A great debate rages over the sad career of Harry Langdon. He was a silent film comedian who became very popular under the direction of Frank Capra in a trio of films, then split with Capra and sank into obscurity. Was Capra responsible for his success? Did Langdon get overconfident and ruin his own career? Sometimes you want to ponder what really happened and what might have been, and sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy a funny movie. Saturday at the Castro Theatre, I just wanted to watch The Strong Man and have a laugh.
The Strong Man was the second film made by Capra and Langdon, and it’s my favorite of the three. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival hasn’t shown enough comedies in the last couple of years, so I see whichever ones they schedule and keep asking for more. The real reason I chose to see this film, though, was because silent film historian Kevin Brownlow was giving the introduction, as well as accepting an award from the Festival. Kevin Brownlow wrote The Parade’s Gone By, which is one of the best histories of the silent era. He met so many of those involved in making the films, before they passed away, and in the course of recording history he became part of it, too. He was largely responsible for the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, which was shown in 1980-81 to such acclaim that even I heard about it, and I was a clueless teenager back then.
Kevin Brownlow is now in his early seventies, and he’s soft-spoken and charming. His introduction to The Strong Man was excellent, of course, and the film was pristine. It was made from the original negative, and only the very first scene had a few of the stains and scratches one sees on old films. The rest of the print was sharp and clear, and the contrast was just the way I’d set it, if I had the remote control in my hand. The grey shading was wonderfully subtle, especially on Langdon’s face, remarkable when you consider the thick makeup he wore.
I have two favorite scenes in The Strong Man. The first is when little Langdon has to carry a tall woman up a big staircase. She has pretended to faint, and she’s so clearly bigger than Langdon, that every step up—and slide back down—is genuinely fraught with peril. My other favorite is when Langdon is forced onstage in front of a rowdy and potentially violent audience in place of the drunk strong man, where it’s obviously a case of entertain or die. He blinks shyly out at the crowd and tries a little soft-shoe. He tries to pick up a weight. A little dance. Another weight. Another shuffle. The scene builds from this into a chaotic climax that literally brings down the walls. When you watch these scenes, it becomes pretty obvious that both Langdon and Capra knew what they were doing.
After the movie, I went up to the theatre mezzanine to meet Kevin Brownlow and get an autograph. It was such thrill! I also met William A. Wellman Jr, whose father directed Wings, the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar. He autographed a Wings poster for me, and I added his books about his father to my reading list. I also discovered that a new biography of Richard Barthelmess was published last year. He’s one of my favorite silent era actors. Naturally, I added that book to my wish list, too.
I wanted to go to a couple of the films being shown on Sunday, the final day of the festival, but I just couldn’t manage it. I will just have to wait for the announcement of when the winter film festival will be held. Last year it was held right before Christmas, which was a really bad date for most people. I’m hoping for a better choice this winter. And more comedies!
Update: Here’s a great blog post about the rest of the festival.