Sunday, July 4, 2010

100 years, 100 films 17: The Strong Man (1926)

The first half of this movie is brilliant. Harry Langdon, the baby faced silent comedian, plays a Belgian who fought the Germans during World War 1. After the war is over, he goes to America looking for "Mary Brown," a woman he was pen pals with during the war. He wanders around America for a while, trying to find Mary Brown, and this stuff is some of the funniest slapstick comedy I have ever seen. There is a scene where, through a ridiculous set of circumstances, Langdon is forced to take a woman (who is pretending to have fainted) up a long flight of stairs, to the woman's apartment. What Langdon (and the director, Frank Capra) does with those stairs is, frankly, amazing.

But then Langdon winds up in a small town, the film goes through an abrupt tonal shift, and becomes terrible. There are scenes of such utter garbage after the half way mark that it becomes difficult to believe that they are actually the same movie. The small town Langdon winds up in has been (gasp!) infected with sin! There is a (gasp! gasp!) tavern, where people (gasp! gasp! gasp!) drink and dance, because they (gasp! gasp! gasp! gasp!) ENJOY IT! Fortunately, the town preacher hates fun and is determined to stop it at all costs. Also, the preacher's daughter is named Mary Brown, and she is blind. That's right, the woman Langdon was pen pals with in the army was a blind preacher's daughter. How did she write those letters if she's blind? Is her blindness just a horrible and unpardonable attempt to ring the most amount of sympathy for Langdon's character as possible? Why does this film expect me to be on the side of the preacher, when I would obviously much rather hang out in the bar with the people who, you know, enjoy themselves? Is the entire second half of the movie just badly done and infuriatingly sacharine pro-Prohibitonist tripe, and do I like all the characters the movie assumes I hate, and hate, hate, hate, hate all the characters I'm supposed to like? Would I punch the preacher in his stupid goddamn joyless face if given the opportunity? The answer to those questions is as follows: never explained, yes (obviously), because the movie is an idiot, yes, and oh god yes.

Watching this movie was actually an interesting experience. I've never seen a film quite like this before. I've never before seen a film actually deteriate as I was watching it. It went from a hilarious comedy to an awful piece of garbage right before my eyes. I've never before had my love for a movie so harshly and completely trampled by a film's second half. The first half doesn't become less funny because of the fact that the second half was so abysmal, but the second half isn't better just because the first half was so good. So yeah, I don't really know what to say about this film. Is it great, or is it terrible? It's both, I guess.

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