A meek Belgian soldier (Harry Langdon) fighting in World War I receives penpal letters and a photo from "Mary Brown", an American girl he has never met. He becomes infatuated with her by long distance. After the war, the young Belgian journeys to America as assistant to a theatrical "strong man", Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). While in America, he searches for Mary Brown... and he finds her, just as word comes that Zandow is incapacitated and the little nebbish must go on stage in his place.
Harry Langdon ... Paul Bergot
Priscilla Bonner ... Mary Brown
Gertrude Astor ... Lily of Broadway
William V. Mong ... Holy Joe
Robert McKim ... Mike McDevitt
Arthur Thalasso ... Zandow the Great
Director Frank Capra and clown Harry Langdon together fashioned THE STRONG MAN, one of the finest comedies of the Silent Era. Moving the action from No Man's Land in Western Europe, to Ellis Island and the hectic streets of New York, and finally to the temporarily corrupted village of Cloverdale, Capra & Langdon expertly mix belly laughs with scenes of great emotional tenderness. If either of them had never made another film, this one would have been enough to have ensured each a footnote in movie history.
Langdon's minimalist style is highlighted in a series of vignettes which perfectly captures his unique adult baby persona: Harry's hilarious encounter with Broadway Lily, which includes his classic up-the-stairs-backward routine; Harry's finding of blind Mary Brown and the incredibly poignant way in which he immediately falls in love with her; Langdon's hapless impersonation of The Strong Man and his single-handed battle against a saloon full of bad guys.
A sturdy cast gives able support: Gertrude Astor as dangerous Lily; saintly William V. Mong as Holy Joe, the Cloverdale minister; Priscilla Bonner as sweet Mary; beefy Arthur Thalasso as The Great Zandow; Robert McKim as Cloverdale's wicked criminal boss; and Brooks Benedict as a tough passenger encountered by Harry on a bus.
A quick caricature of Harry, dressed in his policeman's uniform from the end of the movie, appears courtesy of Walt Disney at the beginning of the animated MICKEY'S GALA PREMIER (1933).
This film, starring the sublime Harry Langdon, is one of the finest pieces of American slapstick to emerge from Hollywood in the silent era.
The directorial debut of Frank Capra, this film contains much of the heart and character that Capra would later use in his masterworks of the 1930s and 40s. His training here was obviously important to his growth as a filmmaker.
Langdon plays Paul Bergot, a Belgian soldier who comes to the United States after the end of the first world war as an assistant to a strong man performer, Zandow the Great. He is also looking for the girl with whom he kept a correspondence during his time in battle.
The film traces Langdon's efforts to find the girl, and to prove himself to her. Along the way, there are many brilliant moments that add up to one of the finest comedies of all time.
How does this film compare to Langdon's other features? I would argue that it is his strongest, at least from a structural standpoint. It is also probably his best-developed. I can whole-heartedly recommend TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP (one of his funniest films), and LONG PANTS (another masterwork that is very representative of Langdon's unique sense of humor).
It is often said that Langdon is one of the "big four" giants of silent comedy. I would argue that, if success in feature length films is a criteria, then that is a true statement. I recently watched a silent W.C. Fields picture ("It's the Old Army Game") and realized what makes Langdon so special. While other great silent comedies are remarkably funny, clever and brilliant, Langdon was perhaps the only other silent clown who, in feature films at least, was able to reach the heights of sublime brilliance that certified Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd their places at the top.
THE STRONG MAN is Langdon's masterpiece. You won't be disappointed.
"Corny"is a word that seems to have gone out of use. Never a sterling compliment, corny meant something homespun & sentimental manufactured to manipulate our nostalgia for "the good old days". Probably the reason the word is now extinct is that people under forty don't seem to have any "good old days" to look back on. That is an issue not to be dealt with here. Rather, let us recall the corny glory that was Harry Langdon in The Strong Man. Sexless & guiless, he can muster nothing more intimidating than petulance. A true child of comedy, his white face is rather more round than Stan Laurel's but just as vacant. That face is an inconstant tabla rasa, on which external events can impress fear, joy, and love for a moment. The storyline fits Langdon like a glove; it is Evil versus Good, with Harry the Good triumphant at the end more by slapstick grace than any wit or daring on his part. You have to have a corny mindset to enjoy this movie; to wit, there are bad & bullying people in the world who deserve an antic comeuppance & extinction. If you can hold that naive thought while watching this beautiful comedy you may find yourself, as I have, actually crying through the laughter at the loving watchcare the God of comedy gives great clowns like Langdon in their most threatening pickles. The most wondrous moment of the film occurs during the rally at the end, when with barbells, cannon, and a huge fire curtain, Langdon subdues an insolent, drunken crowd. Langdon begins walking over the curtain,which is covering the writhing crowd beneath it, and suddenly dozens of hands pop through the curtain, twisting like serpents in Dante's Inferno. It is a hilarious visual gag and an apt summary of the consequences of the crowd's evil hubris. This silent gem cannot be ignored by anyone who loves cornball pantomime -- a genre apparently as dead as our ideals. Woe is us!