‘Serial Land is a funny old place:’ March 16-31, 1923

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some affectionate fun with movie serials:

A season of the black-and-blue drama, otherwise known as serials, seems to be setting in with unusual severity. They are high-browing up some of the serials to be sure, by giving them a shot of history here and there, but in the main the good old stand-by thrillers are still with us. Some folks dote on serials. These are such as love blood with their gore, and just can’t bear a picture that hasn’t at least half a dozen fights and one or two murders in it.

The cartoon they illustrated her article with was meaner than she was, calling them impoverished and old-fashioned

Kingsley remarked that “serial land is a funny old place,” and at the moment most prevalent plot was about the poor old inventor (who “makes Marconi and Edison look like a sick snail”), his beautiful daughter (always motherless), the tall, strong hero (“his sole occupation in life seems to be looking out for the heroine”), and the masked gang (called something like “The Order of the Itching Palm”) that is trying to steal the inventor’s work. She snarked:

 True, just what his invention is, is always rather nebulous. It is spoken of in hushed subtitles as ‘that which would destroy the earth’s life in twenty seconds,’ or is a marvelous machine that can do anything from recording thought to doing the family wash….The gang is always trying to steal the invention, though why, it’s hard to tell. They spend far more money, trouble, time, and effort on the darned thing than it can possible be worth.

The plot she’s describing had a lot in common with The Radio King (1922), a ten-part Universal serial. Here’s Roy Stewart as the master criminal

Naturally, the masked gang had a leader, and

the master crook is the fellow that runs the subterranean hotels with the trapdoors, torture chambers, etc. If we were to believe the serials, our fair country is full of the underground devils, our land is honeycombed with caves full of villains, torture chambers, secret doors, dear little devices to chop off your head, cisterns to drown you in, and other cheerful things for the villain to play with.

Louise Lorraine played the trusting heroine in The Radio King

The heroine is always trusting:

no matter how often she gets kidnapped….She always forgets all about the last time she was kidnapped and nearly drowned in the cellar before the hero came along and found the combination to the plumbing, or that time she was nearly beheaded by the neat little device in the Chinese den. Not that she would have greatly missed her head probably. It never seemed to do her any good. No, she certainly didn’t inherit her pap’s brains.

Gee, that plot has been pretty durable over the years! Kingsley considered continuing her rant, but since it was “time for the fifty-ninth chapter of The Poisoned Bathing-Suit,” she had to leave for the theater–she just couldn’t miss it.

Serial plots that lacked originality were easy to poke fun at; this was a film writer’s evergreen topic for the whole life of their popularity, from the 1910s-1950s. Their sameness was the point: people wanted to see the familiar stories.

Her article was a sign of how the film business had settled down by 1923. Kingsley needed to write a trend piece about something for the Sunday paper, and this was the best she could do. It ran on the front page of the stage and screen section, right beside an interview with director William de Mille, who was mostly complaining about the “sapheads” in the New York offices killing any original ideas (what a perennial!), and an article by editor Edwin Schallert in which he complained about actresses wearing too many riding habits in movies—he thought that few could pull off such “mannish garb.” What a wonderful time it was, when these were the film world’s biggest troubles!

Right before the screen swallowed him: March 1-15, 1923

One hundred years ago this month, just after she complained about actors like Bert Lytell being swallowed up by the movies, Grace Kingsley praised a durable vaudeville act:

Do you remember Harry Langdon and his trick automobile? He is with us again, this time kidding in his own entirely inimitable way through a comedy golf act, after which he trots out the old tin Lizzie. Langdon is awfully funny, with his simp map and talk.

Kingsley didn’t know it at the time, but this was Harry Langdon’s farewell vaudeville tour: he was about to sign a film contract. After a few false starts, he would become one of the top four comedians of the silent era, joining Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd.

The main attraction on the Orpheum bill was a thoroughly grim playlet starring Bert Lytell called The Valiant, which was a prison story about a man about to be executed for murder. Possibly because no act wanted to follow that, there was an after piece to it called A Fun Riot, in which Langdon “remained the life of the party” according to Kingsley.

Langdon’s act was called After the Ball, and his co-stars were his wife, Rose, and her sister Cecilia Musolff. ‘Fred.’ in Variety described it when it debuted in 1921:

The first scene is on a golf course with Rose and Cecil clad in striking golf costumes, doing more gabbing than golfing, and Harry caddying along behind them. There are chances here that will work out. The second scene, in full stage, at the front of the club house will build up to be as funny as the front of the road house in time. As it stands now it has a lot of laughs, but they are not of the “wow” quality.

Finally the auto bit is used for the closing scene. It is different from the old car stuff. This time it is a smart looking roadster with the girls in the front seat and Harry riding in the rear. Some of the copper stuff is used and still gets laughs. The prop tin cans in the hood and the blow torch backfire bit from the old act is still present and lands with the usual effect.

The three scenes make pretty stage pictures and the two girls show to advantage in the smartly cut golf clothes with knickers and hose. Harry is the same boob character as of yore and quite as funny in his inimitable way.

Publicity photo for On the Boulevard, 1910.

By the time Kingsley saw it, they had apparently improved on the less-than “wow” bits. Harry Langdon had been on the stage for decades at this point. Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa on June 15, 1884, he’d been working in show business since he was a teen-ager, first in traveling medicine shows, circuses and stock companies, then after he married fellow performer Rose Frances Musolff in 1903 they moved into vaudeville. Over the years they put together a trick-car act called A Night on the Boulevard, and in 1914 Billboard saw it at the Alhambra in New York City. They said that the Langdons: “found the going just made to suit their gait. Harry Langdon is a first-rate comedian of the quiet type and Rose Langdon an excellent feeder. The dialogue in and out of the automobile got laugh after laugh. Twenty minutes, full stage, two bows.”

Rose Langdon

The Langdons were a big success. By 1916 they’d added Harry’s younger brother James to the act and renamed it Johnny’s New Car, and after seeing it at the top venue in New York City, the Palace, Billboard was even more impressed, calling it “one of the funniest acts in present-day vaudeville. The Langdons have a piece of property that is bound to add to their long list of successes. Harry Langdon does the comedy and knows the art well. The trick automobile, together with the beautiful boulevard set, came in for much applause. The Langdons will find little trouble in securing booking for their excellent comedy. Nineteen minutes in four; four curtains.”

In 1918 they headlined at the Pantages in Los Angeles with the same act, but James had been replaced by Cecilia. The Los Angeles Times unsigned review said they were still very funny and called it “their ninety-mile-an-hour comedy playlet, Johnny’s New Car which realistically portrays the difficulties and humiliations that arise from being a proud filver owner.”

Rose Langdon in The Road to Mandalay (1926)

When it came time to freshen up the act in 1921, they didn’t throw out all of their well-tested material, they just added jokes from the new craze, golf. They could have continued touring for many years, but at the end of the same month Kingsley was seeing them in 1923, Harry Langdon signed a contract with Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures Corporation to make movies as soon as he finished his current tour. This of course broke up the act; Cecilia Musolff quit show business and married Oscar Boese, a theater stage manager in Milwaukee. Rose briefly tried acting in film: she had a small part in Tod Browning’s The Road to Mandalay (1926). She divorced Harry in 1928, charging him with cruelty by “showing attentions to another girl with whom Langdon has often been seen in public” according to Variety. She married again in 1929 and she died in 1965.

After he finished his 1923 Orpheum tour, Langdon returned to Los Angeles and began his film career. In July 1923, the Times reported that his comedy short, The Aerial Mail, was in the cutting room. It was also called The New Mail Man and The Skyscraper in the press, but I couldn’t find a record of a film with any of those names being released. Lesser’s company was having financial trouble at the time, so perhaps they didn’t have the money to finish it. Mack Sennett took the opportunity to make a two-reeler with Langdon called Look Pleasant (later released as Smile Please) and Sennett approved of the results, telling the Times that he “is even funnier on the screen than on stage, and you know what a riot he was at the Orpheum a few months ago.” He signed Langdon to a two-year contract in November 1923. After about a year, they discovered the slower-paced comedy style that suited him, and they began to make the sort of films he’s remembered for like Saturday Afternoon (1925) and The Strong Man (1926). If you’d like to learn more about his film career, visit Lea Stans’ article at Classic Movie Hub.

His car gags were still funny in Saturday Afternoon (1925)

Reading his stage reviews, you only wonder why he didn’t go into the movies sooner. Perhaps it was because he was such a big success in vaudeville, he didn’t see the need to leave.

“Alhambra, New York,” The Billboard, October 24, 1914, p.10.

Fred. “New Acts This Week,” Variety, November 25, 1921, p. 21.

Grace Kingsley, “Sumurun Still Leads,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1916.

“Langdons Divorced,” Variety, May 2, 1928, p. 9.

“Mack Sennett Ties Up Harry Langdon,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1923.

“The Palace,” The Billboard, July 22, 1916, p. 7.

“Reviews,” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1918.

“Rose Langdon Too,” Variety, May 12, 1926, p. 22.

“Vaudeville,” New York Clipper, December 13, 1916, p.8.

“Vaudeville Star Signed to Make Film Comedies,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1923.

“What’s Going On at West Coast Studios,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1923.