Chester ConklinOliver HardypiratesLarry Semon
The Wizard of Oz (1925)
Medium: film
Year: 1925
Director: Larry Semon
Writer: Larry Semon, L. Frank Baum, Frank Joslyn Baum, Leon Lee
Keywords: Wizard of Oz, fantasy, comedy, silent, pirates
Country: USA
Actor: Larry Semon, Dorothy Dwan, Mary Carr, Virginia Pearson, Bryant Washburn, Josef Swickard, Charles Murray, Oliver Hardy, William Hauber, William Dinus, Frank Alexander, Otto Lederer, Frederick Ko Vert, Spencer Bell, Chester Conklin, Wanda Hawley, Allen 'Farina' Hoskins
Format: 95 minutes
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 10 May 2010
It's the only feature-length Wizard of Oz adaptation until the famous 1939 one. It's also easily the best-known of the silent ones, probably because its cast includes Oliver Hardy. However it's also ignoring almost everything in Baum's book and going off in a bunch of mad directions because it simply wants to be a knockabout silent comedy.
If you're looking for the Wizard of Oz, you'll be baffled. However to the contemporary audience, it was another Larry Semon film. Bigger and more expensive than anything he'd done before, but still basically more of the same. Here's an internet list I stole of the ingredients in a Larry Semon comedy. The credit belongs to Richard M. Roberts for Classic Images magazine:
1. Larry Semon;
2. A heroine (usually Larry's current girlfriend or wife);
3. A fat guy (usually Oliver Hardy to play the villain);
4. A really fat guy (usually Frank Alexander, to play Larry's current girlfriend's father);
5. Several stuntmen, one to play Larry in everything but mid-close shots and close-ups, and several more to be thrown off things;
6. Things to throw the stuntmen off of, usually water towers, barns, silos, smokestacks, or buildings in general;
7. Gooey or messy things, frequently utilized to dump onto the really fat guy or the really fat guy into. Includes but is not restricted to, mud baths, wet cement, large washtubs filled with eggs, flour sacks, feather pillows, and large pots or buckets labeled in large block letters GLUE, INK, JAM, MOLASSES, etc., and filled to the brim with said items;
8. Several mechanical means of transportation, including airplanes, motorcars, trains, and motorcycles;
9. Explosions, frequently used to destroy the things listed in numbers 6 and 8;
10. Plot (optional).
All that is true for his Wizard of Oz, although to his credit he's remembered the last one. He did indeed marry his leading lady, Dorothy Dwan, and the cast includes both Alexander and Hardy.
However the most important thing is the physical gags. Wow. Silent movie comedy is an eighth wonder of the world. Children who won't watch anything not in high definition with surround sound should be chained to a chair in front of the classic silent comedies. No one these days remembers Larry Semon, mostly because he died before the talkies came along, but in his day he'd been bigger than Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. What killed his career was his extravagance. He'd once been a cartoonist and he loved huge, insane sight gags that would blow up the cost of his two-reel shorts to more than anyone else's five-reelers. He'd blow up cars, topple water towers and stage aeroplane chase scenes. The man sounds insane. I like him already. The 1925 Wizard of Oz bankrupted everyone involved and gut-shot his career, incidentally.
In other words, steer clear if you're an Oz purist. However it's a masterpiece if you're looking for Looney Tunes logic and characters who can fall a hundred feet and then walk away from the resulting impact crater. It's not even pretending to make sense. Its hurricane is far more exciting than the 1939 one, but it has intelligent lightning that takes a personal dislike to Semon. Dorothy's garden swing goes thirty feet in the air. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's little farm in Kansas had presumably been inherited from a James Bond villain and has silos you could use to launch moon rockets. This is jaw-dropping... and dangerous! Had this film happened anywhere except inside Larry Semon's head, half the cast would have been pavement pizza. What makes it even more terrifying is that you know it's being done for real. Stuntmen climb so high you expect them to faint from oxygen deprivation, then jump off! Real lions slash Semon five times, once in the face. What happens at the end is so extreme that it's surely fatal even in the Semon-verse, but we then return to the framing story of Semon in old age make-up, reading The Wizard of Oz to a little girl.
Completely mad. That doesn't make this a great film, but it does make it an eye-popping one.
Personally I liked it. It's better during the first hour, while our heroes are still in Kansas. (No, honestly.) Semon's style of comedy works better in an outdoors environment with buildings and vehicles, whereas Oz is enclosed and so the film slows down a little. Comparatively speaking, that last half hour got a bit boring. However you've got to appreciate the sheer Bugs Bunny-ness of it all, with for instance a cloud of cartoon bees who chase you around if you annoy them. The sit-on-a-cactus business made me laugh too.
Then you've got the quality of the production. Semon's a good director. His cinematography sometimes has quite a modern eye, making the earlier Oz silents feel like the products of the Stone Age. I like the extreme close-ups, for instance. He might have spent money like water on this film, but you can see the results on screen. Furthermore he gets strong performances from his actors, with the few "Ouch Silent Movie" acting moments being rare enough to be surprising and quite a few of the cast managing to be good. Charles Murray and Spencer Bell both made me laugh with facial expressions, while I knew Semon had to be a recognised silent comedian even before I looked him up afterwards. He'll have the occasional set-piece that doesn't resemble our Earth acting, but that's generally because he's written a ridiculous bit of business for himself and he's arguably making a better fist of it than it deserved. Every so often Semon's character will keep being frustrated in doing something, for instance because he's shy towards Dorothy, or because he's being zapped by malicious lightning. He's a bit like a 1920s Pee-Wee Herman.
Oliver Hardy's almost thin, by the way, and playing one of Dorothy's love interests! He's quite good, while once or twice I got a Laurel & Hardy vibe from him and Semon. It was only a brief thing, though. However Dorothy's a cipher in what must be the most male-dominated Oz film ever made. It's not Dorothy Dwan's fault, but simply the fact that she's basically in an action movie.
Then there's Spencer Bell. This is going to be a tough one.
Bell is playing a black man called Snowflake who eats watermelon. He trembles with fear, he later becomes the Cowardly Lion and he's an outrageous racial stereotype. There's even a scene where lightning keeps striking him in the head and he just stands there grinning and oblivious, which only avoids being offensive through being so surreal as to be unintelligible, although I presume it's meant as a gag about brainlessness. If you choose to be offended by Snowflake, don't let me stand in your way. However it's worth pointing out that Bell is: (a) actually a black actor instead of being a white man in blackface make-up, (b) still less of a cartoon than most of the white characters, being neither hugely fat, greedy, evil or a lollipop-loving man-child, and (c) doing rather good work in the role.
The story is everything you're imagining and more. Nearly the first hour is spent on the farm in Kansas. Dorothy is really a princess of Oz, having been left with Uncle Henry and Auntie Em as a baby. We later learn that Prime Minister Kruel of Oz took her there, complete with a letter explaining about her royal birth, which seems a bit daft of him given that he's now desperately trying to bump her off and keep her from reading the letter he gave her. D'oh. This letter was to be opened on her eighteenth birthday (today), which coincidentally happens to be the day Kruel starts trying to remember where he left it. D'oh d'oh. Also note the names. His sidekicks are called Lady Vishuss and Ambassador Wikked, while his enemy is called Prince Kynd. Kynd ends up marrying Dorothy. I hope they've checked they're not brother and sister, although I presume Oz wouldn't be having that succession crisis if they were.
That's an awful lot of plot holes for what's basically an excuse for sight gags.
Oz is unrecognisable. Oh, it looks as it should, if you don't mind the dungeons being guarded by pirates and full of real lions. However it's not magical in the slightest if you don't count stuff that belongs in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, despite the "medicine-show hokum hustler" who passes for a Wizard. It's clearly some tinpot Eastern European country, somewhere between Imperial Russia and Zenda. They've got biplanes and cannons. Prime Minister Kruel calls himself a dictator and wears a Napoleon hat, since 1925 is too early for Hitler references.
This film is both ridiculous and technically impressive. Some of its special effects are so good that it almost feels like a category error to call them effects, since you'll be picking your jaw off the ground at the fact that they really flew the house. Well, woodshed. Dorothy Dwan's neckline as the queen is also mildly surprising. There's a lot that can be said about this film, but at the end of the day it comes down to cartoonish gags like the chase scene in upside-down boxes. It looks great, but don't try to understand it. Were the men inside teleporting or just playing with goblins? If nothing else, this film has fired up my enthusiasm for checking out more silent comedies.