Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Strong Man (1926)

Director: Frank Capra                                       Writer: Hal Conklin & Robert Eddy
Film Score: Carl Davis (1985)                           Cinematography: Glenn Kershner
Starring: Harry Langdon, Arthur Thalasso, Gertrude Astor and Pricilla Bonner

Harry Langdon is called "The Forgotten Clown" because the big three, Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, get most of the critical attention and recognition these days. But his work in the late twenties shows him to be a formidable comedian and the star of some interesting films. Not being a writer and director the way the big three were it is something of a stretch to think he deserves a place at the table with geniuses of silent comedy, though in The Strong Man he is in capable hands with the venerable Frank Capra directing his first feature film. Langdon’s character, while unique in some respects, is for the most part really second-rate Chaplin. His pushed out hat resembles a bowler and his oversize pants and tight-fitting coat are a bit too reminiscent of the little tramp. Some of his physical mannerisms mimic Chaplin as well. Only his doughy, white face and cupid’s bow mouth set him apart . . . that and the lack of Chaplin’s brilliance.

Though there is a through story here, the film feels very episodic. It opens in Belgium during The Great War with Harry manning a machine gun. He’s practicing trying to hit a can with no luck, and finally pulls out his slingshot and hits a bullseye. When German soldier Arthur Thalasso tries to shoot him, he resorts to the slingshot with success, but is eventually captured. When the war ends Thalasso, as the strong man Zandow the Great, emigrates to America with Langdon in tow. Meanwhile, Langdon is looking for the woman who wrote letters to him during the war, and when pickpocket Gertrude Astor is forced to ditch a large roll of cash in his pocket, she has to pose as the woman in order to get him to her apartment and retrieve the money. Finally back with Thalasso, the two head for a small, Midwest town that has been taken over by gamblers. The preacher, William V. Mong, is fighting a crusade against the gangsters and his blind daughter, Pricilla Bonner, just happens to be the woman that wrote to Langdon.

While all the great silent comedians had a certain childlike quality to them, Langdon’s suffers the most from those associations. Not only his round, innocent face is reminiscent of a child, but so is his character. And while he attempts to weave romances with women into the story, it all seems very strange as his behaviors are much more suited to a young boy. Even so, the bit in Gertrude Astor’s apartment, with Capra shooting the scene on her bed from overhead, is extremely well done. In fact, during the finale when Landon fills in for the strong man Capra uses an overhead shot as well, which is something that isn’t used very often. At the same time there are some scenes that fall tremendously flat. In one, where a bus is traveling to the small town, Langdon does an extended bit where he has a cold that seems as if it will never end. Likewise when he finally meets Bonner the scene goes on for way too long. The Strong Man is a good, solid silent comedy. Capra does as nice a job behind the camera as Langdon does in front. It’s not genius, but then it probably wasn’t meant to be, and certainly has plenty of entertaining moments.

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