by Floyd C. Bennett
Blurred by time and blotched by Hollywood myth-making, the general outlines of comedy superstar Harry Langdon's life may seem all too familiar: widely acclaimed as a vaudeville headliner, he met with near-instant success in Hollywood, only to fall from the pinnacle of stardom just before the advent of talkies; for the rest of his life he slogged along through lesser films and roles, a trouper to the end.
Up to a point, Langdon's story sounds like that of many other Silent Era movie idols - say, for instance, Buster Keaton's. Harry and Buster, although they are commonly regarded as primarily silent comedians, both appeared in many more talking films than silents. Both angered Hollywood's mighty and suffered the consequences. And both came close to being forgotten. Here, the parallels cease: Buster lived long enough to be rediscovered by a new audience, escaping obscurity. Like a fairytale prince under a spell, awaiting the kiss of wakefulness, Harry still waits for his time to come round again.
Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Harry Langdon was never the poverty-stricken waif of legend. A self-employed painter, Harry's dad, William Worley Langdon, kept food on the table and a roof over the heads of his fair-sized family for nearly 40 years. If young Harry sold newspapers on the streets of metropolitan Omaha as a boy, it wasn't because he had to help support his family. It was to see the shows in that city's substantial theater district, and to earn money for staging his own neighborhood dramatic productions.
Lavinia Langdon, Harry's mother, worked on behalf of the Salvation Army when she wasn't tending to children and keeping up the house - but if she was ever, as some have claimed, a "Salvation Army officer," her descendants have yet to locate the records that would prove it. Mrs. Langdon probably had her hands full with Harry, who seems to have been stage-struck from the get-go. According to published stories, young Harry burned his father's celluloid collars to generate smoke for a stage locomotive; at his mother's insistence, he donned girl's clothes when the minstrel troupes came to town, lest he run off and join them; and he dragged home an endless succession of clocks and other prizes won in amateur contests in the local theaters.
Eventually, Mrs. Langdon's fears were realized. Still at a tender age - most likely in his early teens, though accounts vary - Harry ran away from home to join Dr. Belcher's Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show. He returned home a few months later, but he'd established his independence. Over the next few years, Langdon left his parents' home repeatedly, joining up with the Gus Sun Minstrels and various medicine shows and small circuses. The boy played many parts - blackface minstrel, lightning sketch artist, gymnast, trapeze artist, musician. For a while, he did a hair-raising balancing act, rocking back and forth on a stack of chairs and bottles.
In 1903, Harry married Rose Musolff, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rose, too, was a performer, and Harry soon came up with an act they could do together. A persistent misconception about the Langdons' vaudeville career is that they always did the same routine, a one-gag trick-car act. But over the two decades they spent performing, often in the country's most prestigious variety houses, Harry and Rose did a great deal more than simply repeat "Johnny's New Car" ad nauseam. In 1907-08, Harry was doing his own interpretation of the Yankee Doodle Dandy boy made famous in George M. Cohan's "Little Johnny Jones." Rose, billed as "The Show Girl," would perform solo, warbling to the crowds; she's credited by some with popularizing the song, "In My Merry Oldsmobile" (ca. 1905).
Even the car act was always changing: sometimes they had one car on stage, other times as many as three; sometimes Harry and Rose performed alone, but on other occasions Harry's younger brother Tully, or one of Rose's relations, would join them. Billed as "A Night on the Boulevard" in 1906 (and already an ambitious, full-stage production), the act evolved into "Johnny's New Car" through the teens and ended up, in the 1920s, as one element of a three-part act called "After the Ball." In every way, the Langdons' act was consistent with vaude's other name, "variety." (Harry also played in a Broadway musical called "Jim Jam Jems.")