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By Phil Hall | January 4, 2008

Harry Langdon was among the most polarizing figures in movie comedy history – either you thought he was an equal to Chaplin and Keaton, or you found him to be limited and monotonous. Langdon never inspired middle ground, which may explain why his star burned so quickly and briefly in the tail end of the silent era.

Too much focus on Langdon’s career centers on his starring feature films. This DVD collection ignores those titles in favor of a rare opportunity to appreciate Langdon’s short films with Mack Sennett (the films that actually fueled his rise) and some of his later sound era shorts when he was considered a has-been (which is strange, since the films are actually quite entertaining).

Langdon’s odd persona of the innocent yet infantile adult seemed out of place amidst the freneticism of the silent comedy genre, where speed and feral action ruled. In many ways, his Sennett shorts are superior to his features since it offers Langdon’s character in smaller doses that are easier to accept. Indeed, the Sennett formula focuses on slapstick comedy, with no emphasis on the pathos that Langdon unwisely insisted upon in his features (and which, ultimately, killed his career). In this world, Langdon’s slow-moving, slow-witted character is at perfect odds with the chaos around him, and the contrast makes the comedy all the funnier.

The real surprise here are the sound films. Langdon, a theater veteran before heading to Hollywood, had a fine voice and had no problem adapting to sound. But his career already tanked prior to coming of sound, so he was already a has-been by the time the silent era ended. Although relegated to cheap shorts, including an industrial film for a tire company, he managed to give new dimension to his oddball screen persona through dialogue. Sound made Langdon’s character into a loopy, somewhat addled-brained adult at odds with the world, and this was funnier than his oversized child routine in the silent era. It is a pity that he was never able to re-establish his star standing during his lifetime, since he was obviously more versatile than many people insisted.

The DVD also provides a documentary on Langdon’s career that is funnier than the Langdon films: a group of film historians sit around talking about Langdon, but we don’t get to see the films they are mentioning. At one point, three film historians are sitting on someone’s bed while discussing the intricacies of the Langdon mystique. It makes for baffling viewing, to be certain, but Langdon would have probably been amused by the absurdity of the situation.

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