The Wizard of Oz (1925)
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In the 1925 silent, Wizard of Oz, director/comedian Larry Semon offers a substantial reworking of L. Frank Baum's classic 1900 fairy tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and a precursor to the more commonly known 1939 M-G-M/Victor Fleming adaptation of The Wizard of Oz about the innocent Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) and her adventures over the rainbow with a scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion (minus a little dog named Toto).
The bracketing story of Wizard of Oz involves a toy maker (Semon) who reads Baum's story to his granddaughter. Semon then alternates between scenes of Dorothy down on the farm, and the coup d'etat underway in the magical fantasy land of Oz where the citizens are demanding the return of their queen.
In Oz, the evil despot Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard) who has overthrown the beloved Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) rules over the objections of his irate subjects.
Back in Kansas as she nears the eve of her 18th birthday, Dorothy learns that she was left on the doorstep of the caretakers she has assumed were her relatives, Aunt Em (Mary Carr) and Uncle Henry (Frank "Fatty" Alexander) as a baby. The baby Dorothy was placed in their care along with a sealed letter, not to be opened until she turns 18.
Before she can learn the secret of that letter, Dorothy and Aunt Em and Uncle Henry's three Kansas farmhands (Larry Semon, as the scarecrow, Oliver Hardy as the tin woodsman and African-American actor Spencer Bell as the lion) are caught up in a twister and land in the magical land of Oz where Dorothy is declared Queen.
Wizard of Oz was not popular with audiences and some critics disdained its "custard pie atmosphere," as Picture Play noted. The slapstick was overplayed and contemporary audiences will undoubtedly recoil at the film's crude racist caricatures.
African-American actor Bell, unfortunately, comes off the worst in Semon's hopelessly dated and often offensive comic vision. His character is introduced in a crude vignette, eating a watermelon. Semon's unpleasant characterization of Bell continues, missing few opportunities to propagate racist stereotype by billing the actor as "G. Howe Black."
L. Frank Baum's son was a writer on Semon's Wizard of Oz though that didn't seem to compel the filmmakers to stick very closely to Baum Sr.'s story. Making the film was a lifelong ambition of Semon's and he paid a large amount to the Baum estate to secure rights to the book. Dorothy was played by director Semon's soon-to-be-wife who married Semon just before the film's release.
Wizard of Oz was to be the highlight of Semon's comic and directorial career, a career that left him almost as well-compensated as fellow comedian Charlie Chaplin, though he was never able to establish as engaging and consistent a comic character as that comedian's Little Tramp.
The son of traveling vaudeville performer Zera the Great, as a young man Semon worked as a newspaper cartoonist. His comic skills eventually led to a job in 1916 writing gags for Vitagraph films where his rollicking, manic comic style eventually became one of the studio's top-grossing products. By 1917 he had been promoted to a director of the Hughie Mack series of comedies. He would later produce, write, direct and star in the silent comedies he made at Vitagraph's newly established West Coast operation, where newly discovered comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in his films.
Unfortunately, Semon's Wizard of Oz helped usher in the comedian's film descent. The film exhibited his tendency to recycle the same jokes and slapstick bits in film after film without sticking to consistent characters and a cohesive story, an especially annoying tendency when Semon was dealing with such a well known and beloved story as The Wizard of Oz.
Released by the Poverty Row Chadwick Pictures, the film was exhibited as a special road show engagement. But the film was booked into many theaters that never even received a print of Wizard of Oz because Chadwick Pictures went bankrupt, along with Semon's career.
Semon's own story ended unhappily. His attempt at a comeback after the disastrous Wizard of Oz in Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) proved unsuccessful. Bankruptcy eventually forced Semon back into performing on Vaudeville tours. He ended up in a sanitarium after suffering a nervous breakdown and tuberculosis and died soon after, under mysterious circumstances, at age 39.
Director: Larry Semon
Producer: Larry Semon, I.E. Chadwick
Screenplay: Larry Semon and Leon Lee from the book by L. Frank Baum
Cinematography: Frank B. Good, H.F. Koenenkamp, Leonard Smith
Production Design: Robert Stevens
Music: Robert Israel
Cast: Larry Semon (Scarecrow/Toymaker/Farmhand), Bryant Washburn (Prince Kynde), Dorothy Dwan (Dorothy/Princess Dorothea), Virginia Pearson (Lady Vishuss), Charles Murray (The Wizard), Oliver Hardy (The Woodsman/Knight of the Garter/Farmhand), Josef Swickard (Prime Minister Kruel), Mary Carr (Aunt Em), G. Howe Black (Cowardly Lion/Rastus), Otto Lederer (Ambassador Wikked), Frank Alexander (Prince of Whales/Uncle Henry).
by Felicia Feaster