Seen March 5, 2009: The Strong Man directed by Frank Capra, starring Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner, Gertrude Astor, and Arthur Thalasso.
This was shown on the big screen at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, NH, with live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is one of the people behind the program of silent films shown at the Palace and at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton NH. The film was preceded by two shorts (which I’m tempted to give their own blog entries, but let’s just do this):
- 1923’s It’s a Gift with Snub Pollard – Pollard is an inventor called upon by oil executives to help them out with their oil problems. There are some good bits about Pollard’s Rube Goldberg lifestyle, and you’ve probably seen clips from this film where he travels around in his little cart pointing a magnet at passing cars to achieve locomotion.
1926’s Circus Today with Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde – 20 minutes of pretty funny antics at a circus with two men, a woman, and a lion – all of whom end up inside a cabin suspended by a hot air balloon.
As to the main feature (which was, by the way, Frank Capra’s directorial debut): Paul Bergot (played by Harry Langdon) is a Belgian soldier in WWI who receives love letters on the battlefield from Mary Brown (Bonner) of the US. All that Bergot knows of her is from her letters and the one picture he clings to. He’s captured by a German soldier (Thalasso) and, at war’s end, becomes the assistant of the German, a strongman who goes by the name of Zandow the Great – both ending up in the US. Most of the rest of the film concerns Bergot’s efforts to locate Mary Brown while performing with Zandow. The quest begins in the city, where Bergot is hilariously involved with a woman with criminal associations. It ends up in a frontier town that has been taken over by gangsters, to the dismay of the town’s religous community led by Pastor Brown (whom, you may have guessed, is Mary’s father). There’s a wild confrontation between all factions, with Bergot on the stage subbing for drunken Zandow, the gang of criminals in the audience, and the holy townspeople making the last of 7 days’ marches around the saloon whereafter they hope, as with Jericho, the walls will come tumbling down.
Harry Langdon was one of the bright comedy stars of the 20s, but by most accounts he didn’t understand the degree to which outside direction and help from others led to his success, and he made choices that almost instantly wiped out his career. It’s a shame, because he was one funny guy, with a style all his own, and he could have left a much fuller legacy. In this film he displays a gentleness of motion, a meek stubbornness, and comic athleticism that is extremely entertaining. There’s never a dull moment in this movie, and I’d love to see it again.