The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses The Strong Man (1926).
Frank Capra and Harry Langdon had a short but impressive partnership in silent films in which Langdon played a character similar to the Tramp character played by Charlie Chaplin, and achieving similar, though less lasting, fame. The Strong Man was one of the first films Capra and Langdon made together with Capra directing. The film opens on a World War I battlefield, with Paul Bergot (Langdon) reading a letter from his pen-pal, Mary (Priscilla Bonner). His reverie is interrupted by a one-on-one fight in which he is armed with a slingshot and his opponent with guns.
Bergot is taken prisoner by a German soldier and eventually returns with him to the United States. They get separated in New York as Bergot tries to locate Mary. When a woman in New York (Lily, played by Gertrude Astor) stashes some money in Bergot’s pocket to keep the police from finding it on her, she pretends to be Mary in order to get the money back. This impersonation leads to one of the most memorable bits of physical comedy in the entire film.
Later in the film, Bergot meets the real Mary, who had not told him that she was blind. Bergot’s reenactment of the story for Mary uses no dialogue, and the audience follows without difficulty. The skinny Bergot eventually is pressured into taking over a scheduled performance for an unconscious strong man. In the process, he saves Mary’s hometown from being taken over by bootleggers and other criminals. The silly plot serves to provide Langdon opportunities to do the physical comedy that was his forte.
Langdon and Bonner have a genuine connection that provides the film its emotional heart. Even at this early stage of his career, Capra had an affection for his characters that made it easy for the audience to relate to them, even if the storylines were occasionally preposterous.