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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Three's a Crowd / The Chaser
Three's a Crowd / The Chaser
Kino // Unrated // June 3, 2008
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted July 4, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Films:

I've been waiting for to see these two movies for years.  After reading about silent comedian Harry Langdon's swift rise to fame and equally rapid fall as well seeing some of his classic films, I had a morbid curiosity about the movies that ended his feature film career.  Were they as bad as the critics said?  Did his ego really get the best of him and lead him to create some bizarre and morbid films without a hint of comedy?  Now fans of the comedian can see for their selves as Kino has released Langdon's last two surviving features Three's a Crowd and The Chaser.

Background:

After staring in Vaudville for years, Harry Langdon came late to movies, not making his first film until 1923 when he was nearly 40.  After a couple of quick shorts for producer Sol Lesser (both lost films), Mack Sennett bought Langdon's contract in 1924 and started him on his way to stardom.  By 1926 Langdon had developed his character, acquired a creative team that knew how to write and direct him (these included director Harry Edwards and writers Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley), and released a string of increasingly popular shorts.

As many other comics did before him, Langdon outgrew Sennett's studio.  In 1926 he signed a contract with First National and became an independent producer.  He took his staff of Edwards, Capra, and Ripley with him.  According to his agreement, he had to provide two features per year for three years and he would be paid a set amount for each one.  His first, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, was a big hit, but it was significantly over budget and so director Harry Edwards was fired.  The next film, The Strong Man, was directed by Capra and is considered Langdon's best.  It also did well at the box office.  With his third feature, Long Pants, (which also did respectable business at the box office) Langdon and Capra had a falling out.  Langdon fired Capra and decided to write, direct, and star in his films from then on, just as Charlie Chaplin had done.

Langdon's film career came crashing down as quickly it had risen.  His next three films were all flops and First National refused to renew his contract when it was up.  Unable to find other work, he signed on with Hal Roach and returned to making shorts, this time in sound, but after making only eight he was let go and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

This set contains the first two films that Langdon made for First National after firing Capra.  (The third, Heart Trouble, is a lost film.)

Three's a Crowd (1927):  With his first attempt to direct, Langdon set his sights high.  He didn't just want a knock-about comedy; he wanted to create art like Charlie Chaplin did.

In this film Langdon is a poor wretch who works doing physical labor and lives in a small room at the top of a very long flight of stairs.  He gets along fine but he's lonely and wants a family more than anything else.

His dreams come true when he spies a woman sleeping in a snow drift one morning.  He brings her to his loft and gives her his bed, and even arranges for a midwife and doctor to visit her when he discovers she's pregnant.  Nursing her and the baby back to health, the man seemingly has everything he could want, but can he keep it?

When watching this film of a poor man who takes in an instant family, it's hard not to think of Chaplin's The Kid (1921).   Unlike that classic however, this film has little humor, no suspense, and a wretchedly depressing ending.  It's hard to see what Langdon was thinking of when he made this.  The movie fails on so many levels.

First, the gags are few and far between, and those that he does incorporate into the film don't work very well and more often than not fail.  In one potentially humorous scene, Harry has fallen through a trap door in the floor and is suspended in air holding on to a rug, which is caught in the door that he fell through.  He climbs up the rug and opens the trap door which in turn releases the rug and causes him to fall some more.  Luckily the door slams shut once again, snagging the rug and saving poor Harry.  It's an interesting predicament:  He can't open the door or he'll fall again and he can't just drop down because it's too high.  How's he going to get out of this?  Actually he doesn't.  After climbing up and opening the door too many times the entire rug falls out and he crashes to the ground, landing in a truck unhurt.  It could have been hilarious if he came up with a creative solution to his problem, but he didn't.

Most of the other gags are very slight:  Harry opens his lunchbox and takes out a cup of coffee that's already poured and hasn't spilt, instead of using an iron he puts bricks on his pants to press them, weak jokes like that which would help pad out a short, but aren't enough to carry a feature.

His direction is often poor too and he has a tendency to hold scenes way too long.  While I realize this minimalist approach with little action was Langdon's style, he takes it much too far in this film.  In one scene he is finally able to get back into his own apartment after the woman gives birth and everyone leaves.  He stands in the center of the room, looking at the sleeping mother and new baby and just stares.  Langdon gives viewers long enough to let the emotion of the scene set in:  he's finally gotten what he's longed for.   Then he holds the shot a little longer.  And longer still.  Pretty soon viewers are no longer in the moment but wondering why nothing is happening and what's supposed to be going on.

There are a few instances where shots don't match up or scenes seem to be missing.  In one case the woman's husband sits up in bed and runs his fingers through his hair.  The scene cuts to a shot of her note on a chair and then back to the husband who is laying down and sits up again.  That's just plain sloppy.

An amazingly odd film, there are several scenes that just don't make any sense.  There's a boxing sequence near the end that comes out of no where and doesn't even have any jokes in it aside from the fact that Harry's glove is way too big.  It was a long way to go for such a simple joke.

There is so little humor, or even attempts at humor though this film that while watching I wondered if Langdon meant this to be a drama with comedic elements rather than a comedy with a dramatic back drop.  If he did, I would have thought that he would have paid more attention to the story, which makes almost no sense in places.

Spoiler warning:

In the note the woman leaves for her husband, she states that his drinking (and presumably his physical abuse) has gotten to be too much for her.  It has to be pretty bad if she's willing to become homeless in the winter while she's pregnant.  The guy comes back however, in rich clothes and a chauffeured car, and the woman leaves with a "thanks" and that's about it.  Why in the world would she do that??

So at the end Langdon has lost everything he's ever loved and is fated to live a lonely pitiful life.  And this is supposed to be a comedy?  Make no mistake, Harry isn't noble and selfless like the Tramp at the end of the Circus, he just gets left high and dry.  What was the movie trying to say?  Life sucks?  Don't wish because it'll never come true?  Not a great message for a comedy in either case.

End of Spoilers

The Chase (1928):  Three's a Crowd is an odd and unfathomable comedy but hard as it is to believe, The Chase is even worse.  For his next feature Harry decided to make fun of suicide.

In this film Harry plays a hen-pecked husband who is in trouble with his wife and mother-in-law because he stays out at night:  till 8:30!  After one such late evening an argument starts and it ends with the mother-in-law pulling a gun on Harry and trying to kill him.  After this his wife naturally files for divorce.  The judge hears the case and learns about what a horrible husband Harry is and instead of granting the divorce sentences him to become a woman for 30 days.  He has to stay at home, wear a skirt, and does all of the housework while his wife, dressed in a suit, goes out on the town.  Sounds like a bad episode of Three's Company doesn't it?

In any case, Harry starts doing the 'women's work' and has a horrible time.  He can't get eggs from the hen, and all of the salesmen who come to the door hit on him since he's wearing a skirt.  It gets so bad that he tries to kill himself, a few times, without success.

As if he sensed that the film was going wrong, the second half takes off in a totally different direction and could almost have come from another film.  One of Harry's buddies comes by and the two of them go golfing.  This leads to a series of gags that were recycled from his Sennett comedy Saturday Afternoon which was released two years earlier.  While this second section was more amusing, it was also almost sad.  It comes across as desperate and pandering, with Harry trying anything to get his audience's attention including adding in a dozen or so bathing beauties frolicking by the shore for basically no reason at all.

While this movie isn't depressing and experimental like his previous endeavor, it still doesn't work as well as Langdon's earlier films.  I've read a lot about the big three silent comedians, and one thing that they all have in common was they really thought their gags through.  They wanted them to be tight, and with everything explained.  If Harold Lloyd was going to get caught hanging from a clock 20 stories up, there had to be a plausible reason for him to be there.  That close-knit comedy doesn't appear in this film.  Many of the events just happen for no reason at all and that makes this feel more like a Keystone film, but without the fast pace (which is the main thing Keystone pictures had going for them.)  For example, while leaving his club one night Harry discovers a lodge coat, hat, and sword, neatly folded in the bushes.  How did it get there?  That's a pretty unusual thing to find.   In another scene Harry is in his dented hat, men's boots, and a woman's skirt when the ice man comes in and kisses him.  How could he not know that Harry was a man?  Ignoring that, why the kiss?  Was he having an affair with Harry's wife?  What's going on here?

The whole film is filled with one nonsensical scene after another.  That wouldn't be too bad, after all that's pretty much what Monty Python became for, but very few of these gags were funny.  When Harry's wife finds the suicide note he wrote, she starts crying thinking that he's dead.  She buries her face in a kerchief and then (get ready for this...) when she removes it her make up has run down her face making her look silly!  Not only is it not funny, it's in poor taste.

The DVD:


Audio:

Both films are accompanied by an organ score written and performed by Lee Erwin.  These were nice scores and they fit the films well.  The audio was clean and clear with no hint of distortion or other common audio defects.

Video:

Both of these films are sepia toned and look excellent.  The contrast and detail are both excellent and the wide range of brownish-gray tones makes these both look like they're much more recent than they are.   There is a little decomposition in both films, and one section of The Chase has been replaced by a 16mm blow up, but these are minor defects.  While scratches and print defects are present, they are fairly rare in both cases.  Overall these are both magnificent looking films.

Extras:

There is an excellent, excellent commentary to Three's a Crowd by film historian David Kalat.  After watching a feature, I usually listen to the commentary while doing something else; cleaning the room, putting away DVDs, something mindless like that.  It took less than a minute for me to stop working when this track started and I sat down and watched the whole film a second time, totally taken in by Mr. Kalat's comments.  Rather than heap scorn on the film like virtually every other critic and historian that I've read, he actually defends the film.  When he called this film a "misunderstood masterpiece" it was like hitting me on the side of the head with a board.  This?  A masterpiece?  After listening to the track I can say that Kalat does bring up many good points, though I still don't agree with his ultimate analysis.  In any case it's a good topic for discussion and a well worth listening to.  It's only too bad that he didn't provide a commentary track to The Chase also.

The only other extra is a photo gallery.

Final Thoughts:

This is a hard disc to rate.  I'm very glad that I was able to see these films finally, and I'm proud to have the disc in my collection.  I can't say that either movie is great though, but they should be mandatory viewing for any Langdon fan.  It's interesting in a train wreck sort of way to see a great talent self destruct.  Because of that, and the extremely interesting audio commentary, I'm going to recommend this disc, but only for fans of silent comedies who are already familiar with Langdon's work.
 

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