To say that the gentle, baby-faced, cartoon-character-come-to-life Harry Langdon is not an obvious pick for a World War I-themed film might seem like a huge understatement. But funnily enough, there was something about the sight of Langdon’s innocent clown blundering through shell-pitted battlegrounds that worked. Was it the contrast, which was so stark that it became funny? Did the “Little Elf’s” bewilderment echo the disillusionment many folks had felt during those stressful war years?
In any case, Langdon would use WWI gags a bit more often than most clowns, in the short All Night Long (1924), the feature The Strong Man (1926), and the three-reeler Soldier Man (1926). Soldier Man in particular seems to get overlooked, which is a shame–many of the scenes and gags are certainly what I would call “classic Harry.”
The film opens with Armistice Day (“When the Dove of Peace tied tin cans to tails of the Dogs of War”), showing documentary footage of ticker tape celebrations in New York and a huge ship full of returning soldiers. All soldiers are accounted for, we’re told…all except for one. And who is that lone doughboy?…Harry, of course. (Who else?)
The first third or so of Soldier Man simply follows private Harry as he continues to innocently patrol the empty battlegrounds–even though a full year’s passed since Armistice Day. Being Harry, he still has no clue the war is over. His faithful diary entries reveal he was sent to the front lines on Christmas Day, 1917 (that would be poor Harry’s luck) and a mere 24 hours later was captured by the first German he saw. He also noted on November 11, 1918: “Escaped from prison camp today while German guards were celebrating something or other.”
Coincidences keep the illusion of warfare going for him, naturally. When farmers use leftover gunpowder to blow stumps out of their fields, he assumes Germans are dropping shells. One of my favorite sequences involves Harry thinking a cow has swallowed a bundle of dynamite he meant for those pesky Huns–with surreal results that he accepts all too casually.
The rest of the film is a Prisoner of Zenda spoof where Harry happens to be the spitting image of the drunken, belligerent King Strudel of Bomania (yes, Langdon plays a dual role). A villainous courtier, hoping to control the Bomanian throne, kidnaps Strudel and forces a very confused Harry to impersonate him. This of course offers endless opportunities to showcase Harry’s ineptitude at anything even resembling formal ceremony.
The ending is one of those, unfortunately, which is a bummer. (If you’ve seen it you know what I mean–and if you haven’t, trust me, you’ll understand.) But it does close with a cute gag, at least. Even the weaker Langdon films can usually deliver on those final seconds, I’ve noticed.
Soldier Man was the last Langdon short that was released before the comedian went into features. By this point, his lovable character was well established (it took Sennett a few shorts to figure out the quirky comedian’s screen persona–or perhaps Langdon couldn’t let his creativity shine right away). Soldier Man is an excellent example. Since the main premise of the story is so absurd, Harry Langdon might be the only performer who could pull it off sincerely (emphasis on “sincerely”). If a different comedian were in the same role, we’d have to either assume he’s acting dumber than normal (comedians often played dumb-bells, but dumb-bells with energy and admittedly short attention spans) or just regard the premise as a surreal gimmick. But since Langdon’s character is so clueless and innocent, always so behind the rest of the crowd, it somehow all makes hilarious sense. Of course Harry would somehow be the only soldier in the entire Great War who gets stuck “Over There,” for months on end–that’s Harry for you.
By the way, my fellow Laurel and Hardy fans who are getting déjà vu, parts of Soldier Man were indeed recycled for Block-Heads (1938). And one of the writers on Block-Heads was none other than Langdon himself, who was quite an influence on Stan Laurel’s career (Stan’s acting grew significantly Langdon-ish throughout the 1920s). If you ask me, Stan is perhaps the only other comedian who can own the role of a soldier who somehow missed the memo about the war being over (although in his case it was over for–gulp–twenty years!).
Soldier Man makes a nice appetizer for a night of WWI-themed films–it pairs well with Shoulder Arms, of course, or perhaps Wings. Or you could hunker down with Langdon’s own classic The Strong Man, too. It’s available on a fantastic set that’s unfortunately out of print (don’t look at the current Amazon prices, you’ll cry), a few cheapie DVDs, and I dare say some decent copies float about on YouTube, too.
This post was written especially for the World War One on Film Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films! WWI was a vastly important event that has ramifications even today, so I thank her for hosting this timely ‘thon during such an important centennial. A hearty welcome to any new readers–feel free to take a look around! And when you’re done with your visit, please check out all the other posts contributed by my fellow hardworking bloggers.