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One of Harry Langdon's movies calls his character "just a crumb off the spongecake of life," and it's hard to top that description. Also instructive is the overall title Kino gives this collection of the comedian's first three features - "Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown." Silent-comedy connoisseurs have usually ranked him below Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton on the laugh meter, and even Harold Lloyd has claimed more attention from critics and fans. Still, he's never completely faded from memory, partly because legendary filmmaker Frank Capra directed two of his best-known pictures.

The movies presented on this three-cassette series, all made in the mid-1920s, show every side of Langdon's decidedly odd talent. He usually plays a sort of child-man character that anticipates screen personalities like Pee-Wee Herman and Pinky Lee by decades. His comedy takes its cue from two basic situations: some kind of daunting physical challenge, like World War I combat or a coast-to-coast walkathon, and his desperate longing for a woman who barely knows he's alive. In the better Langdon movies, humor and pathos arise from the contrast between our hero's inadequacies and his dogged determination to overcome the huge hurdles in his path. His pictures lack the slapstick energy often found in Chaplin and Keaton classics, but his character is strangely fascinating even when the story seems uncertain where it wants to go.

The best of this batch is "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," where he woos Joan Crawford while competing in a cross-country walking race. "The Strong Man" starts on a battlefield and ends in a vaudeville theater, and "Long Pants" finds him dallying with a femme fatale while his girl-next-door fiance wonders if their wedding day will ever arrive. It's unlikely other Langdon features will surface on video, since after these three he directed himself in a series of barely remembered flops. That gives all the more value to Kino's handsomely produced series, which also includes a couple of the comedian's vintage Mack Sennett shorts. (Not rated; Kino Video)

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