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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.

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.

What a delightful article. Keep these rarities coming, dear mubi fellows.
Fascinating! This kind of work certainly emphasizes the soul and point of the material, pushing critique of taste to the side. What is perhaps most illuminating about this response work is that it emphasizes something in written work that is most missing today, and that is the exploration of the work in attempts to comprehend the maker’s intentions rather than point out flaws and needs of the audience. This could prove to be quite a point of reference and example for contemporary writings!
“(Capra) characterized Langdon’s directorial debut (Three’s A Crowd) as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster. “That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism. “The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.” ~
Capra did indeed play a large part in creating Three’s a Crowd’s unshakable bad reputation, notably through what he wrote about Langdon in his autobiography. David Kalat explores this issue in detail in a post at TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog: After directing Three’s a Crowd, The Chaser, and the now lost Heart Trouble, Langdon would go on to appear in a number of sound films throughout the 30s, notably at Hal Roach and Educational Pictures (he also appeared in a series of 2-reelers at Paramount that are now lost). I’m slowly but surely seeing these films and there are some real gems in there. When he had good material, Langdon’s persona only becomes more fascinating and bizarre with the introduction of sound, especially when he’s given the opportunity to go off into one of his endless monologues, as seen in this clip from the Roach short, The Head Guy: A couple of Langdon’s Educational Pictures sound shorts are on Facet’s Harry Langdon: Lost and Found DVD set, notably the brilliant Knight Duty. The set also includes a rarity simply known as the “Hal Roach Announcement” which is in all likelihood the first time Langdon spoke on screen. It’s a 7 minute publicity short for Roach’s new star in which he goes into a virtuoso automatic dialogue that surely would have pleased the surrealists. Langdon’s Hal Roach shorts aired on TCM a while back, so hopefully we’ll see a DVD release sometime in the near future.
An approach.. largely unexplored – true – but not entirely: some of Luis Bunuel’s film criticism in the 20’s is still available in Francisco Aranda’s critical biography and in one other title published more recently, ‘An Unspeakable Betrayal’ (an anthology of articles, essays, etc.). Gilson’s approach reminds me of the pieces Bunuel wrote for Cahiers d’art in 1927: reviews of Buster Keaton’s ‘College’ (where Langdon also gets a salute), Victor Fleming’s ‘Way of All Flesh’, etc. – not to mention his ‘Variations on Adolphe Menjou’s Mustache’ (“..a page of Proust brought to life on the upper lip..”). Seems to have been a definite ‘avantgarde’ affection for American cinema in Paris in the 20s. Thanks for the traduit, Noah.

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