Directed by Harry Langdon
Starring: Harry Langdon;Gladys McConnell; Cornelius Keefe; George Dunning
Three’s a Crowd (1927)
Harry Langdon’s comedy is an acquired taste, requiring patience and attention, which is generally paid off with huge laughs. Unfortunately Langdon’ directorial debut, Three’s a Crowd, will win over no new converts. Timing is one of the most important elements in comedy, and as a comedian, Harry Langdon was a genius at exploiting our expectations, elongating a reaction, stretching the time, to provide his truly unique humor. As a director, Langdon basically nullifies many of his comedic achievements by holding shots too long and for no reason, essentially reducing the motion picture to a photograph. Three’s a Crowd contains very few inspired comedic sequences, but Langdon tries too hard to emulate Chaplin’s penchant for pathos, and renders a film short on comedy and frustratingly empty.
Langdon plays a lonely slum-dweller, his hovel sitting atop an incalculable number of stairs. Working as a truck loader, he can’t help but witness his boss with his family, and longs for a wife and child of his own. On his roof, shoveling off the latest snow, he discovers a woman (Gladys McConnell) sleeping in a snow drift. He picks her up and gently carries her up the staircase into his hovel. Spying a pair of booties, Harry realizes that the woman is pregnant, and he immediately enlists the help of his female neighbors, who readily come to her aid, as Harry rushes off for a doctor, or five. Waiting outside, Harry has his arms full of children toys, anxiously awaiting the birth of the baby. Meanwhile, the child’s father (Cornelius Keefe) hires a detective to find his girlfriend. Harry, holding the new born babe in his arms, dreams about the child’s real father arriving, and in the dream, the two end up in a boxing match. When Harry awakes, his worst dreams comes true, for the Girl and the Man have indeed reunited, and Harry is once again left alone…
First and foremost, calling Three’s a Crowd a comedy, let alone a slapstick comedy is a mistake. Sure, there are comedic sequences, but they are few and far between and one might argue that comedy wasn’t what Harry Langdon was after when making Three’s a Crowd. If it was, he miscalculated. Like Keaton’ s The General, which contains more action and drama than comedy, or more closely, Chaplin’s The Kid, which is rife with melodrama, pathos and then comedy, Three’s a Crowd is an unrelenting study in melancholy, punctuated by some inspired comedy, sure; but by no means could one construe Three’s a Crowd a outright comedy. For one thing, there’s very few laughs.
Langdon took a huge risk in this, his directorial debut. Gone are any real set-pieces, (unless one can construe the muddle that is his dream as a set-piece, which is hard to fathom); gone too is a happy ending,or any ending at all. Oddly, Harry’s character is gone, too, for in Three’s a Crowd Harry all but dares you to laugh at, and not with him. It’s as if Langdon himself hates Harry the character. Otherwise, what’s the story mean?
Film historian David Kalat gave a tremendous commentary track for Langdon’s first filmed feature, His First Flame (found on the All Day Entertainment and Lobster Film’s set, The Harry Langdon Collection: Lost and Found) and he does the same for Three’s a Crowd, offering not only a defense of the film, but goes so far as to claim Three’s a Crowd a misunderstood masterpiece. Oooh, boy….
Kalat does a great job in relating what historians, and worse, Langdon contemporaries (like gagman and later director Frank Capra, let alone Mack Sennett) have done to basically distort Langdon’s career at his expense, and to their benefit. While that is no doubt true, and fascinating, Kalat rarely references the “masterpiece” at hand. His defense sometimes comes at the expense of the other great Silent film comedians, noting that Keaton’s The General and Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, both made the same year as Three’s a Crowd (1927), were also flops, but now considered masterpieces. Kalat goes so far as to include Chaplin’s The Circus, even citing from David Robinson’s biography how Chaplin didn’t bother to even refer to the film in his own autobiography. The fact that The Circus was made, despite a fire and a prolonged and nasty divorce, is suspiciously absent from Kalat’s analysis, which is essentially what Capra and Sennett did to Langdon in their writings.
The fact is, Three’s a Crowd is not a masterpiece. It’s not terrible, by any means, and there is much to recommend, but Langdon’s direction and the film’s “plot” don’t even come close to masterpiece status. Even the few simple gags, director Langdon shoots to achieve the least amount of laughs. Finally showing up to work, the coffee break whistle sounds, and Harry grabs his lunch pale. From an overhead shot, we see him opening the pale, inside is a steaming cup of coffee. It’s a humorous shot, but had Langdon shot the scene straight, with the joke being revealed as he lifts the full steaming cup of coffee from the pale, the joke would have paid off much better.
While the merits of camera placement for the coffee shot is debatable, the entire pregnant girl leaving her boyfriend plot point rings entirely false. A simple note is all the explanation we get for her leaving. She writes that he “…lost everything you dear through your dissipation…” and she “cannot put up with this life any longer.” In his commentary, Kalat claims that the Man is a drunkard and perhaps is even abusing the woman. Nowhere does Langdon show this, nor even imply this, and it’s a crucial plot element. Otherwise we are left with what we actually have; a woman, moments away from giving birth, leaving her boyfriend with little reason and nowhere to go, finally camping out (or collapsing, Langdon doesn’t show any of that either), in the snow bank for Harry to find. It’s obvious that Langdon wants us to feel sympathy for this woman, but, especially when we find out that she is in the last stages of her pregnancy, and yet decided to risk not only her life but that of her unborn, all of our natural impulses for sympathy are gone. Langdon could have easily rectified this by showing the man’s drunken abuse, but we see none of that and it remains unclear that that was even his problem (it’s what Kalat says is his problem, but the note is decidedly unclear.) Without this motivation for leaving, the Girl looses are sympathy, plain and simple. And that’s Langdon the director’s fault. And it’s a very big component of the film’s success, for if we have little or no sympathy for the Woman, why would we want Harry to get involved with her?
Which brings us to another of Langdon’s problems. He never establishes a love between Harry and the Girl, on either end. It’s just not there. We see that Harry is happy about the baby’s birth, and he is obviously happy about having company, the family he longed for, but Harry would be happy with any family. He doesn’t love the Girl (she doesn’t even have a name), he loves having the Girl–any Girl–as part of his family. For her part, there’s certainly no love lost for Harry when her Man shows up and whisks her away. (Which is another of the film’s flaws, the Girl, so terrified of the Man that she would leave when about to give birth, simply goes back to him when he shows up and grins his goofy grin. This is not what masterpieces are made of.)
While I maintain Three’s a Crowd isn’t exactly a comedy, Langdon does provide a few laughs. The entire opening sequence, in which Harry can’t wake up from his night’s sleep, despite his alarm clock and his boss yelling at him through the window, is Langdon at his pure minimalist best. The sequence goes on an on, and the time Langdon takes makes the scene funnier then it really should be. That’s where Langdon’s genius was; he made standing perfectly still a comedic art form. But sometimes the long gag just doesn’t work. There’s a long sequence towards the film’s ending, when Harry pulls in a diaper from the clothes line. It is frozen from being outside, and Harry takes his sweet time in trying to soften the diaper up. Somehow, the diaper ends up being a peach pie (!) with the payoff being that Harry simply puts the pie in the make-shift oven (getting a short blast of flame to his keester as a punctuation). While I enjoyed the insanity of the gag, and even laughed at the lack of its ending, Harry was certainly pushing the limits of my patience.
The dream sequence is perhaps the most notable in the film, but it really lacks much humor at all. Harry gets into a boxing ring with the Man, and Harry wears one enormously oversized boxing glove; but it is used to little effect (although the visual alone is funny enough). Director Langdon provides no sufficient “in” to the dream sequence and absolutely nothing coming out from it. In fact, as Harry continues to dream, director Langdon simply cuts to the reality of the Man finding Harry’s house, and peering through his window. This is quite jarring and renders Harry’s dream sequence as inconsequential.
After the Man and the Woman leave, Harry chases after them, a lit candle in his hand. Harry is at the end of a snow covered street, and from the other end of the street, director Langdon shoots, capturing the darkness of the situation and the total solitude of Harry. Harry blows out his candle, and it, as well as all of the street lights, extinguish at the same time. The sequence rivals any the sentimental scenes from a Chaplin movie, but because there is no real bond between Harry and the Girl, the sentiment is unearned. It’s a beautiful shot, but, again, it’s ultimately empty.
The final bit of business, where Harry threatens to throw a brick through the Fortune Teller’s window, and then doesn’t, but still might…is Langdon comedy at its best. But it’s too little too late.
Three’s a Crowd is available on DVD from Kino Video and is paired with The Chaser. The black and white print is rich in detail and contrast, but has some substantial nitrate decomposition in at least two sequences, one of which is difficult to tell exactly what is going on. The organ score by Lee Erwin leaves much to be desired. There are musical missed opportunities that would have helped make the comedy work better. The opening segment, where Harry refuses to get up despite his alarm clock ringing, simply begs for that alarm clock sound (or an organ player’s facsimile thereof), and then augmenting that with the barking from his boss at the window. Erwin, instead, essentially provides background music. Too bad, Three’s a Crowd could have used the help.
Kevin M. Wentink