Watching Long Pants reminded me I saw Harry Langdon last year in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp--and was surprised that I had forgotten him, his baby face, his round-eyed stare imploring us to pick him up and make him safe--which in the previous picture made perfect sense, as he meandered from Ohio to California, encountering much, climaxing with a remarkable cyclone--which he had barely noticed until it lifted the barbershop he’d entered for a shave. In his stillness he is almost Keaton--but Keaton is a sort of old man, weary from seeing so much; and in his jittering flinches and tumbles he is almost Chaplin--but Chaplin looks to no one for aid but himself. Langdon, the little one of the Knockabout Family, seems constantly surprised that he is in a comedy. All he wants is--well, as usual the girl, so I suppose he isn’t that much of a baby after all; but even his affections have the grasping qualities of an infant. In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp he yearns for Joan Crawford’s Betty Burton, collecting her billboard image, hesitating and stammering as he sidles up. It’s a weird innocence, but undeniable, given his helplessness.
This is all brought to the fore in Long Pants, as Baby Harry gets his grown-up trousers and almost immediately walks into flapper mayhem, his moony lust squeezing him into ever tighter spots (interesting image, that), until a 23 skiddoo bootleg massacre brings him up short: He sees his girl casually blast away at her foes and can only summon up a “Why, I’m surPRISED!”--and he instantly but calmly retreats from the world of long pants and walks all the way home--once again, the sight of Langdon walking seems central to his character, a little skip-and-trudge he combines handily, the deliberate trundle of an unimpeded toddler--directly to his family’s dinner table, where they sit in prayer, shocked when they raise their eyes to see him there, as if all his jazz-and-gin-soaked adulthood had never occurred--which, for all intents and purposes, it hadn’t. Frank Capra’s camera is quite fluid as it follows Langdon about, sometimes taking on his perspective, often waiting patiently for--or moving along confidently with--Langdon as he approaches his goal.
And to follow Langdon, one must be patient with him. He is the master of hesitation, of the gesture repeated--particularly when he is flummoxed or flabbergasted, his legs and arms winding down, each repetition incrementally smaller, until he comes to a standstill. It’s so mesmerizing I’m sure we’ll see it again, from other practitioners of the rituals of Dumbstruck Immobility. But without Langdon, the hybrid little clown, we’ll lose that child’s gaze, that inching backward, out of the line of sight, the star of the picture trying his best to get out of the way.