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By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

April 28, 2013

Editor’s Note: This wraps up our survey of pre-1939 Oz films. You can read previous installments here and here.

The 1925 silent film The Wizard of Oz was the brainchild of Larry Semon, who was briefly an important silent film comedian. It still exists intact in a beautiful print, complete on tinted film stock with the film changing tint from scene to scene, something we only get to see these days in the best-preserved of the silent films. A whole new orchestral soundtrack was included with the silent film as an extra in the 70th Anniversary boxed set of the famous 1939 MGM version.

The 1925 film is a historical artifact that is worth watching. It does not belong to any great fantasy film tradition, however.  Rather than being a straightforward adaptation of Baum’s book, instead it is more of a freestyle fantasia on Baum motifs. The film doesn’t even belong to the tradition of fairy tale fantasy or high fantasy — rather the fantasy elements are played as Ruritanian romance, where Oz becomes more of a fictional kingdom without magical elements, and where the plot centers more on intrigues at court and love triangles, rather than on any fantastical events.  

Ruritanian romance refers to stories set in imaginary kingdoms, usually modeled on European kingdoms prior to the end of the great monarchies. Such tales typically involve a lot of swashbuckling adventure, espionage and intrigue, and of course, love stories.  The model for the form are the two Graustark novels by Anthony Hope from the 1890’s, commencing with The Prisoner of Zenda, which was later a successful Hollywood talkie from the late 1930’s with David Niven. The popularity of this subcategory of fantasy literature waned after World War I, when the great monarchies started dying out. However, there are more modern manifestations, such as The Mouse that Roared by Leonard Wibberly, which I remember as a very entertaining movie vehicle for Peter Sellers from 1959. That story had a small Monaco-sized nation trying to start a war with the United States in the hope that they would lose and qualify for foreign aid.  Similarly, this Ruritanian version of Oz goes in more for parody — even melodrama — as characters are saddled with names like Prince Kynd, Lady Vishuss, and Prime Minister Kruel.

Since it is not exactly a fantasy film in the truest sense — despite being based on fantasy material — Larry Semon’s film is best evaluated in light of the checkered tradition of epic comedy. The definition of “epic comedy” is shifty, but by using that term I mean films that overreach usual comic subjects to take on vast vistas or huge casts, or films that are painted with much broader, more sweeping strokes than the typical comedy, but where comedy remains the main focus of the film. There are epic films that are comic, but where comedy is not the main focus, such as the Mummy films with Brendan Fraser or the Indiana Jones films.  By “epic comedy,” I am referring to films like The Blues Brothers, Ishtar, Spielberg’s 1941, or the granddaddy of them all, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Unfortunately, the thing that most characterizes “epic comedy” is that they tend to be bloated, over-budget projects that got out of control. Of the films I listed, the only one that was an unqualified financial success was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Even that film is not very good, but it sold a lot of tickets on the strength of its cast and the nostalgia value of putting a lot of old-time screen comedians on the screen for one last time.

The 1925 Oz is mostly a vehicle for Semon and his stable of silent film stars as they pratfall their way through sight gags and slapstick moments. Memorably, one of those stars is the young Oliver Hardy, who plays one of the three farmhands (the one who becomes the tin woodsman for part of the story).  Larry Semon directs himself in the film as a kind of early Woody Allen-style neurotic—a  slender, white-faced individual, unable to even get the ingenue’s attention, much less win her hand. Because it has not been bowdlerized for mass modern consumption, be warned: this film is not politically correct by modern standards. Silent movie comedian, Spencer Bell, an African-American actor who portrays the farmhand who becomes the Cowardly Lion, is billed with the hugely racist stage name of G. Howe Black and hen we first come upon him, he is lazing in a field munching on a big half moon slice of watermelon! Still, despite the very dated antics which many would find offensive today, Bell’s performance is endearing, and he is genuinely funny.

Dorothy is portrayed as an 18-year old ingénue, ripe for love. So she becomes the object of not one, but two, love triangles in the course of the story. The most obvious borrowing from this film in the 1939 version is the handling of the three farm hands who become, in turn, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion.  The Kansas section of this film is about equal in length to the Oz section, so we see the farmhands as themselves as much or more as we see them in costume.

Larry Semon spent a lot of money on this film, and that caused it to be a financial disaster for Chadwick Pictures, the company that produced it. The Wizard of Oz was the beginning of the end for Larry Semon. He had already been known as a big spender, to the point where his studio had ordered him to take a portion of the financial risk on the projects he was directing. It seems he had a tendency to build real buildings, instead of being satisfied with painted backdrops. After the failure of The Wizard of Oz, he was no longer involved in production and direction.  His once hugely successful career having suffered from a spectacular decline, he filed for bankruptcy in 1928, returned to vaudeville, suffered a nervous breakdown on the road, and died in a sanatorium.  His death is shrouded in mystery, and there is the potential for a conspiracy theory that he faked his own death to escape his creditors.

There is a tendency among film historians to overlook Semon or give him an overall negative evaluation. Those who have seen his legacy of great short films preceding The Wizard of Oz say that he was a sparkling artist, even a comic genius, and that he shouldn’t be evaluated based on his worst film. I would go a step further, however. I do not think that the 1925 Oz is a bad film, even though it is a bad adaptation of the Oz book — in fact, I think that Semon shines.  When I watched him, I sat up and took notice.  “Who is this guy?,” I asked. He looks like a young Stan Laurel, or a bit like Harold Lloyd. His comic ideas are genuinely funny. There is one moment when he stuffs a bunch of eggs in his back pocket and then gets smacked in the butt, leading you to think that the eggs have broken and left a mess. Then he shakes his leg and shells fall out on the ground, followed by a bunch of newly hatched chicks. It’s funny. The film is full of stuff like that.

The 1925 Oz is a colossal misfire, both as a comedy and as a fantasy film. But it looks wonderful, possessing visual moments that stand out against many films of its time. The storm sequence, with the house being blown to Oz, and some comic special effects involving lightning strikes, were done with special effects that look quite striking for a film of the mid-1920’s. And that’s just to single out one section of a very attractive film.  I daresay if Semon had filmed an original screenplay instead of trashing the beloved Oz books, he might have had a hit on his hands. Who knows?