The dichotomy between actor and director has long been a fascinating one. Who has the ultimate say in what goes into the film? Conventional wisdom places the director at the forefront, but the recent rise of actor-directors (think James Franco) would seem to provide a counterargument. This rise, however, is not as recent as it may seem. In 1927, Harry Langdon, already a famous silent film comedian, decided to part ways with his director Frank Capra over just such issues of authorial control.
In Harry Langdon: King Of Silent Comedy, authors Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon
provide a new biography of one of silent film’s less well-known but most enduring comedians. In films such as The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon parlayed his pantomime talents, expressive eyes, and childlike innocence into silent-era stardom. Together, Oldham and Langdon survey his early work on the stage at the turn of the twentieth century as well as his iconic routines and characters. They also evaluate his failures from the early sound period, including his decision to part ways with director Frank Capra.
Langdon had worked with Capra on The Strong Man, and besides being Capra’s feature-length debut, it catapulted Langdon into a stardom he had not yet experienced. This stardom, it would seem, got to Langdon’s head – he was besieged by adulating fans and he began to believe that the reason for the film’s success rested solely on his shoulders. Beliefs such as these led him to a climactic confrontation with Capra that would permanently severe the relationship between the two men. The following excerpt tells the full story:
In February 1927, while finalizing [Long Pants], Capra needed to shoot some close-up inserts of Harry’s hand removing a book from a shelf so the audience could focus on the title. Any hand would have sufficed, as long as it matched Harry’s look and sleeve. But Capra wanted to use Harry’s hand, believing that the audience should be given the real deal, even for such a trivial shot. He issued a call for Langdon to come from his dressing room for the close-up and expected no opposition, as Langdon was a professional and seldom objected to retakes. But when Langdon emerged, he scolded Capra for bothering him and refused to do it. According to Capra, the incident became explosive before anyone realized what was happening:
I had sent for him several times. Finally Harry arrived, wearing a gaudy dressing gown and a gaudier scarf, followed by a newly acquired retinue of leeches.
“Why in hell do you keep sending for me? Don’t you know I’m through in the picture?” He was as arrogant as Napoleon chewing up a menial officer.
“Sorry, Harry. I need an insert of your hand reaching for this—”
“Insert of my hand? You ain’t learned nothing, have you? Directors don’t use stars for stupid inserts. They use doubles.”
“Harry, there isn’t another pair of hands like—”
Shouting an expletive, Langdon ranted about being interrupted during an interview with two important New York critics. As he stormed away, he muttered, “That’s what I get for trying to make directors out of two-bit gag men.”
Capra reflected on how to handle the situation: should he kowtow as Langdon’s “yes man,” or should he assert himself as the film’s director and as someone who had been instrumental in creating Langdon’s persona? Capra assumed that Langdon’s arrogance was really a reaction to his sudden popularity—a sort of culture shock—and decided to confront him. He found Langdon lounging on a couch in his dressing room, staring at the ceiling. “Harry,” he said, “I came to tell you what many of us have wanted to say to you for some time, to wit: that you’ve turned into an impossible, opinionated, conceited, strutting little jerk. The happy little guy we once knew and loved has become an ungrateful heel. . . . Comedians must be loved to get laughs—and right now the only one who loves you around here is you.”57 Capra felt relieved when he left , even though Langdon had offered him neither a word nor a glance. The young director felt he was being a professional as well as a friend, showing Langdon tough love. Unfortunately, soon after, Langdon’s business manager arrived at Capra’s home and handed him his last paycheck with the message that Langdon never wanted to see him again.
Thee stunning news leaked out, and it was soon followed by another story that echoed the Sennett split and its question of egos: Langdon would be assuming the director’s chair from now on. Variety stated on March 2, 1927: “Harry Langdon has decided that he no longer needs a director to lead him through his paces. . . . The comedian feels no one can interpret his thoughts as well as himself, so he is going to hold the megaphone instead. Langdon is also said to feel that nobody can title his pictures like he can, so he is also going to title same. In the past, all ideas and gags used in the Langdon pictures were credited with having been conceived by the comedian, with the gagmen simply helping out in the construction.”
Moving Picture World also reported that Langdon was planning to cut his “corps of gag men or comedy constructionists, as they have been called of late, down to one man.” Studio executives hurriedly rebutted these stories, noting that Langdon was not a “high hat” and that these rumors were an “injustice” to him. It was more that Langdon’s technique was so unique that it was impossible to find a “kindred mind” to direct him. They also erroneously pointed out that Langdon had been his own director since the Sennett days but was too modest to take directorial credit on his films; instead, he “selected one of his gag men to sit on the set during each picture and watch the action for ocular errors.” There was also talk that if anyone were to assume the directorial chair, it would probably be Arthur Ripley.
Before this ultimate assault, Capra had already been badly burned by Langdon’s executive control on Long Pants. The star had altered Capra’s “vision,” deleting a prologue because Ripley had opposed it, and reducing a ten-minute, two-strip Technicolor fantasy sequence with gorgeous costumes, a knightly duel, and a fairy princess to a mere fragment. The experience made Capra feel like he no longer existed in Langdon’s world. It must have been devastating to lose the support of a friendly team, and it shook his confidence as a director. However, Capra was determined to find his directorial niche and learn how to control a film. In the meantime, the focus on Long Pants had shifted from director to star on all levels: even a large ad in Variety screamed Langdon’s name three times in type that was three times larger than that of the film’s title. Capra’s name was not included.
At one point, Capra wanted to attend a preview of Long Pants, and he asked his wife Helen, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, to accompany him. She agreed, but when the time came, he found her unhappily drunk—a recurring pattern in their lives—and he apparently hit her so hard that she crumpled into a heap and lost some teeth. All Capra could remember afterward was feeling that she was lucky he had not killed her—a bitterly ironic statement, given [a] disturbing sequence in Long Pants in which Harry attempts to kill Priscilla.
Capra moved on as a director—and temporarily away from Hollywood—when he accepted Hell’s Kitchen (released as For the Love of Mike), which starred Ben Lyon, debuted Claudette Colbert, and was filmed in New York. Unfortunately, Capra had been persuaded to defer his salary until the end of production and was never paid. Despite many strong aspects, the film was considered a commercial failure (after generally bland reviews, Colbert vowed never to make another film, but clearly she changed her mind when she contracted with Paramount two years later). Capra persevered as well, but he had been scarred by so many experiences that, according to his biographer, he turned into “a gut-punching little man in order to survive.”
For many reasons, Capra believed Langdon would fail if he attempted to do everything himself. But Langdon now embraced the idea of taking full charge of the business: directing, acting, writing, and editing. If he was to be another Chaplin, this was Langdon’s destiny. But life imitated art, and like his character in Long Pants, Langdon tried to wear a pair of trousers before he had matured enough to do so. He was drawn to the wrong fantasies, forgetting the simplicity in his own backyard.