New Christmas Traditions and Harry Langdon’s “Three’s a Crowd”

This being a gift-giving time of the year, my friend Steve over at MovieMovieBlogBlog got an intriguing idea for a blogathon: If you could give only one movie to someone this Christmas, what would it be, and what person (or kind of person) would you give it to?

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After thinking it over, I decided that my gift would be a silent film (of course) to a fellow silent film lover (who just might appreciate it the most). And it wouldn’t be just any good pre-talkie from whichever genre I choose; it would be a film particularly suited for Christmastime.

You see, there’s a long list of movies that have become beloved Christmas staples, watched year after year with family and friends: It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas. But how many silent films are there that fit the holiday season? Not a whole lot. I can pick out a ton of spooky-themed silents that are perfect around Halloween, but if I have to make a list of Christmasy silents I come up short. There’s a few very old shorts like A Trap for Santa Claus (1909) that are nice, and a few films like Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business (1929) are set during Christmastime , but since the holiday wasn’t as commercialized back in the day there isn’t a lot to choose from.

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Although there’s always Eric von Stroheim’s idea of a heartwarming Christmas movie.

So what’s a silent fan to do? There is one film out there that I think fits the bill, a film that has a wintery setting and a simple, wistful story that fits in beautifully with the holidays: Harry Langdon’s feature Three’s a Crowd (1927). 

The inimitable yet highly influential Harry Langdon, a former vaudevillian who skyrocketed to fame with a series of delightful comedy shorts in the mid-Twenties, is one of the silent era greats. Audiences got a huge kick out of his innocent, baby-faced character and his knack for simple reaction shots that were just long and drawn-out enough to become funny. It can easily be argued that silent comedy after Langdon was never the same (Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton were two of the comedians who obviously studied his work).

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By 1926 Langdon, like so many other famous comedians, had made the transition to features with his charming The Strong Man, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, and what some consider to be his masterpiece, Three’s a Crowd.

Like so many great stories, the plot is relatively uncomplicated but has plenty of warm emotional touches. Harry, playing his usual odd-but-goodhearted little character, lives in a sad little garret that can only be reached by perhaps the world’s longest, rickety outdoor staircase.

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He wistfully longs to have a family of his own (Harry’s character, naive and childish as he could be, still liked the ladies in his own adoring way). After a snowstorm hits the city he comes across a young woman collapsed in the snow, and brings her to his garret to take care of her. As things turn out, the young woman had run away from her husband (who was living a “dissolute” life) and was about to have a baby.

Once the baby comes, Harry takes care of them both, feeling that this little “family” was surely Heaven-sent. But we learn that the woman’s husband has cleaned up his act and is searching for her…

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What can I say about this film, without revealing too much? It might sound like an all-around sad story, and I guess it is in a way…but never fear, for it’s tempered by plenty of humor and sweetness as well as a satisfying closing gag. One of its great strengths is its incredibly beautiful cinematography (no doubt helped by legendary cameraman Elgin Lessley), particularly in the lovely snowstorm sequence where bundled-up figures hurry about in the clean, blowing snow and puffs of breath rise from horses’ nostrils.

Harry’s garret and long wooden staircase have a rustic, gritty beauty comparable to the Tramp’s humble surroundings in The Kid. There are also charming details such as Harry’s makeshift contraptions that furnish him with light and running water (in a sense).

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As many critics have noted, Langdon explores the pathos side of his character more thoroughly than he had in the past (I would argue successfully), which helps make this film surprisingly well suited to the Christmas season–even aside from the appeal of the winter scenes. While Langdon had been concentrating on giving his character more depth, his film can be given more meanings than he probably had in mind.

Harry’s loneliness, of longing for a family, is one that’s shared by many people around the holidays. The end of the film (not to give away too much) involves the kind of self-sacrifice that George Bailey might be able to sympathize with. Harry’s taking in the young pregnant woman, who has nowhere else to go, is a reminder of the Nativity story. His garret is even as humble as any stable or cave the original Holy Family took shelter in.

I’ve seen some strange reviews of this film, no doubt deeply influenced by Frank Capra’s side of his dealings with Harry Langdon (it’s a long story, and a very biased one) as well as The Silent Clowns writer Walter Kerr’s loving, yet critical analysis. I would strongly encourage anyone to watch this film with an open mind. Like any film there are a couple flaws, particularly in some of the editing (and a couple scenes also show nitrate damage, not that this can be helped), but try to be free of those opinions that show how much a certain person has read about the film but also make it clear that they’ve shut their eyes to seeing its magic.

So I would be happy to give Three’s a Crowd to any silent fan looking for a new Christmas film tradition. It’s a charming, bittersweet film that holds up well aside classics such as White Christmas and A Christmas Carol (almost any version). And it just might, to paraphrase a famous Chaplin title card, give you not only plenty of smiles but, perhaps, a tear.

Three’s a Crowd was made available by Kino in a set including another Langdon feature The Chaser (which in my opinion pales in comparison with the former.) The print is in very nice quality and has an excellent sountrack–check it out!

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20 thoughts on “New Christmas Traditions and Harry Langdon’s “Three’s a Crowd”

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  3. Nice review, Lea! I’ve never seen this movie, mostly because my interest in it has been tempered over the decades by the sources you mentioned (Frank Capra’s and Walter Kerr’s books), but I think I’ll have to give this movie a look now. Thanks so much for contributing such a thoughtful piece to the blogathon!

    • You’re welcome! Yes, put all those preconceived notions aside and give Three’s a Crowd a try. It’s been a part of my Christmas viewing for a couple years now and always will be. 🙂

  4. I’ve not seen this one and just ordered the disk. I love Harry Langdon and am looking forward to seeing it! And your review also reminds me it’s time to pull out my Kino A Christmas Past disk. 🙂

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  6. Would rate this film as my favorite “flawed” movie. Heavily edited after release (look at the many stills of the original film not found in the film itself. and a re-shot ending, etc. Possibly the hardest film to watch because of the promise of Langdon as director was never realized for a variety of reasons that anyone can research. Anyway, possibly the greatest movie ever made that has been pretty much forgotten.

    • Yeah, Langdon really did go overboard with the editing–the carrier pigeon gag, for instance, is pretty inexplicable as it stands in the movie. But its charm is still undeniable in spite of that.

  7. I think Three’s a Crowd is one of the great unknown masterpieces of silent cinema. It has such a poor reputation, like you say due to Capra and Kerr’s very influential writings at a time when there wasn’t a lot of information out there about silent cinema and reputations were made based on one critic half remembering a movie that few of their readers could get a chance to see. Anyway I think it’s a stunning work and completely destroys the myth that Langdon was out of his depth once Capra left. However, i’m not sure of it as a Christmas film, I find it horribly bleak. It’s a profoundly dark film that defies conventions and expectations. By all means watch it on a cold winter’s night when you are feeling sorry for yourself but i’ll stick to happier fare for Christmas! Great review and thanks for highlighting the greatness of Harry!

    • Hi Russell, glad you enjoyed the review! Ahhhh yes, not only did some of these critics only half-remember certain films, but the prints of those films weren’t always great to begin with–a double whammy!

      SPOILERS guys: I don’t see Three’s a Crowd being quite as bleak as all that–there’s hope at the end when the young woman tells Harry that they hope to show him their gratitude (a promise of a financially better life ahead of him, perhaps?). Plus, there’s an element of absurdity to Harry’s situation–we all know that this “Heaven-sent” wife and child aren’t going to last, and deep down Harry seems to realize it, too. The light touch of the humor offsets much of the “sadness” as well. But, that’s my opinion of course.

  8. I got around to watching this one. What a poignant and special little film! I think the plot highlights Harry Langdon’s special qualities quite well.Yes, it is suffused in a way with the spirit of Christmas, and really in a sense has to do with the kind of love that Christmas is all about.

    It is indeed bittersweet, but it seems some of the best Christmas films and programs often have that quality. One I’ve always enjoyed was “The House Without a Christmas Tree” with Jason Robards.

    I enjoyed the photography and the sets as well, especially the scenes with the snow. With this bizarrely warm Christmas weather, it was nice to see some cold and snow, if only virtual. 🙂

    I wish there hadn’t been the celluloid damage in the part with the doll. I would like to have seen that. Could you tell anything about what is happening?

    All in all, most enjoyable! Thanks for highlighting it, and Merry Christmas!

    • Huzzah, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Yes, wasn’t it a weirdly warm Christmas this year? Especially when I’m from a state that can get as cold as MN does in December, good grief.

      “Yes, it is suffused in a way with the spirit of Christmas, and really in a sense has to do with the kind of love that Christmas is all about.” I feel ya, that’s exactly how I feel about it too.

      The sequence with the doll is super tough to make out and I had to pause and slo-mo it a couple times to try and see what was going on. It looks like the doll was getting getting shabbier with each shot as it got pushed or carried (once by the little dog) from place to place. How it ended up in the telephone wires I’m really not sure, pieces of the film may have been edited out.

      Now that it’s past Christmas, Happy New Year’s to you, Donnie!

    • If you enjoy Jason Robarts, be sure to watch “A Christmas to Remember” starring Robarts alng side Eva Marie Saint. He plays a crochety old grandfather to the hilt!

  9. Wow, thanks for the recommendation! i feel like you just DID give me this movie for Christmas! I have to go hunt the film down, but I will.

    I am ashamed to say….I am completely influenced by Hal Roach’s remembrances of Langdon in the “Hollywood” series! I thought if that’s what Langdon was, why is he being included alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd!?!!!

  10. Wow, thanks for the recommendation! i feel like you just DID give me this movie for Christmas! I have to go hunt the film down, but I will!! The comments left by those who have seen the film are also very helpful!

    I am ashamed to say….I too am completely influenced by Hal Roach’s remembrances of Langdon in the “Hollywood” series! I thought if that’s what Langdon was, why is he being included alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd!?!!! I didn’t realize it until you mentioned it!!!!!

    But (for me) the real gem of this blog post is the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle! Langdon influenced Laurel and Hardy, and when you said that, it all clicked into place! Absolutely! Makes complete sense, especially when Hal Roach gets Laurel and Hardy together!!!

    Correction! “Big Business” takes place in July, according to Stan Laurel! That’s part of the comedy of the movie, that they’re selling Xmas trees in July! Easy to miss, though, especially when it takes place in un-snowy Los Angeles!!!!!

    • Hey, we SilCom fans have all been there–taking too many harsh, sometimes biased opinions of comedians for granted! I I love Walter Kerr’s book The Silent Clowns and will love it until my dying day, but have no problem admitting now that it’s not always fair to some of his subjects (Arbuckle, for instance).

      Yup, Langdon is HUGELY important to the evolution of screen comedy–and you can really see his influence on many people’s work. Even Buster Keaton clearly absorbed a little of his style (you see it a lot in The Cameraman!).

      Ha, I’m not sure I knew Big Business was supposed to take place in July! After looking it up, it looks like the film really was shot smack dab during Christmastime. (December 19-26, 1929, to be precise.) The “summer” effect did add to the comedy, of course.

  11. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:

    ‘Tis the season to bring back this post! This Harry Langdon classic might not have anything to do with Christmas directly, but its story is very much in line with the holiday spirit. Beautiful winter cinematography, too. I highly recommend adding it to your regular seasonal fare, Harry will appreciate it!

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