By Doug Gibson
Ever heard of Larry Semon? That's all right. Few have. He was a silent movie comic. His physical comedy and sad sack face made him very popular in one-reelers, but his character had a tough time creating pathos with viewers. He needed to be seen in small doses.
Semon had ambition, though, and in the mid 1920s he worked with the son of the late L. Frank Baum, to bring Baum's Wizard of Oz series to the big screen. The 1925 film (versions range from 72 to 81 minutes) is a curio. A huge flop at the box office -- it more or less ruined Semon's career -- it is nevertheless fascinating. It's a so-bad-it's-interesting ego trip from a star who desperately needed a director other than himself. Still, there are moments -- particularly at the beginning of the film -- that feature talented slapstick comedy. Yet, in this film are Semon, of course, big fat slapstick veteran Frank Alexander, a very young Oliver Hardy and Semon's very pretty wife, Dorothy Dwan.
Here's the film in a few paragraphs: We start in Oz, where Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) and the citizens are upset with corrupt leaders, including Prime Minister Kruel. The bad leaders consult the Wizard, a con man, who suggests they bring the lost Princess Dorothy back. We cut now to Kansas, where the womanly Dorothy (Dwan) lives with Aunt Em, (Mary Carr) a limp dishrag of a woman, and Uncle Henry (Alexander) a big, fat domestic abuser. He literally punches anyone he meets.
Competing for Dorothy's love are farmhands Semon and Hardy. There is a black farmhand named Snowball. Be advised the film is very racist and the character, played by actor Spencer Bell, is billed as "G. Howe Black." (Later in the film, Semon's character lets loose with a tasteless racist jab at Bell's character) Ths racism was unfortunately the norm for those times.
The film meanders on coherently while the characters are in Kansas. It's cliche-ridden, but there are talented, physical slapstick gags with Semon, Hardy and Alexander. There's a funny bit with bees, and another with a swing. But once the main characters are blown to Oz in a shack it loses all sense. The first nonsensical twist is having Aunt Em -- who is in the wind-guided shack -- disappear when they arrive. It gets worse: Semon turns into the Scarecrow, Hardy the Tin Man and Bell the cowardly lion, but they really aren't these characters. They are disguises. Alexander briefly turns into a good guy, then reverts to being a bad guy. Incomprehensibly, Hardy's Tin Man turns bad too.
Finally, Dwan's Dorothy more or less disappears from the film, becomes betrothed to Prince Kynd, and wants to see Semon's Scarecrow done away with, too! In fact, the film degenerates into a series of bad slapstick gags designed to showcase Semon trying to outwit the Oz folk who want to capture him. The Wizard (Charles Murray) is still hanging around. By then it's really no longer Baum's Wizard of Oz. It's just an overlong, badly paced Semon slapstick show.
As I mentioned, the film bombed. Semon's career was almost ruined. He puttered around in films for a few more years, then died young. Many believe stress over his bankruptcy contributed to his death. For a long time this film was considered obscure and very hard to find. Lately, though it has popped up on DVD, either as an extra to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, or as the feature attraction in a DVD of silent versions of Baum's Oz tales (there are several as far back as 1910). It has also been shown recently on Turner Classic Movies. In fact, it was last on Dec. 26.
I will say one good thing about the silent Wizard of Oz. Semon's Scarecrow very much resembles in looks and mannerisms of Ray Bolger's much-lauded Scarecrow in the later classic. It seems clear that Bolger did borrow from Semon's portrayal and also managed to bring the empathy to the character that Semon could not achieve. Cult movies fans should note that many of Semon's silent shorts can be purchased today via brick-and-mortar and online stores.