The Strong Man(1926)
When Harry Langdon's Tramp, Tramp, Tramp premiered in March 1926, it was greeted by moviegoers as a worthy challenger to the great films of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Langdon was hailed as "the fourth comedy genius." That heady feeling was reinforced when, in September of 1926, Langdon appeared in an even better picture, Frank Capra's The Strong Man.
Langdon's on-screen character was an intriguing enigma. He was certainly an adult male, but at times it seemed you were watching a large baby, na´ve and even infantile. In The Strong Man, we first see him as Paul, a Belgian soldier in the World War I trenches. But he's not much for machine guns. Actually, Paul is more interested in reading his penpal letters from America than fighting a war. An American girl who calls herself Mary Brown writes to him regularly, and with her latest missive she's included a small photo of herself. Her note says, unflinchingly, "I love you, I love you, I love you."
Paul is captured by a large German (Arthur Thalasso), who carries him off as his personal prisoner. But soon the Armistice is declared, both Paul and his captor are private citizens again, and they travel to America. The German is a strong man who bills himself as The Great Zandow, and Paul is his new assistant.
Once they are in New York, Paul takes leave of his official duties to search for Mary Brown... in the huge metropolis! He doesn't know where she lives, so he stations himself at a busy intersection and questions every girl that comes along: "Are you Mary Brown?" No takers.
Now comes Broadway Lily (Gertrude Astor, in the role of her career), a gun moll in cahoots with a cheap thug. On the street, he hands her a huge stash of illicit cash, saying, "Hold this for me. There's a dick on my trail." But the gumshoe is quick to notice the transition, so he follows Lily. What's a girl to do? She finds Paul (Harry Langdon), a seemingly harmless little schmuck, and slips the stash into his coat pocket. Once the heat is off, Lily wants to get her stash back from the little nebbish. But there's a problem. Paul's pocket has a hole in it, and the illicit stash in now lost, somewhere in his coat lining.
There follows an incredibly accomplished comedic sceneit would be the highlight of the film, if there were not some spectacular fireworks still awaiting us. Little Paul wishes to go home, but Lily tries every trick in her feminine arsenal to keep Paul with her, even going so far as to say: "I'm little Mary."
Paul buys the masquerade, and agrees to take her to her apartment building. He tries to drop her off in front of her building, but Lily insists he take her into her apartment. She wants that stash! When Paulwho is now getting suspiciousdeclines, she pulls a "faint" and ends up supine, on the sidewalk. Paul wants to just walk away; but the cabbie calls: "Hey! You can't leave your women on the sidewalk!" So Paul, like a good citizen, picks up the girl and carries her into her hotel. Her room is, naturally, on the second floor... and there is NO elevator.
So Paul carries the supposedly out-cold woman upstairs, backwards, all the way up to the top. Capra has cleverly placed a workman's stepladder at the top landing, so that when Paul and his burden reach the top of the stairs, Paul continues up the stepladder. Once at the top, there is no place else to go, so they both tumble onto the floor. The stunt work was very cleverly done, without computer graphics (the year, remember, was 1926). When Harry Langdon and Gertrude Astor appear to fall to the floor from the top of the stepladder, the "effects" are very skillfully done, and we actually buy as fact that they took the fall themselves.
Once Paul and his "unconscious" lady enter her garishly decorated apartment, he becomes even more suspicious of her true identity. She gets him to lie on her bed, then tries to get his coat off. The harder she tries, the more he struggles to keep it on. Langdon's expressions during this scene are priceless. The virginal Paul is struggling to protect his virtue. You almost expect him to cry "RAPE!" But before he can, Lily gets him to kiss her, and during their embrace, she uses a knife to cut open his coat lining, and retrieves her stash.
Now free from Broadway Lily, Langdon makes his escape, but makes one last request of her: "Don't let this get out!" After kissing a prostitute, he still thinks as an innocent child would. (Just imagine the scandal!)
The Strong Man's next show is in Cloverdale. An intertitle tells us: "Cloverdale had once been a peaceful little border town."
But, we learn, gangland figures have moved in, brought booze, gambling, and B-girls. (When's the last time you heard them called THAT?) The Town Hall has been taken over by Mike McDevitt (Robert McKim), a prototype of the old frontier days' crime bosses. The Old Town Hall has been renamed The Palace, where girlie shows are staged, and all the crude elements of the populace gather at night to gamble, drink, and enjoy the shows and the loose women.
Pastor Brown (William V. Mong), an elderly preacher, is the only force left in town opposing the new corruption. He regularly leads his congregations in singing Christian hymns around the newly-named The Palace, staging demonstrations and prayer marches. His faithful daughter, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), though blind, is the church organist.
Pastor Brown exhorts his church people to stand firm. He reads from the Good Book: "For the Lord said unto Joshua: 'March around the walls of Jericho seven days, and on the Seventh day the walls shall fall...'" Today is the sixth day of their marching.
Behind the church, Mary Brown counsels the town children on proper Christian behavior, and also tells them of her wonderful friend the Belgian soldier who "won the War!" What she doesn't know is that that very same ex-soldier is now in town, eager to meet her.
The scene where Paul and Mary finally meet is touching, tender, and poignant, as it should be. He doesn't realize she is blind, so he struts around in front of her like a peacock, trying to make her believe he really WAS a hero, rather than a meek prisoner of war.
Now Capra does something simple but wonderful: He fades out. The moment when Paul first realizes that Mary is blind is never seen on screen. When Capra fades back in, the two former penpals are sitting on a bench, happily talking about the letters they had exchanged with each other, with Paul hoping that Mary was serious when she said: "I love you, I love you, I love you...." He is so overjoyed at finding her at long last, her blindness doesn't faze him a bit.
Now the screenwritersArthur Ripley and director Frank Capra among themshift into high gear. Zandow and his Strong Man act have arrived in town, and The Palace saloon is filled with an SRO crowd, clamoring to see the actespecially the spectacular finale, where he gets shot out of a cannon.
There's just one problem: Zandow, the Strong Man, has been imbibing, and is passed out drunk. McDevitt and his minions try desperately to revive him to put on his act. But he continues his boozy slumber. So there's just one alternative: Get his assistant Paul on stage!
McDevitt and his brawny assistant pull the tiny Paul into the dressing room and fit him into the Strong Man's costume. Here again, Frank Capra demonstrates his mastery of cinematic elision: We don't see the two forcing Paul into the costume; all we see are rapidly moving shadows on the floor, under the dressing room door. As with the discovery of Mary Brown's blindness, Capra is letting the audience use its own imagination... and the audience appreciated this, by making The Strong Man a runaway hit.
Once on stage, the little twerp Paul is surrounded by the artifacts of the Strong Man's act: The barbells, the 400-lb. weight, the cannon for the big finale. Unsure of what to do before this SRO crowd, he tries to lift the various weights, decides he cannot, so he goes into a soft-shoe dance and strikes a "ta-da" pose at the end. But the audience is not amused.
Harry Langdon was pretty limber, though; midway through Paul's act, he strikes a pretty good splitpretty good for a man of 42, Langdon's age at the time. It quiets the crowd long enough for him to perform his next bit: Climbing into the rafters, he collects pigeons, then returns to the stage, goes into another dance, then releases the pigeons, one by one, from his pants. He gets applause.
Just about now, "Holy Joe," the Parson, is leading his followers on the march against rum and licentiousness. En masse, they march around The Palace, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and demanding an end to the devilish activities inside that place.
Inside, the crowd now clamors for the big, climactic Cannon scene they were promised. But the crowd makes one little mistake: They shout unspeakable, disparaging remarks about the blind, innocent Mary Brown, the Pastor's daughter. Paul takes this personally. He mounts the trapeze, flies over the crowd, and begins breaking beer bottles over the heads of the rowdier miscreants.
As the crowd gets nastier, Harry swings to the top of the proscenium arch and dismantles the large canvas curtain, sending it falling onto the entire crowd, effectively burying them in canvas. There's a few rips here and there. When one man's hand emerges through a hole in the canvas, brandishing a six-gun, Paul feels around for the man's head, and bashes it with a beer bottle. End of problem.
Now for the finale. Harry loads the cannon with gunpowder and all the heavy balls from the Strong Man's act, even barbells. He pulls the cord that sets off the cannon, and fires. Nobody dies, but the crowd panics and runs for the exits. But the cannon fire has demolished the front of The Palace, and just as "Holy Joe's" congregation marches past, The Walls of Jericho come tumbling down. The remaining walls, deprived of support, come crashing down as well.
McDevitt, the erstwhile crime boss, lands in a dump heap (where he surely belongs), and his customers flee the town.
Now an intertitle tells us: "Once again Cloverdale tucked the bed covers beneath its chin and slept in peace... protected by the majesty of the law."
If you can't get guess who the new lawman is, you must not have seen Chaplin's Easy Street (1917). Yep, Paul is now an officer of the law, and his beat is Cloverdale's Main Street, where children now play without fear. If Langdon owes a debt to Chaplin for adapting the short Easy Street into a feature-length film, remember that Langdon was the first comedian to use a blind heroine, an element that would loom large in Chaplin's later City Lights (1931).
Paul is now married to his sweetheart Mary Brown, and they kiss affectionately. They walk hand in hand down the street, and it's Paul, the sighted member of the family, who trips and almost falls, and it's Mary who has to steady him. I like to think that last stumble was another brilliant Capra touch.
The Strong Man was Frank Capra's first directorial effort, and his genius shines through. He also directed Harry Langdon's next picture, Long Pants (1927), but "creative differences" and bad advice from others convinced Langdon to fire Capra after the film was in the canmeaning that the film was "cut" (edited) by either Langdon or one of his minions. Long Pants is not a bad movie, it just isn't a worthy follow-up to The Strong Man, which film historian Kevin Brownlow breathlessly proclaimed "a masterpiece."
Langdon went on making movies, directing them himself, but the magic was gone. James Agee reported: "He was reduced to mediocre roles and two-reelers which were [mere] rehashes of his old gags. This time around they no longer seemed funny."
"He never did understand what hit him," said Capra. "He died broke [in 1944]. And he died of a broken heart. He was the most tragic figure I ever came across in show business."
Copyright 2005 Dan Navarro