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?
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.
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).
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.
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…
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).
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!