Harry Langdon or The Malady of Sleep

This translation of a 1929 piece on Langdon is an exhilarating exercise in a deliriously subjective, free-form style of poetic film writing.
Noah Teichner

This 1929 article by Paul Gilson, something of a forgotten classic in France, was published in the third issue of Jean George Auriol’s Du Cinéma (which would become the better known La Revue du Cinéma with the next issue) to coincide with the French release of Harry Langdon’s underappreciated masterpiece Three’s a Crowd. The magazine, close to various avant-garde circles, featured everything from screenplays to reportages to reviews, testifies to the effervescent, and relatively little known, film culture in Paris at the time. For those familiar with the bland, descriptive write-ups of most movie reviews of the era, this piece comes off as an exhilarating exercise in a deliriously subjective, free-form style of poetic film writing that is more inspired by the film than about it — an approach that, to this day, remains largely unexplored.

“Bombay, December 5th — The Bombay Chronicle brings to our attention an extraordinary botanical phenomenon. In the former kingdom of Mysore (India) there grows a tree that reclines as the night approaches. At midnight it rests flat on the ground. Around one in the morning, it begins to rise, and at sunrise, the trunk once again stands vertically.”

His birthplace, the eternal home — I see them. It’s that big city of waiting where the women that one avoids are full of tenderness, and those that one loves are already gone. Harry Langdon caresses the beautiful breaking birds, picks apart their feathers on the tile floor. Is he sleeping? He rolls from spade to spade, prisoner of songs of misfortune. At each awakening, the sky falls heavier upon him.

I salute Langdon as a privileged victim of the malady of sleep. Despite himself, he imbues everything around him with drowsiness: objects, the neighbors, the street, the entire decor. Sleep takes hold of him by the hair, envelops him, bathes him in its fluids. Harry spreads open his eyelids: he doesn’t recognize his bicycle, the daisy in bloom at his windowsill, the bricks used to press his pants. He falls asleep once again. Does he wake up? He sleeps upright. Perched in his attic, he remains unaware of the coming of the milkman, of the white carts, of the thick leaves, of the early-morning silhouettes sprouting their targets on the sidewalk. He descends the stairway which joins the earth to the sky. But he does not remain among men. The severity of his boss, the indulgence of the moving man’s wife surprises him. He is ready to excuse himself. Tenderness and spite fall upon him. He moves among the living — a somnambulist.

Harry the figurine founders on the breast of a negress, washes up on a bench, is buried by the snow. And afterwards? Pillaged by the flies of sleep, vanquished, Harry Langdon passes between their hands without dirtying himself. What is he hoping for, this amorous calico, this moon face with a double chin? It’s at this point that one of those unhappy and obedient girls — you can call them one hundred years — a sister of Edna Purviance, a woman, asks him for asylum in the name of the promised child. What child? A little Harry, the rag doll Harry, a big doll like Harry. Silence, let him sleep, he’s waiting for a miracle.

The gossips, the clothing menders, the old hags with mittens exit through the windows. Now it’s the doctors with their bags that surge forth, the old obstetricians from the cold of the outskirts. Harry scrapes together wooden rifles, trumpets, all those fine little Christmas toys. He subdues us in order to defend himself. Our stolen childhood falls from his chimney, and it touches us to death. Who remains alive? The drunken husband. Harry cheats, slips on a giant boxing glove, counting on perspective to frighten his enemy. He rotates, twirls around like he learned in school, where the butterflies irritate the plaster gods. But the dream is part of the adversary’s game. No way to know if his immobility is born from excess speed or from a dreadful statuesque weight. Upright, this Villiod in a black coat has no need to move. He sees, hears, and knows everything, no one doubts it.

There are rooms, crime scenes, where a drop of blood never forms. There is Harry Langdon’s room, white as snow, as innocent as a newborn child. Harry, old pal, are you sleeping? Do you hear me? Enough dreaming. In the middle of the road, Harry blows out his lamp. The electric globes go out. Others smoke a last cigarette, dreading a guillotine that is less cold. Where are we?

Suddenly, I go back to that early London morning in Kensington near St. Mary. A frozen minstrel passes across the sidewalk. Not one living soul in the deserted streets.

Paul Gilson

(Translated by Noah Teichner)


You can follow Noah Teichner at Pratfall Elegy, a blog and Twitter dedicated to all things slapstick.

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