A meek Belgian soldier (Harry Langdon) fighting in World War I receives penpal letters and a photo from "Mary Brown", an American girl he has never met. He becomes infatuated with her by long distance. After the war, the young Belgian journeys to America as assistant to a theatrical "strong man", Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). While in America, he searches for Mary Brown... and he finds her, just as word comes that Zandow is incapacitated and the little nebbish must go on stage in his place.
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"The Strong Man" (1926) was directed by Frank Capra. It was his second film as a director. When we think of Frank Capra, titles such as "It's A Wonderful Life", "It Happened One Night", "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" pop into our heads. What some readers may not know is Capra started off as a gag writer working for comedy producers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett. With Roach he wrote a Will Rogers comedy, "Jubilo, Jr." and with Sennett he worked with the star of "The Strong Man", Harry Langdon.
In "The Strong Man", considered to be Langdon's best film, he plays a Belgian soldier during World War 1, Paul Bergot. He has been corresponding with an American girl, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner, who also appeared in "Long Pants" and with Clara Bow in "It"). In one of her letters she writes to Paul of her love for him. This inspires Langdon as he dreams one day of meeting her, but first, he has to make it through the war.
The WW1 set-up is similar to the 3 reeler Langon and Capra also worked on "The Soldier Man" (1926). In that short Langdon plays a soldier who doesn't realize the war is over and still guards the trenches. But in "The Strong Man" events are taken a bit further, Paul is taken prisoner by, what I suppose is a German soldier (Arthur Thalasso), after trying to fight him off with a slingshot full of graham crackers and onions. But when the war ends, the two become friends and they both travel to America. The German soldier goes by the name "Zandow the Great" he is a travelling strong man and Paul is his assistant. While in America, Paul hopes to meet Mary Brown.
Many people simply do not like the Langdon character. Several viewers complain that the character is either creepy, a grown man who acts like a child, or that he doesn't do anything. He merely stands there with a blank expression on his face. I disagree with these remarks. In "The Strong Man" we get a typical Langdon moment.
As Paul searches for Mary, he has a photo of her, he goes up to random women who resemble the photo and asks them if they are Mary Brown. One woman takes great offense to Paul approaching her and starts to verbally assault him. A crowd of women gather. As the woman walks away the crowd remains. Paul just stands there with an embarrassed expression on his face. He waves hello to the ladies trying to brush the incident aside. It doesn't work. Like a child he is helpless. He doesn't know what the correct response is after such an incident. Does he merely walk away and pretend nothing happen or does he worry about saving face and explain to the crowd what transpired?
In the hands of another comedian they may have gone for a wild gesture. Perhaps do a double-take and run away. If it was Chaplin, he may have done a small balletic dance and scattered off. But while most people feel Langdon is doing nothing he is actually creating tension. Surely others must have, at one time in their life, been placed in a situation where you didn't know how to respond. What do you do? Most likely you just stood there and hoped everyone forgot what just happened.
As the plot goes on a crook (Gertrude Astor) is being tailed by a policeman for some stolen money. Without Paul realizing it, she sticks the money in his pocket before the cop grabs her. Now the trick is to get the money out of Paul's pocket. She was one of the women in the crowd and knows Paul is looking for Mary Brown, she pretends to be Mary. After several attempts to get the money out of his pocket she suggest they go to her apartment. She becomes fed up trying to be subtle and starts to attack Paul, going for his jacket. This scene reminds me of a moment in the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Way Out West" where the boys mistakenly give a deed to a gold mine to the wrong woman (whose name also happens to be Mary). Once they realize what they have done they try to get it back, and they do briefly. Laurel sticks it down his shirt but that doesn't stop the woman from trying to get it out causing Laurel to go into fits of laughter as she tickles him.
"The Strong Man" soon moves on to another situation. We now find ourselves in a small town which was once peaceful but gangsters, headed by Mike Devitt (Robert McKim) have taken over the town bringing risque nightclub acts and liquor to the town. Some of the citizens gather behind the preacher Joe Brown (William V. Mong) and his daughter Mary. It just so happens Mike has booked Zandow for his club.
We learn Mary is the girl that wrote to Paul but stopped writing to him when she found out he was coming to America. There was something Mary never told Paul about herself. She is blind. I'm willing to bet a shiny new nickle Chaplin saw this movie and saw the possibilities of such a situation and used it for his masterpiece "City Lights". "The Strong Man" doesn't go into all the dramatic possibilities the situation could provoke. It keeps things as a comedy. No room for pathos here.
As the film goes on it now becomes a matter of will the town turn around and go back to its old ways. Will the preacher or someone else force out the gangsters? This now becomes a typical Capra set-up. The story of small town values and the underdog.
There is another thing I find distracting about the movie. And this just very well may be the oddest complaint I've ever written. The film has been put on DVD by Kino with a new musical score by Eric Beheim and the Palace Hall Music Orchestra. The score is so beautiful at times I paid more attention to it than to Harry. Songs include old time standards such as "Mary" (used as the film's theme song), "Sheik of Araby", "Aint We Got Fun" and "Second Hand Rose".
"The Strong Man" is probably Langdon's best film. As I said Capra and Langdon would work together again on "Long Pants", which would be their final film before Harry fired him. Whatever their creative differences were things gel together nicely here. The film has its flaws but it is probably the most pure pleasure I've had watching a Langdon movie. It is a shame he is forgotten now, he has earned the nickname, "the forgotten clown". While he might not be considered in the same league as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd he doesn't deserve to be dismissed by audiences.