THREE'S A CROWD, 1927
Three's a Crowd stars Langdon as a down-and-out working stiff who slaves some 19 hours a day for his boss in exchange for a crumbling hovel, accessible only by an insanely long (and slightly lopsided) staircase. His life changes when he rescues a half-frozen girl (Gladys McConnell) from a snowstorm and discovers that she's pregnant. Harry dreams of becoming a family man, but frets that the girl's husband will turn up.
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When we think of the great silent film clowns we think of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But there were so many other comics who time has forgotten.
There seems to be a ranking game going on. It is debatable who is the best of the slapstick comics, though the position is usually held for Chaplin or Keaton, depending on your preference. I'm a Chaplin man myself. Then we have Lloyd, seen as the "third genius". And fourth on the list is the "forgotten clown", Harry Langdon. So does that mean Charley Chase is fifth? Why do you need to rank these people? Can't we enjoy all of them?
Harry Langdon started performing as a child, joining the circus, minstrel shows and medicine acts. Eventually he found his way on vaudeville, where he had a very popular act with his wife. At the age of 40, Langdon had signed a contract with comedy madman Mack Sennett, best known for his Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties.
He made his debut in 1924 with a two reeler, "Picking Peaches". His Sennett comedies, many times are too broad. The plot is all over the place. "Picking Peaches", "Smile Please" and others have promising set-ups but there was no discipline. Sennett's style of comedy had a do anything mentality. If someone thought something would get a laugh, it found its way in the short. Sometimes, against everything, the shorts would work. "Saturday Afternoon", "Hansome Cabman" and "Luck O' the Foolish" showed more restraint and as a result focused more on the Langdon character instead of plot.
Helping along with these two reelers were some very talented people who worked for Sennett. The director of his first couple of shorts was Roy Del Ruth, who worked on several comedies and musicals in the 30s and 40s including "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor. Also helping out with stories were Clyde Bruckman and Felix Adler, old pros of comedy writing who worked with Buster Keaton (Bruckman directed "The General" (1926), Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.
Eventually a young man was brought in to write stories, who would become a great director in his own right, Frank Capra. Capra would even direct some of Langdon's first feature films, "The Strong Man" (1926), considered to be Langdon's best and "Long Pants" (1927).
The Langdon character was considered a man-child. A grown-up innocent adult who carried the mannerisms of a child. He was a kind, good-hearted, well intentioned man who find himself in strange situations, many times having people take advantage of him. The character wasn't as enduring as Chaplin's "Tramp", Lloyd's "Glasses" or Keaton's "Stone-Face". Some people even find the character creepy. I don't. Ask yourself this, do you find the Stan Laurel character creepy? Laurel used the Langdon character as an inspiration, while of course adding elements of his own.
Harry Langdon though didn't make it through the decade. His star had faded. Was it because of the character? Some say he had an ego problem. In Frank Capra's autobiography, he has many unkind things to say about Langdon, insisting Langdon did not understand the character and wanted to add character traits which didn't belong.Langdon and Capra had a falling out and Langdon would go out to direct his own films giving him greater artistic control. And that is where we find ourselves when we watch "Three's A Crowd" (1927).
This was to be Langdon's first film as director. One of the arguments Langdon and Capra would get into was Langdon's insistence on adding more pathos to the stories. With Capra out of the picture Langdon would achieve his goal. "Three's A Crowd" is Langdon's attempt at a Chaplin movie. A combination of pathos and comedy.
Watching Langdon's two and three reelers I can see how he got the idea. His character at times reminds me of Chaplin's Tramp. Both wear baggy pants and big shoes, are short in stature and are loners. Langdon tries to fit into society, he gets married, has a job, but in the end, he only has himself. I can sense tragedy within the character.
In "Three's A Crowd" Langdon is billed as "The Boy", though if you can read the character's lips everyone refers to him as "Harry". Harry has a job as a mover and admires his boss' wife and child. One day he too would like to fall in love and start a family. During a cold, snowy winter night a pregnant woman is found outside. The woman (Gladys McConnell) has left her husband (Cornelius Keefe) because of his drinking, which has caused him to lose his job. Harry takes the woman in and treats the baby as his own. But the husband has changed his ways. His father has taken him in, sobered him up and has found him a job. What will happen when he comes looking for his wife?The elements for great drama are seeded. And Langdon's man-child character surprisingly seems well suited for the role. Surprisingly because, for a child of mind, he seems prepared to be a father. The problem however lies in the story, done by Arthur Ripley, who worked on Langdon's shorts. Langdon gets the comedy parts correct but none of the drama.The film starts off rather good. Lots of comedy and misunderstandings but the film is unable to gather enough sympathy.
If Harry Langdon didn't have an ego problem, you might not believe it if you watch this. He is nearly in every scene. The film needed more scenes with the woman. We needed to see her start to care for Harry. We needed to see them slowly becoming a family. An emotional investment growing. We need to feel, that when the inevitable happens, and she must chose between the two men, it will be a tough decision. Then when she makes her choice it has the ability to break our hearts.
Even in the film's last scene Harry gets it wrong. The film ends with a gag. Harry goes for a laugh. This doesn't feel correct. It should have ended on a poignant note. The situation cries out for melodrama. The film should have built up to a very emotional ending.
Despite this though Langdon proves to be a capable director. Sometimes, I admit, I didn't quite understand why he shoots scenes the way he does, using extreme long shots when a medium shot may have been more effective. But he shows much restraint. These are nothing like the Sennett comedies. Langdon follows a consistent story-line. He doesn't break away from the story for a gag. In his next film "The Chaser" (1928), he takes a brilliant idea and destroys it by straying too far away from his central idea, a commentary on double standards between the sexes.
"Three's A Crowd" was sadly a flop at the box-office and the beginning of the end of Harry's career. He would go on to direct 4 more films, two more silent films, each one, critics consider got worst and worst. By the end of the 20s Langdon was no longer a top draw at the box-office. But "Three's A Crowd" is beautifully told. It doesn't take full advantage of all the dramatic possibilities of the plot, but, what it does do, is beautiful to look at.
"Three's A Crowd" is a film which deserves a second chance. Time is on this film's side. Today's audience will not look at this film the way audiences of the 1920s did. We have more distance. We don't expect as much as audiences did then. We aren't as familiar with the Langdon character. While Harry Langdon is no Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd, he doesn't deserve be to forgotten. "Three's A Crowd" may serve as a nice introduction into his feature film work.