American comedian Harry Langdon was at the peak of his Hollywood career in 1926 with the release of his first and most successful full-length films Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, and The Strong Man.
Langdon’s comedy career started at the age of 12 when he performed on stage in his hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1896. It would not be long before he would join an Omaha medicine show and would spend the next thirty years traveling with burlesque shows, minstrel shows, circuses, and vaudeville.
A talented and experienced pantomimist, Langdon was 38 years old when he signed for Principal Pictures Corporation for a few unreleased shorts but his contract was bought out by Mack Sennett. Harry Edwards became the director and was joined by promising writers, Frank Capra and Arthur Ridley.
By September 1925, Langdon signed a deal with First National and received full artistic control through his newly formed Harry Langdon Corporation, bringing Capra, Edwards, and Ripley with him.
This was Langdon’s best period when he would develop his unique wide-eyed man-child for a series of two-reel shorts and feature films. His little elf character usually wore baggy pants, a squashed hat and floppy tie, and a tight jacket with huge buttons, and conveyed an innocent understanding of the world around him.
Following the success of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp earlier in 1926, The Strong Man was released on September 19, 1926, by First National Pictures and was the first directed film by Frank Capra.
In The Strong Man, Langdon plays a small Belgian soldier named Paul Bergot who is captured by a German officer (played by Albert Thalasso). When the armistice is declared, Bergot has nowhere to go and therefore, sticks with the officer who returns to his civilian job as circus strong man Zandow The Great.
Zandow The Great gets a chance to tour the US which is great news for Bergot because he can get the chance to finally meet his pen-pal sweetheart Mary Brown.
Arriving in New York, Bergot walks the streets, asking the passers-by if they recognize Mary Brown from his torn photo.
Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to evade the police, tough moll Lily of Broadway spots Bergot on the street and so, she hides her roll of stolen money in his back pocket. After being searched by a police officer, Lily tries to retrieve the money from Bergot. Then she pretends to be Mary Brown to lure Bergot to a hotel room so that she can retrieve the stolen money from his back pocket.
The seduction unfolds in the hotel room, but it will not be long until Bergot will continue his search for the real Mary Brown.
Along with Tramp, Tramp, Tramp released earlier in the same year, The Strong Man is Harry Langdon’s best-known film. It is also graced with many of his funniest sequences, especially when he clumsily carries the unconscious Lily (played hilariously by Gertrude Astor) up a flight of stairs and the moment when he struggles to sip cough medicine on a bus. Langdon’s patiently executed routines, using confused physical mannerisms and moments of spontaneous moments of mischief, creates this man-child persona to hilarious effect.
Priscilla Bonner provides a touching performance as the blind minister’s daughter Mary Brown and the moments between Bonner and Langdon are sweet and moving.
Following the release of The Strong Man, many critics spoke of Langdon in the same term level as Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. But these comparisons were not to last. His next feature, Long Pants in 1927, was liked by the critics but did not do well in the box office. Langdon had a massive argument with Frank Capra and according to Capra’s autobiography The Name Above the Title, Capra said that he confronted Langdon about his egotistical behavior but Langdon had him fired.
Buster Keaton was an admirer of Langdon’s work but felt uneasy with his man-child character being portrayed as a possible lady killer in Long Pants. Langdon did not adapt well to the sound era and adopted an accent that troubled producer Hal Roach.
Capra also claimed that Langdon’s decline was that Langdon did fully understand what made his film character was successful in the first place. Langdon’s biographer Bill Schelly argued that Langdon created the character during his vaudeville years. However, Langdon’s star dramatically dropped after firing Capra. Although the next release was His First Flame was previously filmed for Mack Sennett and expanded from a three-reeler, Langdon’s next production Three’s A Crowd in 1927 did not go down well with the critics. Langdon’s new role as director was severely criticized whilst Frank Capra went on to become one of the finest filmmakers in motion picture history.
Harry Langdon is mostly forgotten now. Although many critics, including Capra, would claim that Langdon faded into obscurity right up to his death in 1944, but that was not the case. Langdon continued to act, as well as write and produce films, including co-writing the acclaimed Laurel and Hardy comedy Block-Heads in 1938.
Out of everything he has accomplished, The Strong Man is Langdon’s most defining picture because he would never again star in a vehicle so perfectly realized to suit his baby-faced film persona. The bottom line is that The Strong Man ranks along with the funniest movies of the decade and remains one of cinema’s most underrated comedies.