Harry Philmore Langdon was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on June 15, 1884 to a middle-class family. His parents were William Worley Langdon, a painter, and Lavinia Langdon, who did work for the Salvation Army. He was one of seven children. Young Harry fell for the acting industry early on, selling newspapers on the streets in Omaha so he could be in close proximity to the theater district. He enjoyed staging his own “shows” and won prizes in many amateur talent contests. When minstrel shows came to town his mother apparently made him wear girl’s clothes to keep him from running away from home and joining them. Eventually he did just that, joining Dr. Kickapoo’s Indian Medicine Show at age 12 or 13. During his youth he would repeatedly return home and then leave again to join other medicine and minstrel shows. His many talents included gymnastics, balancing acts, music, and lightening sketches. He also drew comic strips for newspapers on the side.
In 1903 he married his first wife, Rose Musolff, a native of Wisconsin and singer who popularized the song “In My Merry Oldsmobile.” By 1906 the two of them were performing in vaudeville. His created his famous car sketch (later known as “Johnny’s New Car”) around 1915, so the two of them could perform together. The popular and ever-evolving sketch was one of a variety of things they performed on stage.
In 1923, by now an established entertainment personality (and pushing 40), he decided to enter the movies. The first studio he worked for was Principal Pictures, where he made several shorts, but after a few months he was traded to Mack Sennett. The first few shorts he appeared in for Sennett in 1924 (Picking Peaches, Smile Please) were cobbled-together affairs that featured as many clumsy special effects and Bathing Beauties as they did scenes with Langdon. His personal style would soon be given more room to grow, starting with The First 100 Years (1924). Harry Edwards became Langdon’s director in Luck o’ the Foolish (1924) and this proved to be a winning combination, with Edwards directing the rest of Langdon’s shorts at Sennett. Screenwriter Arthur Ripley and gag writer Frank Capra rounded out the unit around 1925. Langdon rose to popularity very swiftly in these shorts and they started increasing in length. His onscreen foil was usually played by Vernon Dent, who became a close friend.
In 1926, after having appeared in over twenty shorts in all for Sennett as well as one feature (His First Flame, not released until 1927), Langdon left to make feature-length comedies for First National. He was able to retain several people from his Sennett crew, including Edwards and Ripley. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) was his first feature under the new arrangement, followed by The Strong Man (1926) the first of his films to be directed by Frank Capra and often called Langdon’s finest film.
During the filming of his next feature, Long Pants (1927), Capra began to disagree with Ripley‘s sometimes dark material. Langdon increasingly sided with Ripley. When Long Pants ended up being over budget and behind schedule Langdon decided to fire Capra and assume the position of director.
His subsequent three features, Three’s a Crowd (1927), The Chaser (1928), and Heart Trouble (1928) were commercially and critically unsuccessful (although the latter was the best received), and First National dropped him from their contract. In 1929 he and Rose Langdon divorced, and that same year he married Helen Walton.
As talkies began to replace the silent format Langdon returned to vaudeville for a time, then in 1929 was hired by Hal Roach to star in short comedies. While he was able to adapt his character to sound, Roach let him go in 1930.
In 1932 Langdon divorced Helen Walton. He starred in a few feature films (including the 1933 Hallelujah I’m a Bum with Al Jolson), then began making low-budget two-reelers for Educational Pictures, which once again co-starred Vernon Dent. In 1934, now age 50, he went to Columbia, where he was a mainstay for 10 years. He also married Mabel Sheldon, this marriage staying intact until his death and producing one child, Harry Langdon Jr.
Up until 1944 Langdon kept busy playing both leads and bit parts in numerous shorts and features, sometimes for studios such as Warner Bros and United Artists. In the late thirties Hal Roach had him return as a writer for Laurel and Hardy, lending his hand to such classics as A Chump at Oxford (193-). He even subbed for Stan Laurel in Zenobia (1939) co-starring Oliver Hardy.
On December 22, 1944, having spent the majority of his onscreen career in sound films, Langdon died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Los Angeles. He was 60. Dent handled all funeral arrangements and took on the responsibility of helping care for young Harry Jr.
While Langdon remained obscure for decades his reputation has begun to pick up due to his films becoming available on home video. Some even call him the “fourth genius” of silent comedy, after Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Langdon’s gravesite is located in the Grandview Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Harter, Clyde and Hayde, Michael J. Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon. BearManor Media, 2012.