Thursday, 30 October 2014

Harry walks the walk… Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)

Growing up with my first exposure to silent film from Bob Monkhouse’s Mad Movies show –  a weekly home movie show for the comedian who was never more sincere than when discussing these films  – I was always aware that there was a fourth member of the top tier of silent comedians: a second Harry and one who had his own distinct proposition.*

Harry Langdon was the baby-faced hero who had a mix of Keaton’s stoicisim, Lloyd’s optimism and Chaplin’s  trousers… Langdon had his own pace though and one quite different from the rest… Timing, as we all know, is the essence of “funny” and all the comedy acts had to have it. A daft thing happens, they look into camera, at each other, into the middle distance… and then the after-effect: a fall, a slap, a hit with a brick or nothing at all… Laughter comes out of the silver shadows and the audience response is entirely down to the skills of the performer: the difference between comic or not being a complex equation involving motion, emotion and empathy.

Harry's poster girl
Harry Langdon had been around the block coming up through vaudeville and only started his film career in the early 1920’s (well into his thirties) when he signed with Mac Sennett. He really hit his stride mid-decade with a succession of feature-length comedies including Frank Capra’s The Strong Man and this film directed by Harry Edwards.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp sees Harry as the son of a one-shop shoe-maker (Alec B Francis) who is on the brink of being driven out of business by bigger, more ruthless competitors. He needs $25,000 and has only a few weeks to get it and a son high on romantic ideals but low in useful application. The scene is set almost instantly: how will this drowsy-eyed, soft-lad ever come to the rescue?

Father seeks help from son...
There’s an almost indecent haste about a narrative that is very tightly wound around its central characters – just an excuse to set up situations for the star to act and react. Harry is revealed to be in love with the poster girl for the crushing competition, Burton Shoes, she is Betty  Burton (Joan Crawford) who just happens to be the daughter of their CEO John Burton (Edwards Davis)…  He stares longingly at her image on massive billboards that dominate the landscape as they dominate his father’s business and doesn’t seem to resent her association with his family’s imminent financial ruin.

When shoe-makers collide: Logan vs Burton
But maybe that’s it about Harry’s persona, he’s haplessly in love and we all know that in spite of the practicalities of everyday human emotional response, he’ll stay true to her and to us and that, somehow, all will be well. He’s not just a baby-face but a virtual child who the audience can trust to stay lucky in a world very similar to the one they inhabit. Tonight, just for an hour, we can achieve something just by being ourselves and trusting in love and good fortune…

Tom Murray
Not that things will be easy for Harry. His father’s landlord is a mean man called Nick Kargas (Tom Murray) who also happens to be a world champion distance walker. Big Boss Burton just happens to set up a cross-country walking race with a winner’s prize of $25,000 which Nick is clear favourite to win. It’s exactly the amount Harry needs to save his father’s shop and yet he stumbles into the competition through his disorientated affection for Betty. There’s no plan and even his determination in proclaiming that he’ll get the money fades almost the instant he steps outside and doesn’t know which way to turn….

Betty decides Harry can compete...
Carrying Nasty Nick’s bags to the event, Harry is mistaken for the athlete before being dragged into the competition: we know he’s going to win it but we’ve no idea how – he hasn’t Buster’s hidden strength or Chaplin’s doggedness but he has a disorganised courage that will rise to any occasion. So bring on the prancing walkers all six foot tall, better equipped and experienced: they haven’t got a chance and we know it.

Staring up at her picture – when, frankly, he should be making plans – he is amazed to find Betty right behind him. Incredibly there’s an instant bond between the two and a short-hand romance that takes flight with a glance, a trip and the kindest of words. Almost as if the audience need to be reassured about the love story before Harry can really set about the business of comedy…

Girl looks at boy looking at girl
Through the next 50 minutes Harry is left hanging from a fence hundreds of feet in the air, locked up on a chain gang after stealing fruit, dragged behind a train for 40 miles and goes one on one against a cyclone. Harry takes everything is taken in his stride and Betty pops up at every staging post to remind us of his additional rewards should he win.

His father follows events by means of newsreels at his local picture house – a reminder of how much cinema was plugged into people’s lives by this point: never mind the rolling news broadcasts, the people of the twenties had picture news.

Events proceed as you’d expect and the ending coda shows Betty and Harry married and secure with a new baby who, naturally, looks very much like his dad… they couldn’t resist: who needs a baby when you have Baby Face?

It’s in that odd face where Langdon’s secret lies: he never tires and bumbles through in a freeform way until finally faced with the impossible, he triumphs be it a cyclone or a big bully of a champion-walker-landlord! We should all be so lucky.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is available on a Kino DVD along with two other features: excellent value and a reminder of Landgon’s high-point. He may not have had the longevity of The Crucial Three but he had the hilarity.

*Probably best to reclassify these players as comedic romantic leads… and Roscoe Arbuckle is certainly up there with Mabel Normand too… 

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