Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Three's a Crowd (1927) - The Unmaking of Harry Langdon, Part 2

Last time, we looked at the circumstances surrounding the making of Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd and the various calamitous events that conspired to make it the beginning of the end for his career as a top star. As a result of the behind the scenes wrangling and the finished film's subsequent critical mauling (much of it done after Langdon was dead and unable to defend himself), the movie, and Harry Langdon’s reputation suffered in silence for many decades. However, recently the critical tide has slowly begun to turn, especially now that people can actually watch Three’s a Crowd once again on DVD. And it is definitely worth watching.

The surreal, dream like abstraction of Three's a Crowd begins right from the very start. The title card names the principle characters simply as One, Two and Three (as per the name of the film of course, but to a later audience this sort of non determinative labelling is perhaps reminiscent of the Samuel Beckett school of drama), and the opening tableaux is of a dusky early morning street scene at 5 am, a liminal time between night and day, dream and reality. A horse and cart travels slowly down the empty street and the street lamps suddenly switch off, signalling the start of the working day and the end of dream time. Langdon uses the switching on and off of street lamps as a symbolic marker throughout the film (he even has a street lamp inside his house) and poetically bookends the film with them.

We cut to Harry waking up as the camera lingers on his somnambulant face for around fifteen seconds while he tries valiantly to escape the haze of sleep. Langdon has always been a confused, sleepy character but here he takes it to such extremes that it establishes the off kilter tone of the whole film. After a panning shot of the objects in his room, we see Harry’s drowsy moon face again for another agonisingly extended shot lasting another fifteen seconds. Unable to rise from his slumbers, he goes back to sleep, only to reawaken as the camera fixes on his face a third time, in this case for an astonishing thirty seconds. What is extraordinary about these shots is the sense of space and tension they provide. Fifteen seconds of close up on a face (especially a face like Harry Langdon's) is a long time cinematically, thirty seconds creates a sense of awkward unease but a combined minute is positively gripping. That Langdon uses this technique so early in the film is an incredibly daring move, pushing the viewer to keep looking, and to be drawn helplessly into Harry’s dream state. To some the effect is sheer overkill or bad editing but to me, this is Harry Langdon pushing his art into an unacceptable territory, putting his stall out by forcing the gaze of the audience. It's also a technique that Langdon employed in his career on stage, thus giving compelling evidence that these extra long takes exist as a conscious technique rather than (as critics have previously bemoaned) a lack of skill. The effect is an audacious and jaw dropping start to the movie. It also underlines the fact that dreams envelope the narrative, and indeed a case could be made that in fact Harry never truly snaps out his dream state, instead sleepwalking helplessly through the vagaries of his life.

Harry, the simple soul that he is, is an overworked furniture mover whose only dream in life is to have a family. Langdon shows from the start that this is merely a unrealistic fantasy for Harry, and that he is emotionally unable to either find or cope with his heart’s dream. This is emphasized by the use of objects in the movie. Harry can only connect to emotions through inanimate objects, something that is a constant throughout Langdon’s career. Yet like everything in Three’s a Crowd, this idea is mused upon and expanded in agonisingly explicit detail. It begins when Harry finds a doll in a trash can and carries it to work. He sees his boss playing with his son and mimics the motion with the doll. It is sad because we know that not only is this the only way he can connect with the reality of this situation but that this is as near to it as he will ever get. To make matters worse, his boss sees the doll and remarks that it is “a perfect resemblance”. Rather than becoming a child surrogate, the doll has become Harry's doppelganger. This a fact the audience knows all along but for it to mentioned directly to Harry is just one of the many horrible realities that he must face throughout the movie.

The cinematography in the film by Buster Keaton’s lensman Elgin Lessley is stunningly composed, as the camera works in unison with Langdon’s eye for detail to create beautifully detailed street scenes and sets. Despite the upheaval behind the scenes with Frank Capra’s dismissal and spiralling costs, the direction is good and the few missteps (a couple of shots don’t match from one scene to the next) are incidental to the overall message and atmosphere of the movie. One would imagine that Langdon had little desire to direct himself (most star comedians were the de facto director of all their films anyway despite rarely taking a credit) but took on the job because it was the easiest and cheapest option. Regardless of the backstage turmoil, the movie looks great, with a particular strength being the small yet evocative set. Harry lives in a tiny house at the top of an enormous staircase, jutting out of the side of a building and complete with a floor trap door to nowhere. The design is something out of an Expressionist film, and is used primarily to represent Harry’s position on the fringe of society. Interestingly, the expected comedy business of the long staircase never really materialises, rather the endless steps show Harry’s distance from reality and his isolation from his desires. This restraint is another marker that what Langdon is trying to do is not a typical over the top comedy spectacular. Pratfalls and slapstick take a back seat to Langdon’s minimalist vision. The film is full of half realised gags that fade into abstraction, subdued by Harry's hypnagogic wanderings.

An encapsulation of Langdon’s comic ideas occurs in a scene where, after being chased by his boss, Harry seeks to hide from him by jumping out of the trap door in his house, suspended by a carpet that is wedged in the closed door. This is a familiar trope of silent comedy - the comic suspended on high and perilously close to falling. Obviously, Harold Lloyd made a career from dangling off high buildings in his many ‘thrill’ pictures, but here Harry Langdon makes an important distinction in his approach. Whereas Lloyd ultimately triumphs over the many dangers and pitfalls though a combination of skill, luck and determination, here Harry Langdon is suspended in a trap of his own making, and one from which both he and the audience knows he cannot escape. He climbs up the carpet and opens the trap door, so releasing more of the carpet and sending him back to where he started. This routine goes on for an agonisingly long period of time (perhaps too long if truth be known) and the carpet slowly ekes away. The brilliance of Langdon’s approach is in the sheer nerve of presenting an impossible situation as comedy. Harry can’t escape, and we laugh at him trying to escape, knowing full well he can’t. This essential cruelty is something no other comic would even consider touching, as we laugh at his suffering. And to underline his point, the carpet eventually runs out and he does fall. No skill or luck presents itself, Harry struggles, we laugh at him, he fails to escape and he falls. As it happens, his boss’ truck breaks his fall, but in concept the routine is astonishingly dark in the lengths Langdon will go to torture his on screen alter ego. And he’s not done yet, by a longshot…

What Harry desires more than anything in the world is to be a family man, and as he looks out into the cold one day he sees a young woman collapsed in the snow. He takes her up to his house to recover and discovers that she is pregnant. In typical Langdon fashion, he discovers this not by recognising the tell tale physical signs that she is pregnant but by noticing an object, a pair of tiny socks amongst her possessions. He rounds up some doctors and local women and once the baby has been delivered, Harry is left alone in his small home with mother and child. Finally, out of nowhere, his dreams have come true. However, even at this moment of supposed triumph, we have already been conditioned to expect the unexpected.

What follows is perhaps Langdon’s greatest moment on screen. He stands in his small room, his life finally fulfilled. In a medium shot placing him squarely in the centre of the action, framed perfectly by his house, furniture and mother and child, he stands still. And doesn’t move. At all. All in all, I counted Harry standing still, blank faced and motionless for around thirty seven seconds. Compared to his minimalist experiments at the start of the film, this is an epic pause, and it’s a truly beautiful, eerily poignant moment. Langdon creates a rare thing in cinema: an open space, and on that space, and indeed Harry’s blank face, the audience is free to impose their own thoughts and feelings. What starts as a triumphant affirmation, given space to breathe swiftly shifts to a worryingly unsettling moment of tension and doubt. For all the talk of ‘the look’ of Buster Keaton (specifically the famous blinking scene in The General) or the stare of Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, Harry Langdon is the true master of the blank gaze. His innocent face stares out into nowhere, out of the screen, piercing the soul of the viewer, inhabiting their mind and haunting their dreams. The moment shows that Langdon knew exactly what he was doing, and chose to push the boundaries of what was possible in film comedy in a way that none of his contemporaries could even conceive of. He creates space, disquiet and tension and thus extraordinary, haunting beauty.


Now left with this dream domestic scenario, Harry begins to worry that the girl’s husband will find her and take her back. He sees a picture of him and bashfully punches the photo with his back turned to the girl in an embarrassed, joking manner. Again this shows that Harry can react emotionally only to an object, or in this case representations of people. Against the real husband, he knows he hasn’t a chance. This theme is further elucidated upon in a dream Harry then has where the husband appears menacingly at the window of his house during a storm and Harry then fights him in a boxing match. The scene takes place in a darkened arena, lit only on the boxing ring. This seems to have been a budgetary constraint but it certainly adds to surreal, dreamlike mood. The husband has a cape and top hat and is literally twirling his moustache like the old time villains of melodrama while Harry’s secret weapon is a massively outsized boxing glove.

Again, the humour to be found in the scene is far outweighed by the impending tragedy and daring way Langdon uses narrative. Harry is defending the girl’s honour against the mean villain, and is swiftly knocked out cold. He loses the fight and the girl, in his own dream. Three’s a Crowd’s version of the hero’s journey is extraordinary and bold, and its lesson is that there is no journey, and no concept of happiness for Harry. To make matters even worse, Harry wakes up to find that the husband has tracked them down in real life and the girl runs to his arms, the family back together again at the expense of Harry’s dreams. As the day closes, dream and reality start once again to collide, and Harry disappears into the spaces in between.

As ever, Harry can go nothing to stop this happening as he stands and watches while his dream walks out the door with her true love. He literally stands by helpless and unmoving as she leaves, just as he did when she arrived. In a crushingly sad scene, Harry stands framed in the doorway of his little house, watching the happy couple disappear into the snow outside. Then we see the doll from earlier, caught in a washing line and tattered by the weather, crumpled and cast away. As predicted, the doll was not a child substitute but Harry himself. He takes a lamp and wanders out into the street. As he stands there entirely alone he blows out the lamp, and all the streetlamps also go out. It’s a beautiful little moment of magic in an otherwise profoundly bleak scene. The movie finishes with a gag, otherwise probably everyone in the cinema would have gone home and put their heads in their gas ovens, as Harry takes revenge on a bogus fortune teller from earlier in the movie. It’s a token gesture, a rare moment of comic relief in a thoroughly heart breaking movie.

What makes Three’s a Crowd so brilliant is the way that Harry Langdon seems to have almost committed career suicide in order to push his comic art further. The movie’s bad reputation surely rests on the fact that as a comedy it’s not very funny, which it isn’t. There is no comparison whatsoever to the earlier features with Capra in terms of laughs, but to do so is failing to see what Langdon is attempting to do. This is a mature work of a growing artist working on a purely conceptual level of comedy. In terms of career longevity Langdon definitely would have been better making another Long Pants or The Strong Man, but he obviously felt that to do so was a backward step. Whereas Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd continued to make more polished and more sophisticated films with each successive work, they essentially use their characters to explore the same variety of themes in varying detail. When Harold Lloyd made The Kid Brother, he achieved a beautiful synthesis of the rural and the ideal, of courage, humour and beauty, perhaps the summit of his achievements. However, the Harold Lloyd character in the movie is no different from the one that he always played, the big  difference being the scope of the movie, the fluidity of its image and perfect balance of comedy and drama.

When Frank Capra thought he understood everything about Harry Langdon’s comic character, he was wrong. Only Langdon knew what the character meant, and free of Capra’s hypothesizing he took the character in the direction it was meant to go in. Unfortunately that was the most uncommercial direction possible for an audience unused to seeing its favourite comedians as anything other than simple clowns. The essential difference is that Capra’s conception of Langdon involved the necessity of God being on his side. Langdon, being the ultimate reactive comedian historically manages to avoid tragedy by doing nothing. If he escapes from a building falling on him, it’s never anything he himself does, it’s just pure luck or Providence. Where the real difference in Capra and Langdon’s view of the character manifests itself is in this divine protection – in Langdon’s worldview, God is not protecting Harry, in fact nothing can protect him and the redemptive happy ending doesn’t exist. Harry is entirely lost, eternally buffered by the seas of Fate.

Quite how Langdon hoped to take this idea further in subsequent films is difficult to say, as his next two features were far more conventional (though the final one Heart Trouble remains sadly lost). Perhaps Three’s a Crowd was a one off, a statement that needed to be made and created in response to the situation he found himself in. Even Langdon must have been stung by the movie’s poor reception into making his next film more commercial. As it stands, Three’s a Crowd is either the work of a genius or an amazing series of unconscious coincidences by an unknowing amateur, There is so much depth and thought put into the movie, that the latter is simply inconceivable. Of course, in 1927 movies were rarely watched repeatedly or studied for meaning, least of all comedies. An acquired taste at the best of times, Harry Langdon at his most daringly opaque was going to be a difficult proposition for a lot of audiences. As critic David Kalat says in his excellent DVD commentary to the movie, Three's a Crowd “ horrifying, it is profoundly sad, deeply tragic, eerily disturbing and unrelenting”. And that I feel sums up this amazing, confrontational, divisive movie perfectly.

On screen and off, Harry Langdon exists at an awkward tangent to the real world, never quite posing the easy questions or giving the correct answers to be lauded universally by critics and moviegoers. Instead he opts to remain forever confounding, elusive and largely unloved. Yet for those who wish to listen, Three's a Crowd remains his ultimate statement, a movie that is both profound and profane. And though the critics and naysayers continue to doubt him, somewhere he watches and stands unmoved, and just stares his stare of eternity.