Harry Shelby has been kept in knee pants for years by his overprotective parents, but the day finally comes when Harry is given his first pair of long pants. Almost immediately, he is expected to marry his childhood sweetheart Priscilla... but instead, Harry's first heady whiff of manhood has got him panting after Bebe, a "fast" woman from the big city. Mistakenly thinking that Bebe fancies him too, Harry risks everything to help her out when she lands in jail, only to end up in hot water himself. Through it all, sweet Priscilla waits for her man to come to his senses.
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I first saw "The Long Pants" (1927) last year. At the time I was going through a Harry Langdon kick and wanted to see all the feature films he appeared in. But I remember having problems with the film. Watching it a second time I can't quite understand what my problem was.
I remember thinking one of Langdon's major problems in his full length films is so often he will side track a film's logical narrative progression for a comedic sequence. Usually these comedic diversions last several minutes over staying their welcome. I thought that was what happened in "The Long Pants". Langdon also seemed very interested in dark humor which didn't really fit his screen persona of an innocent man-child.
All I can say after re-watching this film is what was my problem! Why was I so critical? Langdon stars as Harry Shelby, a lovelorn romantic who dreams of meeting a girl and sweeping her off her feet with his over powering masculine ways. Problem is Harry is still a child, both mentally and physically. In fact, he still wears short pants. But one day his father, (Alan Roscoe) buys him his first pair of long pants. His mother, (Gladys Brockwell) protest. She is afraid the long pants will get Harry into trouble, making him feel older than he is. And sure enough that is what happens once Harry puts on the long pants.
Their meeting is quite funny if not predictable. Harry with his bike attempts to catch her eye while she sits in a lavish car while her driver fixes the flat tire. Harry drives around the car performing various tricks on his bike. Wanting to get rid of him she gives him a kiss. In Harry's mind marriage is in their future.
"The Long Pants" is a very short film, only 58 minutes. What I have described so far takes up the first 20 minutes. The set-up is as perfect as any comedic situation can be. But the film goes down strange paths and becomes an unusual film.
Harry is forced to marry Priscilla. It just so happens Bebe has been caught and sent to prison. Harry now feels it is his duty to help her escape. He simply can't go through with the wedding. His only out? He must kill Priscilla.
When I first saw this sequence I thought the initial idea of it was funny. A husband trying to kill his wife has always made for good comedy fodder. Think of the Jack Lemmon comedy "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965) or the Preston Sturges film "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). But there was just something about the Langdon man-child trying to commit this action that seemed out of place. I think I understand why Langdon liked these dark comedy bits (in his comedy "The Chaser" (1928) he attempts to commit suicide). He must have thought the contradiction was funny. We simply don't expect such behavior from him. On some level I suppose that is funny. On my second viewing however, I wasn't bother at all by the sequence. I thought it represented a perfect movie logic. A man is forced to get married, doesn't want to, must kill his bride-to-be on their wedding day. What's so strange about that?
Through this bit Langdon gets in some fun gags. First he envisions the murder in his head. Naturally it goes perfect. In reality, nothing goes as plan. Harry isn't a killer so he fumbles. Priscilla doesn't know what his intentions are and ends up spoiling his plans.
"The Long Pants" was directed by Frank Capra. Early in his career he worked as a writer for Langdon on some of his two reelers. The two worked together on "The Strong Man", often thought of as Langdon's best film. But "The Long Pants" would be their last film together. According to Capra, Langdon had a very big ego. At the time some were calling Langdon "the next Chaplin". This went to Langdon's head and he started ordering around Capra. Capra also claims Langdon didn't understand his character and what appealed to the audience. Langdon needed creative people around him who understood comedy and his character in order for him to succeed.
I don't know how much, if any, of this is true. Some say Capra just suffered from sour grapes as a result of Langdon firing him. But Langdon did have good people working around him. Capra was a talented filmmaker. Some readers may find it shocking that he was involved with this kind of slapstick comedy. But Capra's films have usually had some comedic elements to them. Also working with Langdon was Arthur Ripley. Ripley wrote "Saturday Afternoon", thought to be Langdon's best two-reeler, "Soldier Man", "His Marriage Wow" and "Plain Clothes" among others. And stuck with Langdon throughout his career. He wrote "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1926) and Langdon's directorial debut "Three's A Crowd" (1927). In addition to which Ripley worked with W.C. Fields, directing two of my favorite shorts "The Pharmacist" and "The Barber Shop".
"The Long Pants" does side track its plot for comedy gags but it is not as distracting as I originally thought. Especially since the bits are funny. I'm someone who was never bothered by sacrificing a story for a joke. Once Harry helps Bebe escape from jail the film become episodic as Harry gets in one bizarre situation after another. The best may be a sequence in which Harry thinks a police officer is sitting on a crate in which Bebe is hiding in. Harry goes to extremes trying to get the policeman to move.
Harry Langdon isn't very well remembered today. He has gotten the nickname "the forgotten clown". Fans of silent comedy like to say he is the fourth genius behind Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. I'm not a big fan of this ranking game but Langdon doesn't deserve to be forgotten by today's audiences. I don't find him to be as inspirational as the other three or as influential, still he has his place in comedy history.
Regardless, "The Long Pants" lives up to its reputation as one of Langdon's best films. I would say it comes in second to "The Strong Man". This could serve as a good introduction into Langdon's feature films after his two-reelers. Here we get a very good understanding of what the Langdon persona was and even why some people find it creepy. I suppose the image of a grown man in short pants with high stockings can be off-putting.