The Strong Man at the PFA

I caught the Frank Capra/Harry Langdon comedy The Strong Man at the Pacific Film Archive Sunday. It was my first chance seeing it on the big screen. The movie has three bust-a-gut hilarious sequences, and it was great to share the gut-busting with a real audience.

When I entered the theater, I stopped to say “hello” to pianist Judith Rosenberg, who would be accompanying the silent film. I mentioned that I owned the film on Laserdisc, and she pulled me aside and asked me about it. This would be her first time seeing The imageStrong Man.

There was only one moment in the movie where I could sense her uncertainty—a gag with a canon where she wasn’t sure when it would go off. But I doubt the rest of the audience, which didn’t know she was watching the movie for the first time, noticed the hesitation. Overall, Rosenberg gave her usual excellent performance, supporting the movie without overshadowing it.

Put it another way: I didn’t miss the Carl Davis orchestra score on my Laserdisc. That’s saying a lot, since I’m a Davis fan and until Sunday, it was the only score for The Strong Man I ever heard.

The movie itself suffers from a bit too much moralizing and sentimentality. There’s a humor-free, Langdon-free expository section in the middle that’s nothing but moralizing and sentimentality. What’s more, Capra and Langdon gave the movie a blind ingénue five years before Chaplin did the same in City Lights, but unlike Chaplin, they didn’t find a workable way to make sightlessness funny. Instead, they put her on a pedestal so high that she was simply dull.

But all that is forgiven when you laugh. And The Strong Man provides plenty of laughs.

I waited more than 20 years to see The Strong Man theatrically. You may never get a chance, but the movie is available on DVD as part of a three-feature, one-disc collection, Harry Langdon…the Forgotten Clown. It’s available on Netflix.

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