So what was I doing watching this doomed venture? I have a biographical interest in film, and I've been interested in Langdon since Walter Kerr wrote about his rise and fall in The Silent Clowns, one of the best books of movie criticism ever written. Kerr's account of Three's A Crowd was damning, though he also described it as a near-masterpiece. It made me curious to see whether it was really a career-killing movie. But I must also confess that the real hook for me was the commentary track. I don't listen to commentaries often, but the big exception for me is the work of David Kalat. Along with being an expert on Dr. Mabuse, Kalat is a big booster of silent comedy. He put out a terrific DVD collection of Langdon shorts a few years ago, every one of which had a commentary track, provided by him or fellow Langdon fans. He is a passionate advocate of Langdon as a still-misunderstood genius whose comic sensibility may actually be better appreciated by modern audiences than it was in the Twenties. He is also a revisionist who challenges Kerr's interpretation of Langdon's career as well as self-serving dismissals of the comedian by his collaborators, most notably Frank Capra. So I definitely wanted to hear what Kalat had to say about Three's A Crowd, while the film would determine whether Kalat was full of it or not.
Kalat is most determined to refute the idea that Langdon "jumped the shark" with Three's A Crowd. The question is: did Langdon do something wrong, screw up his gimmick and alienate the fans of his earlier films? That's what Kerr claimed; he wrote that Langdon abandoned an ambiguity about whether his character was a mature adult or not. Capra made a similar claim; he accused Langdon of abandoning a story formula wherein his infantile innocent got by on sheer good luck, if not God's grace. Kalat dismisses Capra as a liar and claims that Kerr misunderstood Langdon because he lacked access to the comedian's complete canon. Kalat's revision is twofold. He argues that contemporary critics and audiences did not perceive that Langdon had gone too far, misunderstood his appeal, or abandoned a successful formula. More significantly, he demands that the box office failure of Three's A Crowd be understood in the context of a general decline of popularity for slapstick comedy circa 1927. Keaton and Lloyd had box office disappointments (The General and The Kid Brother) that year, while Chaplin's The Circus failed to top The Gold Rush with moviegoers or critics. Langdon didn't recover from the failure of Three's A Crowd, Kalat suggests, because he was the least established of the major comedians, and thus the first to be dropped during a loss of interest in slapstick. But his box-office failure doesn't prove that Three's A Crowd was a wrong turn. What, then, does the film prove?
According to Kalat, Langdon's directorial debut is the culmination of his own theories of comedy and the ultimate statement of his comic persona. For Kalat, Langdon's is the comedy of futility and slowness bordering on stasis. The Langdon character is slow-witted and slow in motion; the slowness originally set him apart from his frenetic peers, and goes back to Langdon's days as a vaudeville star. There's a link between his stasis and his futility that found a fan in Samuel Beckett; Kalat says that, had Langdon lived, the playwright would have cast him instead of Keaton in Film. Three's A Crowd brings futility to the forefront after Capra had contrived happy endings for Langdon in earlier features. Capra characterized Langdon's ambition as an inappropriate insistence upon pathos in pretentious imitation of Chaplin. For Kerr, Langdon's presentation of himself as a man with normal heterosexual yearnings for family betrays the ambiguity of the boy-man persona that allegedly made Langdon a success and makes his ordeal in Three's A Crowd merely pathetic. Kalat claims that Langdon was ahead of his time in attempting to make comedy out of pessimism and unredeemed futility.
Let's start to clear things up a little. First of all, Three's A Crowd isn't an imitation of Chaplin, but a commentary if not a sardonic parody of the romantic Tramp. In simplest terms, the plot elaborates on themes Chaplin had played since The Tramp back in 1915. Langdon's film is the story of a hapless fellow, an assistant junkman who makes enough to keep his own apartment but is unfulfilled and lonely. He longs for a wife and child, adopting a doll briefly to toss in the air the way his boss tosses his own son. His wish comes true in miraculous fashion when he discovers a woman lying unconscious in a snowbank outside his apartment. He carries her up the long, slanted flight of stairs to his home and calls a doctor. In a development the original advertising kept discreetly secret, the woman is pregnant and about to give birth. She has fled an abusive husband and found a refuge with Harry.
Deceptive advertising for Three's A Crowd. This piece would make you think that Harry Langdon's in the middle of a romantic triangle. See below for the truth.
With Chaplin, Kalat claims, this moment always comes with a conscious gesture of renunciation, as if Chaplin knows he could keep the girl with his charm but also that he, a tramp, can't provide for her as she deserves. In Three's A Crowd, Langdon is pretty much a bystander to the destruction of his dream. He can't pretend that it's up to him to let the girl go or not. He can only acquiesce, but then what?
Walter Kerr describes Three's A Crowd as framed by a brilliant visual gag. It opens at dawn, when the streetlights go out. At the end, Kerr recalled, Harry lurches out into the street after the reunited couple and child, candle in hand. As dawn arrives, Harry blows out his candle at the exact moment that the lights go out. Kerr describes Harry panicking, thinking that he blew out the streetlights, and exiting to end the film. The critic misremembered the ending. Harry doesn't react at all to the lights going out, because he has another agenda that takes him to the actual final scene of the film. He returns to the palmist's shop, where the fortune teller had made a false prediction to him. By this point in a Chaplin film, the Tramp has resigned himself to solitude and resolved to carry on cheerfully. Under similar circumstances, Keaton or Lloyd might attempt comic suicide. Now Langdon charts his own course: Harry will curse his fate by throwing a brick through the palmist's window. Except that he can't bring himself to break the window or the law. He tosses the brick out of harm's way, only to set an oil drum rolling loose from a wagon and through the palmist's window. Now Harry runs, and now the film ends.
Slightly expressionist exteriors and chiaroscuro interiors photographed by Elgin Lessley and Frank Evans.
Even at 62 minutes, however, Three's A Crowd drags. There's an interminable pie-making sequence that nearly stops the film dead without being funny. The mother remains invalided throughout the picture, leaving little opportunity for real interaction between her and Harry. He spends most of his time simply watching them, as if knowing it's borrowed time. The dream is cut awkwardly to deny us the usual payoff. We see Harry knocked out, but we don't see the husband hit him. Call it dream logic, I suppose, but the film sometimes seems perversely dedicated to denying the audience any satisfaction. Capra might say this was because Langdon really wanted to make us cry. I think not, but his bleak approach to comedy here, which I think Kalat describes fairly accurately, was bound to alienate audiences then and would probably alienate nearly as many people now. Thanks in part to Kalat I "get" Three's A Crowd and appreciate what Langdon was attempting, but it still isn't a great comedy. Watching it with the commentary was a fascinating experience, reminiscent of those old Robert Youngson documentaries Kalat himself cites -- Youngson described Three's A Crowd as Langdon reaching for a "celestial high note," -- and maybe the film should be presented the same way, with the commentary in the forefront, so that fiction becomes documentary.
Kino released Three's A Crowd as part of its Slapstick Symposium series, the title never being more appropriate, and included Langdon's follow-up feature, The Chaser, without commentary from Kalat. Chaser is Langdon's comic nightmare of emasculation as Harry, wrongly convicted of disorderly conduct at home, is "denied the privileges of manhood" by an experimental judge. He's compelled to do housework and wear an apron that somehow makes him look attractively feminine in the male gaze of visitors. Walter Kerr misinterpreted this film, too, describing a scene in which Harry surrenders a baby's crib to the repo man as a confession of impotence when emasculation is clearly the problem; he doesn't turn the thing over, nor a potty-training chair, until he calls the wife first. It works as a comic nightmare until a botched suicide attempt halfway through the picture, but then veers off into some generic golf humor and a strange sequence portraying Harry as a kissing bandit before a lame payoff with his wife mistaking him for a ghost. It's still worth a watch for silent-comedy buffs who are intrigued with the biographical drama of a career in trouble and an aspiring artist grappling uncertainly with daring material. As a director, Harry Langdon doesn't quite rise to the level of heroic failure, but his efforts to define himself are a kind of drama that eclipses his comedy. Who knows who'll actually laugh last?