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Strong Man, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A strong, if lesser-known, effort."
4 stars

When a modern film lover stumbles across "The Strong Man", it is almost certainly as an early work of Frank Capra, with something between mild surprise and retroactive retroactive acknowledgment that his career extends back to the silent era. At the time, it would have been different, with Capra a relatively anonymous name directing the new one from top-five comedian Harry Langdon. Today, Langdon is all but forgotten, but the film itself is nifty to see, an entertaining and representative example of a body of work, no matter what direction you approach it from.

It starts during The Great War (in 1926, there would not yet be a reason to attach a Roman numeral), where Belgian infantryman Paul Bergot (Langdon) is kept going by letters from American pen-pal Mary Brown, although his defense of his position against a hulking German officer is more luck than skill. After the war, the pair come to America together, with Paul an assistant to strongman "Zandow the Great" (Arthur Thalasso), with Paul not quite realizing that his beloved has a very common name. After a few misadventures is New York City, the pair land a gig upstate, where the Prohibition-era "social club" that booked them is opposed by the abutting church's pastor "Holy Joe" (William V. Mong) and his pretty (but blind) daughter (Priscilla Bonner).

No points will be awarded to audience viewers who guess where this is going in the long or short term; Capra and the various writers tread paths that, even in the mid-twenties, were probably fairly predictable. That's okay, though; the material is in both Langdon's and Capra's wheelhouses. It's maybe not necessarily a natural mix - though his collaboration with Capra marked Langdon's greatest commercial successes - but Langdon's somewhat passive brand of physical comedy and Capra's fondness for moral crusaders who succeed in part because most people are decent (along with the belief that the Universe favors justice over the long term) kind of reinforce each other - things don't work out entirely without effort or setbacks, but there's a certain joy to the serendipity that drives both.

And while it is true that Langdon's range as a comedian often seemed to be from blankness to resignation (introducing the movie, the projectionist rattled off how Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd would react to a situation before asserting that Langdon "would do nothing"), that can be harder than it looks - plenty of non-reactive comics are not funny at all - and misses how Langdon does manage to create a character amid the signature moves and blank stares. His understated performance actually make for a more natural chemistry with Priscilla Bonner than, say, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd sometimes had with their on-screen love interests. Bonner may not be particularly subtle in how she depicts blindness and untainted goodness, but she finds a good midpoint between Langdon and the more scenery-chewing supporting cast.

And though one may talk about Langdon in terms of befuddled reaction shots, The Strong Man is actually a movie that goes for great guffaws rather than chuckles or smirks. The opening act may be kind of bizarre, but it's got quite a few very funny moments. The midsection is kind of uneven, with some of the jokes and plot points not exactly aging well either, but there are enough genuinely funny and still clearly risqué bits to keep the movie going. And while Langdon was not quite the master slapstick engineer that Jason or Lloyd was, the climax is big, enjoyably destructive, and satisfying in how it visits chaos on deserving victims.

Old movies terms to wax and wane in prominence, and Harry Langdon's seem to have dropped down a peg since Harold Lloyd's catalog was reissued about ten years ago. That doesn't make the movie itself any less funny. It's fun to check out, though, for either of the ways its an intriguing part of cinema history.

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originally posted: 12/16/14 14:18:08
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  DVD: 28-Nov-2000



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