Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: A SOLDIER'S PLAYTHING (1930)

For the great silent clowns, the coming of sound was a grave challenge. Everyone's careers seemed to depend on whether they could talk properly, but sound also threatened to change the nature of film comedy. Charlie Chaplin had enough power and popularity to keep on making silents for another decade. Laurel and Hardy passed the test with flying colors, their voices only enhancing their comedy. Harold Lloyd switched to sound quickest, only to learn over the course of the 1930s that his persona had grown obsolete. Buster Keaton lacked the creative control to define his own course, and when he spoke his throaty gravel seemed to weigh him down. All of them, at some point, must have perceived sound as a threat. To Harry Langdon, I suspect, it represented a second chance. After ascending to popularity nearly equal to Chaplin's and Lloyd's, and greater than Keaton's, Langdon crashed and burned before Hollywood really cared whether he could talk. By 1929 he was reduced to making two-reelers for Hal Roach on the same lot as the ascendant Laurel and Hardy. But in 1930 he got another chance at features -- two chances, in fact. Universal starred him alongside fellow silent veteran Slim Summerville in the gangster comedy See America Thirst. Warner Bros., the studio that had swallowed Langdon's former employers at First National, cast him alongside Ben Lyon in Michael Curtiz's service comedy A Soldier's Plaything. Technically Langdon was billed second, and for some markets the main attraction was that popular novelist Vina Delmar wrote the story. Today, no one remembers either Delmar or Lyon, but even in 1930 audiences must have felt that Langdon dominated the film, that it was his movie above all. He's such a strange figure that he can't help monopolizing our attention. Whether that makes him funny is another story.

The army was full of misfits, and many of them were unconsciously the means of bolstering up the spirits of the companies. Many of them were pathetic, too, because comedy characters and pathetic characters are often only a hair's breadth apart.
- Harry Langdon, 1930.


Unfortunately for Langdon, A Soldier's Plaything doesn't really address his interesting thesis about the morale-building effects of misfit clown-soldiers. That said, Langdon, as "Tim," certainly is a misfit clown-soldier, and a pathetic one at that. Tim starts out running a Coney Island shooting gallery when the U.S. enters the Great War. Inspired to an enlist by a patriotic speech across the boardwalk, he's detained by a customer determined to shoot every duck in the row, almost before Harry can move them into position. Finally, Tim goes to a local bookie parlor to bid a strangely sentimental farewell to his pal Georgie the gambler (Lyon).  Georgie doesn't buy that patriotism bunk but wishes Tim well just the same. When he gets into a fight over a card game and seems to kill his antagonist by knocking him over a railing -- the drop is several floors and the dummy takes it hard -- Georgie decides that the best way to escape the electric chair is to join Tim in the army and risk getting shot, blown up, bayoneted, etc.

Fortunately, the film isn't really about war -- it really isn't about anything. It boils down to a sequence of episodes, each introduced with a lengthy title card, that keep the film going until the inevitable discovery that Georgie's victim didn't die, making it safe for him (and Tim) to return home after the war. A Soldier's Plaything is mostly a postwar story, as Tim and Georgie take part in the occupation of the German city of Coblenz. Fraternization with frauleins is their primary objective. Their secondary objective is avoiding punishment details which inevitably involve shoveling horseshit. So traumatized is Tim -- shellshocked, even -- by his experience with horses, not excluding the time he literally becomes a horse's ass when he and Georgie put on a two-part costume to escape a compromising situation -- that once he's back home he can't even stand the sight of a merry-go-round. "Oh no no no" he says in his peculiar way as he flees Coney Island at the close.

Langdon opens the picture in his familiar costume but trades it in for a uniform in short order. Tim's still very much the Harry Langdon fans would have recognized, and he's a type not exactly unfamiliar now: an infantilized adult who has the desires of a full-grown man but seems to have none of means to realize those desires. Tim's as determined to get girls as Georgie is and as determined to prove himself a ladies' man. The joke, I guess, is the childish way he goes about it. Unable to speak French or German, he responds to foreign languages with a stream of babble, as if he thinks his interlocutors might just randomly understand some of it. He seems capable of playing music, but the song he chooses to seduce a girl with goes something like this: "If You'll Wee-Wee Me [Oui-Oui, get it?] Then I'll Wee-Wee You." It actually seems like the perfect Harry Langdon theme song; it nails something vaguely or unwittingly unsettling about his persona. It's all quite archaic and yet there's something contemporary about the embarrassment of it all. Langdon has a voice that might remind you slightly of Lou Costello and uses it in a similarly childish way throughout, though not as loudly as Costello would use his. You get a lot of "uh-ohs" and "no-no-nos," but at some moments Tim comes across as nearly a human being, or someone who wants to be a human being before his inadequacies betray him. Tim walks that hair's breadth Langdon mentions in a publicity interview for the picture, and often trips over it. He may not have had creative control over Soldier's Plaything, but it definitely ends up like a Harry Langdon star vehicle.

The comedy's not all verbal, of course. Langdon is a master of small gestures as well as pratfalls, and one of his best bits comes when the movie finally gets around to the service comedy's inevitable drill scene, when Tim almost mockingly illustrates the drill sergeant's comments with hand gestures. As a slapstick director, Michael Curtiz is often ambitious, but his results are hit-and-miss. A scene when Tim disrupts a military amateur show in rehearsal is marred by choppy editing, but a long take in which Tim has to sneak out of a barracks quietly, yet manages to bump into nearly every possible noisemaking object, is admirably done. The main problem with the film is Curtiz's inability to develop any narrative momentum, though post-production editiong may have been a factor against him. It has its moments and proves Langdon's promise as a sound comedian, but personal issues and plain bad luck soon forced him into bankruptcy and back into two-reelers after a year of idleness. When Langdon filed for bankruptcy, he blamed his misfortune on the coming of sound. That's unfair to this film, bad as it is in many ways, since Langdon's misfortunes started before movies talked. A Soldier's Plaything must go down as a failed experiment, but at least the people involved deserve credit for trying.

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