#615) The Strong Man (1926)

#615) The Strong Man (1926)

OR “The Trouble with Harry”

Directed by Frank Capra

Written by Hal Conklin and Robert Eddy. Story by Arthur Ripley. Titles by Reed Heustis.

Class of 2007

The Plot: Belgian immigrant Paul Bergot (Harry Langdon) arrives in America as the assistant to Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso) and his strong man act. While in America, Paul is searching for his pen pal Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), who he has fallen in love with. A series of comic misadventures leads Paul and Zandow to Cloverdale, a small town overthrown by corruption and bootlegging. Can Harry save the town and get the girl? Also, remind me again who Harry Langdon is?

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly a rundown of Harry Langdon’s career, though they do applaud the movie for “successfully mixing belly laughs with scenes of great emotional tenderness.” An essay by Harry Langdon biographer Bill Schelly gives a more detailed account of his film career.

But Does It Really?: All I knew about Harry Langdon going into this film is that he is considered the fourth of the great silent film comedians (behind Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd). After seeing “The Strong Man”, I would rank Langdon as a distant fourth. Langdon is a remarkable physical comedian, and his screen persona helps him stand out from his contemporaries, but his brief success as a movie star doomed him to his permanent place in the shadow of three legends. As for the film itself, “The Strong Man” is entertaining at times, but is bogged down by comic bits that overstay their welcome and failed attempts at pathos, never reaching the visual imagination of Chaplin and Keaton or the evergreen optimism of Lloyd. “The Strong Man” makes the NFR cut as representation of Harry Langdon, with the added bonus of being Frank Capra’s directorial debut.

Everybody Gets One: A vaudeville star with a talent for pantomime, Harry Langdon didn’t make his film debut until he was 39, signing on to Principal Pictures before moving to The Mack Sennett Studios. Under Mack Sennett, Langdon became a star in a series of comic shorts as the doe-eyed innocent. By 1926, Langdon was ready to take on features, forming his own company (the Harry Langdon Corporation) and having a hit right out the gate with “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” co-starring a young Joan Crawford. “Strong Man” was Langdon’s second feature, and the first to be directed by Frank Capra – one of Langdon’s gag writers who got the job because the director of “Tramp” went over budget.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the film’s final set piece in a saloon during Prohibition. Also, shout out to Smith Brothers Cough Drops: For that cough.

Other notes 

  • Throughout the film, Harry Langdon and his impish antics reminded me of two different ’30s film stars: Stan Laurel and Dopey from “Snow White“. I am apparently not the only person to make either of these comparisons: Langdon not only served as one of Dopey’s inspirations during that film’s production, but he also ended up writing for Laurel & Hardy in the 1930s, replacing Laurel as Hardy’s co-star in 1939’s “Zenobia” while Laurel had a contract dispute.
  • Once again, a film on this list implies that going through Ellis Island as an immigrant was a breeze. Not so fast, everyone.
  • Man it was really hard to track people down pre-internet. All Harry has to go on is one photo and the very common name of Mary Brown? Good luck, pal.
  • I’m sure all of Langdon’s bits were a laugh riot in 1926, but now they are quite the slog to sit through. That being said, I did laugh out loud at a few of them, the bit of Langdon carrying Lily up a flight of stairs being the first.
  • Wait, one of the characters is named “Parson Brown”? Is he the one we’re supposed to pretend that snowman we built is?
  • Boy there sure isn’t a lot of the strong man in “The Strong Man”. Turns out this movie is a precursor to “The Big Lebowski“.
  • Oh no, Mary is blind? The NFR write-up makes the inevitable comparisons to “City Lights” (which this film predates by five years), but I’m here to tell you, “Strong Man” does not devote nearly as much time or compassion to this subplot as its more famous contemporary.
  • I honestly had to keep reminding myself that Frank Capra directed this. Obviously Harry Langdon was the muscle behind this film, and Capra was just a work-for-hire director, so we miss out on most of the Capra-corn hallmarks. Sure there’s some sentimentality between Paul and Mary, but it lacks Capra’s deft touch that would suggest his hand behind it.
  • One of the major set pieces is an extended comic bit where Paul, suffering from a cold, accidentally mistakes limburger cheese for chest rub. Like Langdon’s other bits in this film, it is excruciatingly long, but the pay off at the end had me laughing pretty hard. You win this round, Langdon.
  • The film’s finale, in which Paul must go on stage for an incapacitated Zandow, is the standout. There’s plenty of fun bits throughout, but I just wish the film had worked up to its ending better. This all being said, the final moments deliver on the first rule of film comedy: Tell the audience what you’re going to do and then do it. While predictable, the ending is a satisfying one.

Legacy 

  • While “Strong Man” was received well by critics, it did just okay with audiences, only doing slightly better business than “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp”. After “Strong Man”, Langdon fired Frank Capra and took over directing duties on his subsequent films, leading to a decline in quality. Mix this with the industry’s ongoing transition from silents to talkies, and Langdon’s days as a bona fide move star were numbered. Langdon went back to shorts, starring in a number of them for Hal Roach, eventually working his way up to supporting roles in comedies before his death in 1944.
  • After Frank Capra was unceremoniously fired by Langdon, he returned to working for Harry Cohn, now the head of Columbia Pictures. Capra directed a string of decent if not remarkable silent films, but finally struck gold with “It Happened One Night“. And now you know the rest of the story!
  • Totally unrelated, but shoutout to Tom Stoltman, who just a few days ago won the World’s Strongest Man competition for the second year in a row. He can deadlift 930 pounds! What am I doing with my life?

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