I saw on some Facebook page that somebody is going to get to see the "almost lost" ("almost lost"? Nope, my print is still on the shelf) Harry Langdon- Slim Summerville comedy SEE AMERICA THIRST at UCLA, so I thought it a good time to put up my original program notes for the film from when we ran it at Slapsticon in 2008:
SEE AMERICA THIRST (Universal Pictures released November 24, 1930)
Director: William James Craft, Screenplay/Dialogue: Henry La Cossitt, Adaptation: C. Jerome Horwin, Story: Vin Moore, Edward Luddy, Camera: Arthur Miller, C. Allen Jones, Editor: Harry Lieb, Music and Lyrics: Lou Handman, Bernie Grossman, Sound: C. Roy Hunter.
Cast: Harry Langdon, Slim Summerville, Bessie Love, Mitchell Lewis, Matthew Betz, Stanley Fields, Lloyd Whitlock, Tom Kennedy, LeRoy Mason, Walter Brennan.
Allright, even for this Langdon-booster, sometimes enough is enough! This ones on the schedule because enough people bugged this programmer to book it when it became available, but I ain’t gonna try to snow you folks, this ones for the completists, and the really big-time Langdon fans. Frankly, SEE AMERICA THIRST is a mess.
An interesting mess perhaps, even an intermittently funny mess, but mess nevertheless. Langdon’s first released starring talkies feature, made after his decision to leave Hal Roach (and yes, it was Harry’s decision to make, Roach had actually announced to the press that Langdon was going to star in feature films for the Lot of Fun before Harry jumped ship. We didn’t say it was a wise decision.) and go to Warner Brothers to star in the debacle that was A SOLDIERS PLAYTHING. Langdon then grabbed the offer from Universal to co-star with Slim Summerville in this expensive musical-comedy. SEE AMERICA THIRST failed at the boxoffice, and pretty effectively wiped-out Langdon’s first bid at a comeback.
SEE AMERICA THIRST does indeed team Langdon and Summerville as two tramps named Wally and Slim, who somehow get embroiled in a gangsters bootlegging war when they are mistaken for two out-of town hitmen, Shivering Smith and Gunkist Casey. This is not a bad concept for a Langdon and Summerville picture. It’s obvious that Universal spent a packet on the film, elaborate sets, good special effects, and an excellent supporting cast. What it looks like is a wacky Marx Brothers musical, playing on the idea that gangsters have gotten so rich from bootlegging that they throw money at anything.
The story is by two silent comedy veterans, Vin Moore, creator of many an L-KO comedy and other surrealistic delights like AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS (1920) with Hughey Mack, and Edward Luddy, who had cut his teeth directing two-reel comedies for Universal, the Weiss Brothers, as well as co-writing the script for Larry Semon's SPUDS (1927) seen last year at Slapsticon 07. Luddy would soon change his name back to Edward Ludwig and become a top director of features like RKO’s SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and WAKE OF THE RED WITCH 91948) with John Wayne.
At the helm of SEE AMERICA THIRST is William James Craft, who was one of Universal’s top comedy directors of the late silent era, handling Glenn Tryon in films like A HERO FOR A NIGHT (1927), PAINTING THE TOWN (1927), HOT HEELS (1928), HOW TO HANDLE WOMEN (1928) and DAMES AHOY (1930) as well as Reginald Denny’s first talkie ONE HYSTERICAL NIGHT (1929) and two recent Cohen and Kelly offerings IN ATLANTIC CITY (1929) and IN SCOTLAND (1930). His untimely death in 1931 from an auto accident made SEE AMERICA THIRST his swansong.
What the resulting film looks like is something that was way overshot, then previewed badly. Plot holes abound, characters appear suddenly who have obviously had some sort of introduction earlier that is nowhere to be found. Every print of this I have ever seen looks like it has a reel missing. Then sequences like Langdon’s hanging from a cannon atop a skyscraper goes on interminably, even for Langdon. Another big problem is that Langdon and Summerville have absolutely no chemistry together. Teaming two passive comedians makes it tough going to move the plot along, in a film more tailored to Wheeler and Woolsey.
Bessie Love’s appearance as the leading lady is proof positive that she was being punished by MGM for something she did or didn’t do to Louis B. Mayer. It’s dismaying to see her, less than a year after her genuine star-making or re-making role in THE BROADWAY MELODY, set so adrift here, doubly-so because she has the sweet-faced comedy timing that should work well with Langdon, if Universal had given them any real hand-tailored material for them to work with. Apart from looking really cute in some skimpy costumes and one nice song, she has nothing to do, and her scenes with Langdon seem very underscripted indeed.
“So”, I hear you cry, “—is there any reason we should stay up and watch this film?” Of course there is, and it’s the obvious answer to any Langdon fan, and that’s Langdon himself. Unlike even Buster Keaton, who frankly does sleepwalk through WHAT NO BEER, Langdon works damn hard here, obviously at sea in a picture not suited to his talents and a Director clueless as how to present him, the performer in him is saying to himself, ”This picture is going on with or without me, so I’d better do my darndest to make this work!”. And unlike the drunken Keaton, Langdon works very hard to inject himself into the proceedings, getting a mannerism in here and there, adlibbing anything he can think of to amuse the audience because the script has given him nothing. Towards the end, there’s even a Langdon set-piece or two, like Craft has thrown up his hands and let Harry have his head, and that’s when the film works best. It’s not Harry Langdon’s finest hour, but he certainly does not go down with the ship.
So now that I’ve completely lowballed the film, those of you who dare to show up may be mildly surprised, and even enjoy yourselves. It’s definitely better than that Douglas MacLean snoozer DIVORCE MADE EASY that we sprang on you last year. Ah well, the completists can “check it off” the must-see list, and the rest of you can get an early night. Just don’t say you weren’t warned………
RICHARD M ROBERTS
This forum is nearly identical to the previous forum. The difference? Discussions about comedy from the SOUND era.
2 posts • Page 1 of 1
Spot-on, Richard, and thanks for another excellent analysis. The mention of SEE AMERICA THIRST always conjures up bitter memories for me, and not just because of the film's overall quality, or lack thereof. I owned a 16mm print, and during the time I worked for Rohauer, I let him make a reversal for what he called his "personal" Harry Langdon archives. When I finally broke away from that Movie-grubbing-Mephistopheles in 1981, Rohauer in revenge had his attorney notify Universal to confiscate my print. It doesn't bother me so much these days -- I just remember what Jesse Owens said in the 1960s when asked how he felt about being snubbed by Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics: "I look at the bright side. I'm still here -- and he's not."
"Of course he smiled -- just like you and me." -- Harold Goodwin, on Buster Keaton (1976)
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