting it.
Meanwhile, an old friend, Roland Stone (Frank Coleman), stops by and starts making the moves on Harry’s new wife. The next day, a new applicant for the cook’s job shows up, this time she’s a bit of a society type who dabbles in palm reading. On a stormy night she attempts to do some fortune telling with Harry and company, telling him he’ll “meet a tall dark man on a fiendish errand.” Of course, a nasty looking, bearded character soon breaks into the house and starts terrorizing Harry. It turns out in the end, though, that this fellow, as well as the pseudo-psychic cook, are cops out to nab Roland.
You do kind of need to go into this film realizing that some things might not make a ton of sense, simply because a substantial portion of the film is missing. However, the gags are really what count here and they still work very well. I was especially struck at how this short really shows the influence that silent comedies would eventually have on the art of animation. Many elements of this film felt like a scene out of a Looney Tunes short. The very first gag of the film is a perfect example. Black Mike is punched in dramatic fashion by Harry and then falls off a cliff, tumbling through the air like a wet noodle as he plummets. But then right after he hits the ground, and thanks to quick cut, he stands up as fit as a fiddle. It’s not unlike all those cliff drops Wile E. Coyote made in the Road Runner films. There’s also the moment later in the film where Harry is almost hit with a meat cleaver, thrown by the cook. He doesn’t actually get hit, but when ketchup spills on his head in the process, the poor guy thinks he’s bleeding to death. This one has also been used in cartoons over the years. It doesn’t necessarily all come together into a coherent story, but the gags are perfectly over-the-top.
Langdon certainly does a great job of showing off his talents here. There’s something very interesting about Langdon’s range of facial expressions. He’s quite different from the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. He has this youthful, almost cherubic, face that certainly gives his character a child-like quality. He also does some amazing things with his eyes. At several points he looks directly into the camera and really takes his time with his reactions and facial expressions. It makes him a very endearing character.
There is certainly a choppiness with this film. How much of that is because it is incomplete is unclear. However, this film clearly shows that Harry Langdon was an exceptional silent comedian who deserves a place alongside the more famous names this genre produced. I look forward to watching more of his work in the future.