THE STRONG MAN was director Frank Capra's first full-length film and Harry Langdon's second. Easily Langdon's best silent feature, it pits the comedian's clueless character against the advances of the German army, an avaricious seductress, a town full of evil interlopers, and a very,
very bad cold.
On the battlefields of WWI, Paul Bergot (Harry Langdon), a Belgian soldier, spends his more peaceful moments reading and rereading love letters from Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), an American pen pal he has never met. Ultimately, he becomes the personal prisoner of a German soldier known as
"Zandow the Great." When the war is over, Zandow, a professional circus strongman, emigrates to America accompanied by Paul, his lowly assistant.
After disembarking in New York, Paul devotes his spare time to searching for Mary. One day, "Gold Tooth" (Gertrude Astor), a thief who is being tailed by a detective, slips a wad of hot bills into the unsuspecting Paul's pocket. Later, she tries to retrieve the cash but is unsuccessful.
Introducing herself to Paul as "Little Mary," she lures him to her rooms and recovers the money. The naive Paul, who thinks he has been seduced, beats a hasty retreat.
Zandow & Company are contracted to play a dance hall in Cloverdale, a once idyllic little town that has been overrun by lowlifes and outcasts. The leader of Cloverdale's reform movement is Parson Brown (William V. Mong). When Paul discovers that Brown's blind daughter is his beloved Mary, boy and
girl pick up their romance where they left it off.
Zandow gets so drunk he can't perform and Paul is forced to go on in his stead. During the act, a loudmouth in the audience makes an insulting remark about Mary, and Paul attempts to defend her honor by engaging the roughneck in a fight which soon escalates into a massive free-for-all. With the
help of a trapeze and a cannon, the substitute strongman single-handedly razes the dance hall and rids Cloverdale of its criminal population. As a result of his heroism, Paul is appointed town policeman and spends his days, accompanied by his sweetheart, patrolling the once again peaceful and
serene streets of Cloverdale.
THE STRONG MAN begins in the "No-Man's Land" of a European battlefield, an appropriate place for Langdon's stock character, who was no man. Langdon was the most infantile of comics (he portrayed an actual baby in the closing minutes of TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP). Next to him, Stan Laurel seems
Machiavellian. If Charlie Chaplin's tramp wanted to be a lover, Buster Keaton to be a survivor, and Harold Lloyd (reportedly a big Langdon fan) to be a success, Langdon appeared to want nothing more than to be changed and fed.
Unlike the quick-witted screen personae of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Langdon's signature character had a mind that worked so slowly that you could all but see it inching along. THE STRONG MAN contains two memorable examples of what in a less retarded character might be called the shock of
recognition, but in Langdon's hands is more like the sluggish approach of a dim notion:
(1) Ensconced in the back seat of a taxi with "Gold Tooth," Paul begins (and begins and begins) to smell a rat when his companion gooses him, hikes up her skirt, and lights a cigarette. Is it possible, says his steadfast stare, she is not the sweet "Little Mary" she pretends to be?
(2) In the rear of a crowded bus, our hero is insulted and threatened by a fellow passenger. Paul in turn fixes him with a sidelong glance of low-flame hostility--a glance that threatens to last for years. Finally, a cerebral connection is made and Paul bops his tormentor's jaw with a blow that is
so effete it is almost symbolic.
This bus sequence boasts also one of the finest extended stretches of close-up pantomime in the cinema: Paul nursing a cold. In addition to the stock coughing, sneezing, wheezing, and sniffling fits one would expect in such a situation, Langdon, who somehow manages to simulate puffy eyes, prods
his swollen glands, fingers his ears, grasps his chest, and even wiggles and scratches his itchy nose. This is not the common cold; this is the consummate cold.
The subsequently-to-be-celebrated Capra touch can be discerned in the film's rather crude contrasting of Cloverdale's godfearing inhabitants (who want their town to be a Bedford Falls) and its degenerate element (who would prefer to live in a Pottersville). Capra's sanctimonious streak drains this
conflict of any element of subtlety. A filmmaker less hooked in the goody-goody might well have repitched the plot to depict a community of fun-loving individuals, given to indulging in such harmless pastimes as social drinking and dancing, threatened by an army of righteous bluenoses. Capra
redeems himself, however, with his handling of THE STRONG MAN's comic and romantic strata. (Violence.)
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- Review: THE STRONG MAN was director Frank Capra's first full-length film and Harry Langdon's second. Easily Langdon's best silent feature, it pits the comedian's clueless character against the advances of the German army, an avaricious seductress, a town full of e… (more)