The Strong Man (1926)

Film Review

THE STRONG MAN

Release Date: 19 September 1926

Studio: Harry Langdon Corporation

Director: Frank Capra

Stars: Harry Langdon, Pricilla Bonner, Gertrude Astor, William V. Mong, Robert McKim, Arthur Thalassa

Writers: Arthur Ripley, story; Hal Conklin, Robert Eddy, adaptation; Reed Heustis, titles

Cameramen: Glenn (Paul) Kershner, Elgin Lesley

Synopsis

During World War I, Paul Bergot (Langdon), a mild-mannered soldier of Belgium, receives letters from American Mary Brown. Days before the end of the war, Paul is captured by a huge German soldier (Thalasso). After the war, Paul and the German, known as “Zandow the Great”, immigrate to America. Zandow has a Strong Man act, and Paul is his assistant.

In every city they visit, Paul searches for Mary Brown. In one city, “Gold Tooth” Lily (Astor), the girlfriend of a thief and drug dealer, sees a policeman approaching and slips a packet of drugs into Paul’s coat pocket. The drugs fall through a hole into the lining of his coat. Lily tries to retrieve the drugs, and innocent Paul asks her if she is Mary Brown. Lily replies affirmatively, and Paul gets in a taxi with her to go to her apartment. In the taxi, she tries to search him, and Paul decides that she is not his Mary Brown. He tries to escape from the cab. To get him to stay and go to her apartment, Lily pretends to faint on the street. Paul has to carry her inside. In the apartment, Lily chases a frightened Paul around the room. She finally catches him and gets the drugs out of his coat. She gives Paul the key, and he rushes out of the apartment. Next door, a plaque denotes the studio of a sculptress named Mary Brown. Inside, a nude model is posing for a statue. Paul enters, sees the naked woman, and runs away in terror.

The scene shifts to the once peaceful town of Cloverdale; peaceful no more, the town has been taken over by gamblers and gangsters. The Reverend Brown (Mong) opposes them. Head gangster Mike McDevitt (McKim) threatens Brown, who does not frighten. The Reverend preaches that the walls of Jericho fell after Joshua’s Israelite army had marched around the city for seven days. Emulating Joshua’s method of attack, Brown leads his congregation through the streets. McDevitt laughs at the parson and threatens to seize his blind daughter, Mary Brown, and bring her into the gambling hall.

Zandow and Paul take a bus to Cloverdale. Paul has a cold; his sneezing and snuffling upset the other passengers. Paul, attempting to rub camphor on his chest, accidentally rubs on limburger cheese. He sniffs the limburger and proclaims that he smells. The passengers, agreeing that he smells, throw him off the bus onto a steep slope. He gains speed falling down the hill and crashes through the roof and back into the bus. In a cloud of dust and debris, Paul resumes his seat.

Upon arrival in Cloverdale, the passengers disembark rapidly. Zandow is greeted by McDevitt. He will perform in the gambling hall; the act concludes with Zandow being shot out of a cannon.

Walking around the town, Paul meets his Mary Brown (Bonner) and soon is gently courting her.

The night of the performance, Zandow gets drunk, and McDevitt demands that Paul perform in his place. Since he cannot lift the heavy weights, Paul tries various comic maneuvers to satisfy the crowd. They demand that he perform the cannon trick. Paul readies the cannon, although he is incapable of shooting himself out of it. Outside, the Reverend and his people are marching around the gambling den. One of the drunken gamblers shouts that they should bring Mary Brown into the gambling hall. Paul, angered at this insult to his Mary, fills the cannon with powder and fires at the gamblers. He continues shooting in all directions. As with ancient Jericho, the walls of the gambling den crumple and fall. All the gangsters and gamblers run away. Cloverdale is peaceful once again.

Paul becomes town constable, and Mary assists him.

Discussion

Lots of gags, plenty of slapstick, and a rough and tumble finale make this film a comic gem, amusing and appealing, although not laugh out loud funny. The comedy is based on Langdon’s unique persona, whimsical and innocent, with an inherent quality of poignancy and coy restraint. A feeble smile and owlish blink, accentuated by chubby jowls and wide eyes, give his rather sad-looking face a look of perpetual bewilderment. His body movements are also distinctive: he walks with a bouncing motion and moves his hands and arms in jerky and repetitive gestures.

The plot centers on Harry’s quest for his love, the girl of his dreams. Most women reject his timid, but persistent, approach as he searches for Mary Brown. Harry, modest and inexperienced, fears an aggressive woman, Lily, and flees the sight of a posing nude. Only the sweet and understanding heroine responds unreservedly to Harry’s unassuming personality and gentle wooing. His life settles into contentment once he has found the woman for him. Tramp, Tramp,Tramp (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon’s other major films, also focus on Harry’s quest for the woman of his dreams.

Trusting and accepting, Harry’s distinctive persona separates him mentally and socially from most other people. People respond to his perceived foolish behavior with either amused tolerance or annoyed rejection. During the bus scene, Harry does not realize that the passengers are irritated by his coughing and sneezing and angered after he rubs the smelly cheese all over his chest. He is unaware that he has disturbed them.

When villains threaten Harry, he never quite understands the threat; however, if provoked, he can become aggressive and fight back. Harry’s perseverance leads to the triumph of his innocence and goodness.

Langdon came to films late in his career which had begun in 1896 at age 12 with an appearance in amateur vaudeville. He had played carnivals, circuses, and tent shows and had been a small time performer in vaudeville for many years before making his screen debut in 1924 (at age 40) in a Mack Sennett two reel comedy. His comedies with Sennett were funny and much appreciated by audiences. After two years with Sennett, his success led to a contract, at a substantial salary, with First National Pictures for feature films. Langdon acted as his own producer. His first feature Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, (released in March 1926, directed by Harry Edwards, with Joan Crawford in an early role), was followed by The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), both directed by Frank Capra. The success of these films in establishing Langdon’s distinctive comic style gave him a reputation as one of the best comedians in Hollywood.

After Long Pants (1927), Langdon, who, according to Capra, wanted more pathos in the style of Chaplin, assumed the director’s chair on his films; unfortunately, his attempts to direct himself turned out badly. His first two productions, Three’s a Crowd (1927) and The Chaser (1928) were panned by critics and ignored by the public. The anonymous Variety reviewer of Heart Trouble (1928), Langdon’s third, and final, feature, calls it the best film of the few Langdon had directed in the past two years. In comparing films, the reviewer summarized the factors that had led to Langdon’s decline: “The comic does less of the emoting he gave way to in his last two. He abandons to a great extent his ambition to be the complex of a tragedienne and a comedian. Heart Trouble is more compact, and the story is more actionful.” The reviewer also noted that the film had an unsung opening in New York probably due to a lack of interest by the distributor, First National Pictures.

By the middle of 1928 Langdon was dropped by First National. His position with the distribution company was conditional on producing box-office successes. Langdon, who had risen as the proverbial meteor, fell as quickly.

In 1929, Langdon signed with Hal Roach Studios and returned to making two reelers. Through the thirties, Langdon starred in low budget shorts for several studios, including Educational Films Corporation of America, Paramount Pictures, and Columbia Pictures. He had relatively small roles in a few feature films, including Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), My Weakness (1933), and Atlantic Adventure (1935). He toured Europe with his stage show. In 1939, Langdon had a supporting role in Zenobia, a comedy starring Oliver Hardy (appearing solo). Langdon did not act with Hardy (with or without Laurel) again, but he wrote gags for several of their subsequent films. He was still making shorts when he suffered a heart attack in December 1944 and died at age 60.

The Strong Man was the directorial debut of Frank Capra. Capra’s career began in 1922 at a small production company, Fireside Productions, in San Francisco. At this small company, Capra learned the fundamentals of filmmaking. He soon moved to Hollywood where he worked as a prop man, film cutter, and gag writer. At the Hal Roach Studio, he wrote for the Our Gang comedies. At Mack Sennett Comedies, 1924-1926, Capra was a gag writer for Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan, Ralph Graves, and Harry Langdon. Capra was a writer on Langdon’s first feature, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), under Langdon’s contract with First National Pictures. He directed Langdon’s next two features, The Strong Man and Long Pants, critical and public successes. Capra and Langdon had disagreements during the production of Long Pants, and the film was not as financially successful as The Strong Man. For his next film, Langdon assumed direction, dismissing Capra. Capra joined Columbia Picture Studios where, in a few years, he was winning Academy Awards and becoming one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood.

The Strong Man is included in our list of Best Films of 1921-1930.

References

Langdon Out at FN. Variety. April 3, 1928

Heart Trouble. Variety. October 10, 1928

Harry Langdon, 60, Screen Comedian. The New York Times. December 23, 1944

The Name Above the Title, An Autobiography. Frank Capra. The Macmillan Company. 1971

The Complete Films of Frank Capra. Victor Scherle and William Turner Levy. Carol Publishing Group, New York, NY. 1992