Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Strong Man

The Strong Man (1926)

The Strong Man lobby card

The Story
Paul Bergot (Harry Langdon) met Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner) while he was serving in World War I. The two became pen pals and quickly became enamored of each other.

Scene from The Strong Man
Paul in Belgium
When the war ends and Bergot comes to the United States with his captor/vaudeville partner, Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso), he makes it his mission to find the beautiful, kind, and sweet Mary. With only a photo to guide him, Paul searches the streets of New York, searching for his beloved. Along the way he is duped by crooked Lily (Gertrude Astor), who poses as Mary only to steal his money.

Scene from The Strong Man
In the clutches of Lily
When he finally escapes from Lily’s apartment -- after a hilarious sequence of attempting to get her into the apartment while attempting to keep his honor -- Paul meets up with Zandow and their vaudeville strong man act leads them to Mary Brown’s hometown. It had been a quiet little town, but it quickly became a spot for seedy folks and loose women, despite the best efforts of Mary’s father, Parson Joe Brown (William V. Mong).

In a beautiful little sequence (which I will explain in greater detail in the second section of this post), Paul realizes Mary is just feet away from him, in the backyard of the church. He finds her, introduces himself and, much to his surprise and Mary’s dismay, Paul realizes the secret Mary has been keeping -- she is blind. After an emotional encounter, the two slowly become comfortable and at ease with each other, picking up with their affection immediately where their letters had let off.

Scene from The Strong Man
Paul and Mary's love for one another is reaffirmed
Unfortunately, Zandow is incapacitated, forcing Paul to go on in his place. In a climax that involves Paul’s strong man act helping drive the lawless crowd out of town, returning the tiny town into a peaceful oasis with the lovable Paul keeping a watchful eye on things with Mary by his side.

Scene from The Strong Man
Harry Langdon
Harry Langdon
At the time that this film was released, Langdon was on the same level as Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. He was considered the fourth comedic genius of the silent screen and brought a slightly different style to the screen. His appearance was easily distinguishable from his comedic counterparts. Played up were Langdon’s baby features: his baby face; his large, innocent eyes; his Cupid’s bow lips. His soft features added much to his innocent, child-like persona, and added an extra something to his performance and his comedy. Similar to the persona Stan Laurel would adopt, Langdon was, for the most part, the innocent child. He wasn’t dumb, just naive and unassuming.

Unfortunately, the introduction of sound, the exit of visually-dependant comedy, and the loss of contributors, like Frank Capra, contributed to the downfall of Langdon. As a result, few writers dedicate more than a few paragraphs to Langdon, but just as Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd had their good and poor films, so too did Langdon. And when they were good, were they ever good.

The Strong Man
That said, ‘good’ doesn’t even begin to describe “The Strong Man.” The combination of Frank Capra and Harry Langdon is brilliant beyond words. Of course, Capra would go on to have a long and distinguished career of his own as a writer and director. Films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” are all considered classics and rightly so. While they each encapsulate the period in which they were made, they also encapsulate all periods of time and say something about humanity as a whole. “The Strong Man” does not really embody the so-called Capra myth, but it does serve, in many ways, as a sign of what was to come for Capra.

Paul Bergot is an immigrant seeking the American dream, though he may not describe it as such. And Mary and Joe Brown embody traditional Americana. They are good, God-fearing people who simply want their town to be rid of the lawless ruffians who have taken over. Although it is ultimately Paul who causes the chaos that drives them out of town, Joe’s efforts as the pious pastor shouldn’t be overlooked. He is a lone man, standing up against lawlessness and corruption, not unlike Capra’s later heroes...

Scene from The Strong Man

(It is also fun to note that Holy Joe inspires his flock with the tale of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho, a metaphor that Capra would later employ in his classic screwball comedy “It Happened One Night.”)

Of course, Capra’s films have become classics, not only because of his directing, but because of the excellent actors that starred in them. Just as Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper brought a sweetness and sensitivity to their roles, so too did Langdon bring a sweetness and sensitivity to the character of Paul.

From the start, Paul endears himself to the audience. Whether it’s through poor target practice in no man’s land in Belgium, a pitiful sneezing and coughing fit that irritates his fellow passengers to no end, or his pure joy at seeing Mary in person, Langdon adds a lovableness to his comedic antics.

Perhaps Langdon’s finest moment, and Bonner’s finest moment for that matter, is the scene where Paul finally meets his Mary. His frenzied efforts to gather the courage and make himself presentable to the woman of his dreams, and his instantaneous transition to cool, calm, and collected is brilliant and utterly perfect. Upon seeing Mary, he coyly hints at his identity, and as his giddiness begins to bubble through, Mary begins to despair. As his identity is revealed and it seems that Paul can no longer contain his excitement, Mary completely falls apart, upset that the man she so deeply loved has discovered the secret she tried so hard to hide. So upset is she, that the yard she so easily maneuvered through before becomes unfamiliar to her. She loses track of her surroundings and stumbles until she can find a place to sit and rest and weep. Paul, meanwhile, has realized her state and is attempting to process it all before determining how he should react to it.
Scene from The Strong Man
Mary realizes Paul knows about her blindness
The scene is beautiful and is undoubtedly on par with a similar seen from Chaplin’s “City Lights.” Unlike “City Lights,” however, we are not left with an ambiguous ending. Instead, almost as soon as the scene fades out, it fades back in again, revealing Mary and Paul sitting next to each other with Mary wiping away tears...of laughter.

You can watch the scene below.

I love Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd, and yet, I have trouble picturing any of them playing this scene in quite the same way as Langdon. Priscilla Bonner plays Mary beautifully. Her sweetness and fragility are evident in his expressive face and we see her heart breaking before the first tear even falls.

Scene from The Strong Man
Fade in...to laughter
“The Strong Man” is a wonderful little film that combines humor and heart in a way that only Langdon and Capra could accomplish. I hope that, Langdon will not be forgotten even as silent films grow more and more removed from future generations.