The Wizard of Oz

In my opinion, if there is such thing out there as a Perfect Movie, it’s the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.”  And the thing is, it’s a movie experience we all share.  Just about everyone has seen “The Wizard of Oz.”  When people start talking about movie remakes, I’ve often heard someone say, “they better not touch ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ “  But the film we all know and love was far from being the first trip to Oz to make it to the screen.  Several Oz films were produced during the silent era, including this slapstick version of “The Wizard of Oz” from 1925.

The man at the center of this production is silent film comedian Larry Semon.  Semon was extremely popular in the 1920’s.  He made over a hundred films before his death in 1928.  Some say he was as popular as legends like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but he is largely forgotten today.  Interestingly enough, one of his frequent co-stars was another silent comedy legend…Oliver Hardy, before he began working with Stan Laurel.

The film begins with a elderly man (played by Semon) putting his granddaughter on his knee to read the book “The Wizard of Oz.”  At least that’s the title on the book.  The story he ends up reading has almost no resemblance to the story we all know.  It begins in the Land of Oz, which is currently under the control of the nasty Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard).  The people of Oz are beginning to revolt as they have been waiting for years for the return of their true ruler, a lost princess.  This is an element that is similar to the story of Ozma, the ruler of Oz from L. Frank Baum’s original books.

The story then shifts to a farm in Kansas where a girl named Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.  I use the word “girl” loosely as she is quite grown up.  There are also several farmhands, including Semon and Hardy.  There is also an African-American farmhand with the unfortunate name of “Snowball.”  Perhaps more unfortunate is the name used by the actor who played him…G. Howe Black (his actual name was Spencer Bell and he appeared with Semon in many films).  What follows is a series of slapstick sequences as Semon and Hardy attempt to win Dorothy’s affection.

As the film progresses, we learn that Dorothy is approaching her 18th birthday.  But to her surprise, she finds out that as a baby she was found by her Aunt and Uncle with a note that she was not to open until she turned 18.  But before she gets the chance to open it, a garrison from Oz led by Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer) comes to the farm demanding the letter.  The letter contains the royal decree that she is the true ruler of Oz, so if she never gets to open it, Kruel can continue to rule.  Another slapstick chase sequence follows, ending with Semon, Hardy, Dorothy, and Uncle Henry in a farmhouse that is transported to Oz by way of a twister.  Snowball makes the trip too, chased by a lightning bolt.

In Oz, our heroes have to escape from Wikked and his men.  Semon tries to fool them by disguising himself as a scarecrow.  Hardy disguises himself by rummaging through a junk pile and emerging as the Tin Woodman.  Though they get some help from The Wizard, the ruse doesn’t last long.  Semon ends up a prisoner in the palace and Hardy ends up working for the enemy.  More slapstick hijinks follow in the dungeons of the palace where Snowball disguises himself as…you guessed it, a lion.  Somehow, Semon needs to escape from the prison and rescue Dorothy before it’s too late.

Sound like the story you remember?  Didn’t think so.  Just the fact that this is sooooo different from the classic story that everyone knows is a huge stumbling block for many viewers when watching this movie.  Why did Semon, who also co-wrote and directed this film, feel the need to stray so far from the source material?  Who knows!  But hey, it’s not like Hollywood hasn’t changed other famous works of literature to suit their fancy. It’s interesting, though…many people who know Semon’s other films, often say this is not one of his finer moments.  But because of the famous 1939 Oz film, this is now the film he is most remembered for.

Completely ignoring the Oz element, and just looking at the slapstick, the film is not bad.  The gags and chases are funny and there were some stunts that were pretty amazing.  It’s reasonable to think that many of these stunts may have been performed by the actual actors.  Many of them made my heart skip at how dangerous they appeared.  The scene where Semon gets swiped at by an actual lion would never be allowed by SAG today!  There’s certainly no denying the comic skills of Semon, and Hardy’s talent goes without saying…even if he’s under used here.  Dorothy Dwan (who was also Mrs. Larry Semon) is fun to watch as well, playing the most adult and seductive version of Dorothy there’s been.

But, the film has it’s problems as well.  Chief among them is the sense that this was a essentially a vanity project for Semon.  He is at the center of pretty much every scene and goes out of his way to draw attention to himself.  He even goes as far as to wear a huge gemstone ring (most likely an expensive personal purchase) in the scenes where he portrays the farmhand.  What Kansas farmhand ever owned such bling bling, I ask?  It seems like he’s trying to say to the audience, “Hey, look what I bought.”  Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it’s horribly out of place.

This take on “The Wizard of Oz” is an interesting curiosity that most classic film fans will want to experience at some point.  Even if his take on the Oz story is a bit illconceived, this film does demonstrate that Larry Semon was an talented silent film artist.  I am anxious to experience more of his works in the future.

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