Books on silent stars Turpin, langdon an example of small-press thoroughness

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:50 PM

Doug Gibson

Silent film comedy stars Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin inhabit the middle tier of fame. They’re not among the silents’ A-list — Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd — but they’re above Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, Larry Semon and a host of others. Turpin, by virtue of his crossed-eyes, is an iconic character, even if many who recognize the face can’t place the name. Langdon, who rivaled Chaplin in his ability to produce emotion, pathos and laughs with a mere shifting of his eyes, was directed by Frank Capra, and co-starred with a very young Joan Crawford in his salad days.

There are two biographies, one recent, one new, that detail the careers and lives of Langdon and Turpin in loving detail. Both are products of the genre-intensive small press, where several hundred-page biographies and analyses are read by devoted genre fans and historians, who love the minutia, look for new historical nuggets, and spot clues toward new information. “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon,” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, 2012, Bear Manor Media, Duncan, Okla., and “For Art’s Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin,” by Steve Rydzewski, 2013, also Bear Manor Media, ( examples of the genre. They are labors of love, intensely interesting for any reader, and intensely satisfying for fans. The books are thick, overflowing with information, and rather expensive due to their small press runs, although Kindle editions are much cheaper.

“Little Elf ...” provides a detailed overview of Langdon’s rise to stardom. Before entering films prior to his 40th birthday, Langdon, and his first wife Rose, had achieved major stardom in Vaudeville. One of his most successful acts was called “Johnny’s New Car,” among other titles. Langdon and his wife also performed in Ogden, as a May 18, 1917 clipping from the Ogden Standard shows, although the writer, shame on him or her, spelled Langdon as Langton! When he made his move to movie stardom, the authors note that it wasn’t as a slapstick expert. Langdon, created a “Little Elf” persona, a small, mild but persistent gentle soul, who conveyed his sentiments, emotions, goals and desires often through facial expressions.

Mack Sennett’s comedy shorts made Langdon a star. Audiences loved him. He quickly moved to features, signing a deal with First National. His first two films, “The Strong Man” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” were successful. But then he peaked. The final four features lost money, and Langdon was dumped by First National. During this chaotic rise and fall, his 20-year-plus year marriage ended.

The best part of Harter and Hayde’s biography details Langdon’s determination to stay active in the film industry through the early years of the talkies era. Langdon was often broke, a bad second marriage exacerbated that problem, and there were short periods when film work dried up. But Langdon always was working and traveling. In fact, as the authors detail his career it becomes apparent he was more successful in adapting to the post-silent era than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. He made dozens of talkies shorts, for both Hal Roach’s company, Educational Pictures and Columbia’s short films factory, best known for the Three Stooges. He had featured roles in big-budget films, including “Hallellujah! I’m a Bum” and “Xenobia.”He was a gag man writer for other comedians, notably Laurel & Hardy.

He was active on the stage, toured Australia, and worked in Europe. Late in his career, he starred in a few low-budget features. When his life ended abruptly at age 60, Langdon was living well with a successful marriage, steady work and a son he loved.

“For Art’s Sake” details well the life of Ben Turpin, who was literally the pioneer of silent slapstick comedy. Born in 1869, his father operated candy stores and Turpin later incorporated that into a pulling taffy act. As a young adult, Turpin spent several years tramping, riding the rails across the country in between carnival gigs and other odd jobs. He finally settled down with his second wife, Carrie, and became a moderate success in Vaudeville, mainly with a “Happy Hooligan” act. It was at that time, Rydzewski notes, that too much rehearsal of the role permanently crossed his eyes.

Turpin entered slapstick comedy at its infancy, when scripts were not considered important and film work was far less prestigious than stage. Working with the pioneer company Essanay, based in Chicago, he earned very low wages. As Rydzewski notes, his luck would change. Cinema star Charles Chaplin, who noted Turpin’s talent, helped hopscotch Turpin’s career upward. Eventually, Turpin became a long-lasting star of Sennett’s comedy shorts, earning as much as $3,500 a week.

There was little ego in Turpin, which is a contrast to Langdon. Perhaps it was the long history of his combination acting/handyman roles in early-early cinema. Or the ribbing and abuse he suffered from film folks, including co-stars, as he slowly worked his way to the top.

Or it may have been his love and devotion for his wife, Carrie. As her health slowly failed in the 1920s, Turpin often suspended his career to care for her. Devout Catholics, they traveled seeking miracles. The 1920s entertainment press covered this drama as intently as they likely would cover a star’s travails today. Several articles detailing Carrie’s illness are included in the biography.

In fact, except for Turpin’s early years, which do not have an abundance of press or news releases, much of “For Art’s Sake” covers Turpin’s life through news articles, columns penned by Ben, and company press releases. Although unorthodox, it soon becomes riveting reading and Rydzewski’s long hours of painstaking research to compile this official record deserves to be acknowledged.

I should note that Harter and Hayde have done a similarly thorough research job on Langdon’s biography. For example, the second half of an already detailed biography is a list of films with cast and crew, synopses, analyses, press reviews and even comments from theater managers.

After the death of Carrie, Turpin remarried. (A photo of him with new wife, Babette, ran in the July 15, 1926 Ogden Standard). He resumed his film career but once the silent era ended, Turpin was rarely seen in talkies, although he stayed active on the stage. Well off financially in his late years and happy with his third wife, he died in 1940 at age 70.

Two silent comedy greats; one was Langdon, for his subtle comedy, and the other, Turpin, was known for physical comedy. Both died before the era of television, which hampers their recognition even today.

But they were masters of their craft, and we’re fortunate to have two superior chronicles of their lives.

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