Director – Larry Semon, Screenplay – L. Frank Baum Jr., Leon Lee & Larry Semon, Based on the Novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Photography (b&w) – Frank Good, H.F. Koenenkamp & Leonard Smith, Art Direction – Robert Stephens. Production Company – Chadwick Pictures
Larry Semon (The Scarecrow/The Toymaker), Dorothy Dwan (Dorothy), Charles Murray (The Wizard), Oliver N. Hardy (The Tin Woodsman), Frank Alexander (Uncle Henry), G. Howe Black (Snowball/The Cowardly Lion), Josef Swickand (Prime Minister Kruel), Otto Lederer (Ambassador Wikked), Mary Carr (Auntie Em), Bryant Washburn (Prince Kynd)
The kingdom of Oz is in trouble – Princess Dorothea, the rightful heir to the throne, must claim the crown before her eighteenth birthday but is missing. In Kansas, Dorothy is an orphan who lives on a farm with her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em and is unrequitedly loved by two bumbling farmhands. As Dorothy’s eighteenth birthday approaches, Uncle Henry promises to show her the papers that were left beside her when she was found in a basket on the doorstep. Ambassador Wikked arrives from Oz and he and his villains try to prevent Dorothy from claiming her birthright as the princess. A tornado comes and whips the house containing Dorothy, Henry and the farmhands away, depositing them in Oz. Prime Minister Kruel tries to have the farmhands arrested but they are aided by The Wizard, a court charlatan who helps disguise them as a scarecrow, a tin woodsman and a lion and then pretends that he has brought them to life. The three bumbling idiots try to prevent Dorothy from being fooled into marrying Prime Minister Kruel.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a genuine classic of American cinema and has a much loved place in people’s hearts. What few people realise is that it was not the first version of the L. Frank Baum stories but in fact the ninth. A number of other Oz films had made during the silent era, including one directed by L. Frank Baum himself with His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (1914), as well as The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914) and The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914), from the production company that Baum set up. Other film versions included The Wizard of Oz (1908), The Wizard of Oz (1910), Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz (1910), The Land of Oz (1910) and The Wizard of Oz (1921), most of which are lost today.
This version was made by Larry Semon, a popular slapstick comedian of the silent era who appeared in some 120 films between 1915 and 1928. Larry Semon was extremely prolific (making an average of 10 films a year). Although almost entirely forgotten today, Larry Semon was once considered up alongside more famous silent comedy stars like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in terms of popularity by audiences of the day. Semon directed most of his own films and was known for elaborate slapstick routines and stuntwork, which often escalated the budgets of his films. Larry Semon unfortunately never found a means of adapting his comedy routines to the growing sophistications of his audiences and was regarded as passe by the arrival of the sound era. Semon put a good deal of his own money into Wizard of Oz but the film was a massive financial flop – although ironically it is the only of his films that Larry Semon is remembered for today, solely for the novelty value that it presents in comparison to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz. (The one other novelty that Wizard of Oz 1925 has is as an early performance from Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy fame who plays the role of one of the farmhand who becomes the Tin Woodsman. Larry Semon employed both Laurel and Hardy on many of his early films, although never together. Ironically the financial collapse of Wizard of Oz was indirectly responsible for creating Laurel and Hardy – it put an end to Hardy’s employment as part of the Semon stock company whereupon he was taken on by Hal Roach Studios and paired up with Stan Laurel).
Though this version claims to be co-written by the son of L. Frank Baum, most of the elements of the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) have either been thrown out or drastically altered. It is best to put all thought of the 1939 Wizard of Oz from one’s mind before watching this version, otherwise the comparisons make for a bewildering experience. The most notable difference might be that this version places all the emphasis on slapstick comedy. Dorothy is not even the central character of this story – instead the central character is Larry Semon’s happy-go-lucky idiot of a farmhand who becomes The Scarecrow. There are no Munchkins, no Wicked Witch of the West and no Yellow Brick Road. Uncle Henry has been recast as a bawling, bad-tempered martinet. The Wizard is still present but rather than being the ruler of Oz who hides behind smoke and mirrors, he is merely a court magician, and rather than be exposed as a charlatan, he is some who openly admits he is when we first meet him. Dorothy’s companions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion are present, but these are only disguises adopted by her three farmhand companions during the slapstick shenanigans that occur as they flee from soldiers. There is no quest for attributes – heart, brains and courage – by the various supporting characters; at most, Dorothy spends some of the story searching for her true heritage.
Moreover, while Dorothy is an orphan, she is also found to be a lost princess of Oz (a background she never had in any of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books). Dorothy Dwan, who plays Dorothy (and married Larry Semon just before the film’s premiere), is probably not that much older an actress than Judy Garland was in her turn in the role. However, the film portrays Dorothy as much more of an adult character than MGM did with Garland, who had to be given corsets to hide her breasts and make her seem more adolescent. On the other hand, this film’s Dorothy is wooed by two idiotic farmhands and fought over by a rogue in Oz who has conniving plans to marry her. This is, if anything, Dorothy recast as a Mary Pickford or even a Pearl White heroine – she is pursued by villains in black capes with little Zapatero pencil mustaches and at one point is strung up to the water tower on the farm with a fire burning beneath the rope just like a cliffhanger from The Perils of Pauline (1914).
In fact, the entire story of The Wizard of Oz has been twisted around and turned into a vehicle for Larry Semon’s slapstick. In comparison to the 1939 version, for instance, the scenes in the Kansas barnyard take up half of this film’s running time. Here Larry Semon creates numerous slapstick sequences with him running around trying to slip a lollypop into Dorothy Dwan’s pocket as she talks to Oliver Hardy; getting water squirted in his face by a duck; unleashing a hive of bees; a mosquito landing on his nose and getting stuck down the back of his shirt; Dorothy Dwan on a swing that invariably snaps and causes her to land on a pile of barrels that then fly through the air to land on the two clowns; the pompous Uncle Henry being dumped in the mud. We do eventually get a tornado – some 43 minutes into the film’s 81 minute running time – and it does whip the farmhouse away and deposit it in Oz. In fact, the tornado sequence takes much longer than it does in the 1939 version, but the sequence is also much more concerned with slapstick – with Larry Semon getting zapped by a lightning bolt every step he takes and with farmhand G. Howe Black hiding in a barrel but then being zapped by lightning and made to run through the air until he lands inside the house as it takes off. By contrast, L. Frank Baum has the tornado and all of the Kansas scenes take place during the book’s first dozen pages.
Even when we do arrive in Oz, the fantasy content is next to nil. As director, Larry Semon is interested only in slapstick comedy to the exclusion of almost all else. Almost immediately upon arrival, the film jumps into scenes with Semon disguised as The Scarecrow kicking butts and clonking heads and a long and exhausting sequence with the heroes running around avoiding soldiers by hiding under crates and in a lion’s cage. All of which might have been perfectly adequate entertainment for the audience of the silent era, but today seems excruciatingly drawn out.
Beneath this, some of the humour is undeniably racist. The Black farmhand Snowball (G. Howe Black) is introduced sitting in a field eating melon: “A promising case of meloncholic,” the title card notes. Later when Semon and G. Howe Black end up in the lion cage, Semon sits back and lets Black be pursued by the lion while the title card notes: “I have heard that these alley cats like dark meat – personally I’m not afraid.” Snowball’s only character is that of the stupid and craven Black sidekick, trembling in fear at everything that happens.
The film also ends with a bizarre abruptness. Larry Semon is pursued up a tower where he is shot at by soldiers with cannons. As the tower starts collapsing, the others come past in a biplane and he grabs a rope ladder that is dropped and swings off to safety, only for the rope ladder to start coming loose. At this point, the film abruptly cuts back to the wraparound with The Toymaker finishing telling the story to the little girl. This is an ending that might have worked for a serial but for a film, it feels as though someone had lost a reel somewhere or was setting up a cliffhanger for a sequel that never transpired.