Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frank Capra "Long Pants" (1927)

“Long Pants” (1927) is a silent comedy starring Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner and Alma Bennett. Directed by Frank Capra, this is Harry Langdon’s last memorable film. In “Long Pants” (1927), Harry Langdon is Harry Shelby, a compulsive reader of romantic fiction who imagines himself as a Don Juan. Once he gets, with his father’s help, a set of trousers of the appropriate size, he is smitten with desire for a world-weary woman, Bebe Blair, played by Alma Bennett, whose car has a flat tire in front of Harry’s house. Harry performs for her on his own bicycle, and gets her attention, but she goes away. Having read in the paper that Bebe has been arrested, he is determined to save her from the clutches of the law. Since it is his wedding day with his childhood sweetheart Priscilla, played by Priscilla Bonner, Harry feels he must get rid of his unsophisticated bride by killing her. I have to admit that I wasn’t amused by this film; I found it disturbing. Even though Frank Capra’s direction is worthy of acclaim with clever camera angles, the macabre scenes of comedy were influenced by gag writer, Arthur Ripley, who was being favored by Langdon over director Frank Capra. Capra had an amazing ability to convey the human condition with a positive message which is certainly not present in this film. In “Long Pants”(1927), we see Harry Langdon as a terribly lonely and melancholy poor soul lost in a dark world. A lonely, melancholy character was not one that most Americans wanted to watch, much less identify with. I think Harry Langdon wasn’t as successful as the other silent comedians, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, because he was very depressing to say the least. In contrast, Lloyd, the all-American boy in action, always overcame his limitations while Keaton, the great stone face, was hardworking and optimistic. Even Chaplin’s little tramp offered both the joy and the tragedy of human life. Langdon certainly deserves to be remembered as one of the best comedians of the silent era, but for those who are being introduced to him, it is best to start with “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (1926) and “The Strong Man” (1926).

Born in 1884, Harry Langdon grew up in Nebraska. At thirteen, Langdon joined a traveling medicine show. For a couple of years, on the road and in Omaha, he did comedy routines and later joined a circus. Eventually Langdon’s sure-fire act was seen in Los Angeles. Harold Lloyd praised him to Hal Roach, who made an offer which Langdon turned down. Sol Lesser met his demands, then sold his contract to Mack Sennett. Sennett took the Langdon person, still undeveloped, and put it through familiar Sennett situations. Unfortunately, it was mostly a mismatch because a character pattern like Chaplin’s was needed. With no inkling of his future fame as a comedy director, Frank Capra was hired as a gag writer along with Arthur Ripley working on Langdon’s first First National feature length film, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (1926). Capra saw Langdon as the little elf, in contrast to Chaplin’s little tramp. Unlike Chaplin, who might be beset by hopeless odds but could often take arms against a sea of troubles, Langdon was funny because he was unable to take action. He would have things happen to him, and these surprises would be entertaining. The solid success of this hour-long feature fed the confidence of both Capra and Langdon. His conflict with Capra began with the beginning of his second feature film, “The Strong Man” (1926), which was a very big hit and prompted Photoplay magazine to place Langdon in the select company of the top money-making comedians, Chaplin and Lloyd. Langdon’s third feature film, “Long Pants” (1927) was some kind of early film noir-a Ripley film, not a Capra film. When Ripley and Capra had disagreements on the script or the performance, Langdon evidently sided with Ripley. The long-term result was that each of them spread the word around Hollywood that the other one was impossible to work with. Capra was unemployable for months. He managed to direct an independent film in New York, then rejoined Mack Sennett at his old salary as a gag man, until Harry Cohn picked him out of a list of directors to come to Columbia Pictures. Langdon’s three memorable films were not enough to make him rich, but after the failure of the next three, he continued to be in fairly comfortable circumstances through the 1930’s and early 40’s, starring in short subjects for Hal Roach, Paramount, and for Jules White at Columbia.


  1. I was reminded of Buster Keaton's comments on Long Pants in a 1958 interview I read a while back:

    "I don't know whatever got him off on the wrong foot. He started in to feature-pictures, and his first two were swell. They were good pictures. Then, for some silly reason, he picked out An American Tragedy to do a satire on; he thought he'd get a funny picture out of it and the situation, sticking right to the story of the original. In the original, of course, the boy has been going with this little country girl for a long time, and her folks have taken it for granted they're going to marry. So the talk of the community is that it's just a matter of time till they have the wedding. And he meets a city girl who's got money and who falls for him. To get rid of the country girl, he gets her out in a rowboat and drowns her. Now, where Langdon thought he was going to have an audience rooting for him, or laughing at him taking a girl out to drown her! [sic] Now, the minute the comic had the idea of drowning somebody, he killed himself and his picture. Even the thought, whether he goes through with it or not. Once he's thought of the idea, he's a dead character to a motion picture audience. That didn't dawn on him. Now, if he was so in love with the dog-gone story and wanted to do it, if he'd reversed it, he might have got some fun out of it -- if the girl was the one who took him out and tried to drown him, it might have worked into a funny story."

    Although now that I think about it, Unfaithfully Yours (1947) and The Ladykillers (1955) both hinge on attempted murders and they're both hilarious. But the first was directed by Preston Sturges and the second starred Alec Guinness. Maybe Harry Langdon could have pulled it off if he had approached the material differently, but probably not while playing the naive, childlike Harry Langdon character. Comes across more creepy than anything.

    On the other hand, The Strong Man is brilliant, laugh-out-loud funny.

    Good post!

  2. Silent, Thank you, for your wonderful review on what I will call a.. dark comedy. It sounds like something that was never done in the silent era. But, I'm new to silent movies.

  3. Dawn, you are right, Long Pants (1927) is a dark comedy. Unfortunately, I didn't find this film funny at all.

  4. Mythical Monkey, thank you for adding Buster Keaton's comments on Long Pants. I agree with Keaton. It's interesting that Keaton's films were not particularly popular with contemporary audiences, but today he is the most popular of silent comedians.


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