There was a time when both Joan Crawford and Frank Capra were working for the success of the very same man. He was none other than Harry Langdon, one of the most popular comedians of the 1920s. Just like many others, he started his career under the supervision of Mack Sennett and by 1926 he was confident enough to settle his own production company. Many say this was the beginning of his decline. It may be so, but one thing is for sure: it was also the beginning of Joan Crawford’s rise.
The first comedy that the Harry Langdon Corporation produced was “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp”, which was also the very first feature film Harry Langdon has ever appeared in. The movie’s title refers to the lines of a popular Civil War song: “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching, cheer up comrades they will come”. The lyrics are adequate enough, since the story features Harry, the son of a poor shoemaker, who participates in a huge walking competition all across the American continent in the hope of the high prize and the love of the shoe manufacturer’s daughter he’s been admiring for long.
Even though Langdon’s faithful team of writers (would-be director Frank Capra was also among them) and director friend, Harry Edwards, were glad to stay by his side, he needed a new leading lady very urgently. The story of his upcoming movie didn’t require someone with huge acting experience – all they needed was a girl who looked well in front of the movie camera.
Those days Joan Crawford had high hopes of becoming a renown actress. Nonetheless her career began only the previous year and she had no opportunity yet to shine her acting abilities in her movies. She was given bit parts in low quality films at MGM and only her relationships with most of the men in leading positions kept her going. Since she was not missed at all, MGM was glad to loan her to Harry Langdon’s company.
Joan was forced to accept the role but she was deeply dissatisfied with it. She was hoping for a breakthrough but instead she had to play an unimportant romantic interest to Langdon with very little to do, something she thought was not much better than her roles at MGM.
“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” was a wistful comedy but the picture belonged to Harry Langdon. I was playing not second fiddle, not third fiddle, but more like fifth fiddle to Harry’s comic stunts.
It is true that her character is not a very accurately worked out one. In the movie her posters advertising shoes spread all over America and these posters probably show up more often than she does personally. She mainly serves as a subject for a couple of gags and strangely enough she also falls for Harry’s character at the first possible moment – which is quite hard to understand considering his foolish behavior and the huge social gap between them.
Even though Joan felt bad about her role, she is reported to have had a good time on the set. Frank Capra recalled later that during her only big scene with Harry she was laughing so hard that she was asked to turn backwards the camera, so her laughing fit wouldn’t be that noticeable. In spite of all that, years later she remembered Harry as a deeply unhappy person.
There seemed to be a deep dark hole in him, a hole he could never seem to climb out of. Working with him was a very remote, detached experience. He put on the required gestures and expressions, but as soon as the camera stopped rolling, he retreated into his own private self. He was self-destructive, got too big a head, thought he knew it all.
Her bitter words were surely influenced by Frank Capra’s long-lasting debate with Langdon which began after the end of their cooperation and which resulted in many ugly gossips that kept circulating about Harry long after his career had ended.
Crawford also profited from her brief association with a different make-up unit. Since the emphasis was on her appearance, not her acting, she was made up much more attractively than for her previous movies. The cameramen tried hard to photograph her the best possible way, and as a result her looks and moves seem especially gentle.
When I got back to MGM I had picked up some makeup tricks that I clued in the MGM people on. I was made up better for the camera from then on, I feel.
Period reviewers were only moderately enthusiastic. Many of them pointed out the movie’s similarities to Chaplin’s Gold Rush which was released the previous year and they didn’t praise Crawford, either, dismissing her as a “nice leading lady with little to do.” However from today’s point of view “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” is a perfectly innocent comedy with Harry Langdon’s antics in the limelight and everything else at the periphery.