Friday, November 20, 2015

Who was Larry Semon? New bio details silent clown's life

Review by Doug Gibson

When ever the subject of Larry Semon turns, I unconsciously think of that also-forgotten movie, “The Comic,” that Dick Van Dyke starred in almost 50 years ago. It dealt with a silent comedian, who after years of hard work attained fame, let his ego intrude, fell hard and lived out his life forgotten. Except that Larry Semon didn’t spend decades forgotten. He died soon after his fall, still making films, still trying to seduce a bemused public — who no longer cared for his talents — into returning him his fame and fortune.

Semon literally worked himself to death, dying in 1928 after about two months of convalescence, a body worn down by over-work, stress and failure. He was still a “movie star,” with a beautiful wife, and lived well, although he could no longer afford it. Film historian Claudia Sassen, a cartoonist and member of the faculty at Technical University of Dortmund, Germany, has done a commendable job with “Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen,” McFarland, 2015. (800-253-2187) That a biography of Semon would come from Germany is no surprise as his popularity has endured there.

Sassen’s biography shows a lot of research, a valuable addition to serious scholarship of silent cinema. It provides insight into Semon’s family, his early upbringing in a traveling show business family (his father was a magician), Semon’s success as a newspaperman cartoonist and writer (he wrote an expose, learned from his dad, of how magicians did their levitating tricks, etc.), and his tension-filled relationships with studios, such as Vitagraph. He attained stardom in one- and two-reel shorts working with future stars such as Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and sturdy slapstick veterans like Hughie Mack, Patsy DeForest, and Frank Alexander.

Semon was a perfectionist; his two-reelers usually cost far more in money and time than others of that era. This indirectly led to his career downfall as legal battles with Vitagraph hampered the box office potential of his feature films. Sassen describes an entertainer who was single-minded, aloof to most of the cast and crew, and downright cold to his first wife and only child, whom he essentially abandoned with an increasingly modest stipend. 

As Sassen notes, he thrived in the early era of slapstick, with daredevil stunts, fast-paced action and little drama or romance. He was good at it. Watch his early silents on YouTube or other sources; some of the stunts are amazing. But this was a subgenre that didn’t require a star with pathos. And to be very frank, Larry Semon cannot generate pathos; the audience does not feel sorry for this funny-faced jokester. But he is funny. “The Saw Mill” from 1922, shows Semon, along with Oliver Hardy, at his best in crazy comedy.

A chief strength of the biography is its insight into the film world that Semon helped shape, how films were made, the value placed on actors and crew. And the drama of Semon’s life can entertain. particularly his ill-fated affair with co-star Lucille Carlisle, and his battles with studio executives.

Like many other two-reel comedians, Semon’s fortunes turned south when he moved in features. If anyone has seen a Larry Semon feature, it tends to be the 1925 “Wizard of Oz,” which is an extra on “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939, disc, pops up on Turner Classic Movies and online sources, including Amazon Prime. The film is, and I’m not exaggerating, jaw-droppingly bad. It doesn’t even have the ability to improve on repeat viewings. Every so often, I watch the film again, hoping to like it even a little, to no avail. It still stinks.

“Wizard of Oz” is an ego-trip film. One from a director/star so self-absorbed that he thought he could tamper with a classic, turn it into a tedious melodrama with Dorothy as a supporting player, a passive participant to the silly pratfalls of Semon’s “Scarecrow,” Hardy’s “Tin Man,” and an of-the-times racist caricature (“G. Howe Black”) as the cowardly lion. Characters switch roles so often ones gets a headache trying to decipher an indecipherable plot. “Uncle Henry” is a morbidly obese domestic abuser (Alexander)!

This review, provided in Sasser’s biography, appropriately summarizes the film: “Mr. Semon, How Could You? Listen folks, if you want to see something that will make you sick, see The Wizard of Oz played by our eminent comedian, Larry Semon. ... But I surely wasn’t prepared for what I got — a regular Semon comedy under the disguise of The Wizard of Oz. ... When you are transferring a well-known and well-loved story to the screen, is it necessary needlessly to butcher the plot?” ... Larry Semon, you owe an apology to the people who have read the Oz books, and do humble beg the pardon of Frank Baum’s memory for the wrong you have done this story.“

As Sassen notes, ”Wizard of Oz“ was eagerly awaited by many, and its first week of release, in Los Angeles, broke records. However, the film more or less bombed elsewhere.

Semon was sage enough financially to avoid much responsibility for the ’Wizard” fiasco. But, trying to turn failure into success, he made himself personally financially responsible for other films, including the now-forgotten ’Spuds.“ This broke Semon’s finances and the situation only worsened. As the biography notes, near the end of his life he couldn’t afford routine domestic costs, and had to rely financially on his last wife, actress Dorothy Dwan, who besides playing Dorothy in ”Wizard“ was having success in silent cowboy films.

Semon tried hard to change his career fortunes. He directed films, was frequently in vaudeville, massaged his character to be more subtle, like fellow comedian Harry Langdon, and even played a straight drama role in a crime drama, ”Underworld,“ which I’d love to see (Sassen writes highly of it). But he couldn’t shake the public perception that he represented a category of silent comedy, high-action slapstick, that was already antiquated by the latter 1920s. It would be resurrected in sound comedy shorts several years later, but Semon was dead.

It was officially pneumonia and tuberculosis that ended Semon’s life at 39 on Oct. 8, 1928. From reading Sassen’s biography, though, it seems stress and hard work, and perhaps bad health habits, had worn him out. His death, as Hollywood deaths sometimes do, have spawned myths that he really didn’t die, that he might have done a runner to avoid all those stresses. But that’s nonsense. Semon had a loyal wife, Dwan, who loved him and was working hard to maintain their household. And Semon was a driven, committed entertainer, not one to give up.

It would have been interesting to see if sound would have resurrected Semon nearer the top. We’ll never know; his wife, tired of show business, retired soon after his death. Sasson’s book is unlikely to bring Semon greater acclaim, but it is a valuable resource for fans of the genre.

1 comment:

Marilyn Slater said...

What a fabulous look in the book but more importantly a look at a clown that worked far too hard to get a laugh.