Larry Semon: Comedy Powerhouse and Pioneer

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From the late teens through the late twenties, Larry Semon was one of the most successful silent comedians in the country, second only to Chaplin in popularity and salary. This despite a last name more appropriate for a porn star!

Semon was born the son of a vaudeville magician named Zera the Great while touring in West Point, Mississippi in 1889. Zera’s full first name was Zerubabel, and he himself was the son of Emanuel Seaman, a Jew who immigrated to New York from Amsterdam in 1824. That the younger generation Semons continued to consider themselves cultural Jews is indicated by the fact the Larry’s first wife (m. 1909) was young Augusta Rosenbaum.

This wonderful new information reaches me by way of this terrific Haaretz article, which in turn came from Claudia Sasser’s 2015 book Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent ScreenThis bulletin about his identity (if it was generally known I’ve never seen it it any book or article about the comedian prior to this, and I’m pretty widely read in the topic) I think deserves a full new appreciation and evaluation of the comedian. Yes, Max Davidson had preceded Semon to the big screen, but Davidson’s stereotype Hebrew character appealed most to a niche demographic. And yes Weber and Fields had made films, but just a couple of them, and the guys were past their prime. But Semon — I think it would be safe and accurate now to call him the first major, mainstream Jewish screen comedian in America. That’s a big thing. Before Jolson, Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers — Larry Semon. It’s like the whole narrative history of Jewish screen comedy needs to be rewritten!

At any rate, Semon participated in his dad’s magic act until he was 13, doing acrobatics and pantomime. His father’s dying wish, however, was that Larry stay off the stage and honor his talent for drawing by going to art school, which he subsequently did. By his early twenties, Semon was a popular cartoonist for the NY Evening Sun. As we have seen in our description of Willie Hammerstein, famous cartoonists drawing cartoons onstage were occasionally considered a vaudeville viable act. In 1913, Semon made his vaudeville debut at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.

Semon had an inventive gag mind, ripe with visual imagery, and surreal, uncanny effects no doubt the fruit years spent studying both magic and illustration. It was only natural that the silent film industry would hire someone whose brain worked like his to write and direct comedies. Vitagraph snatched him up in 1916. By the next year, he’d convinced them to let him star. He was a weird looking clownish dude, and the gags he invented were enough to make him a big hit with audiences despite the fact that he was no actor. Successful shorts included Huns and Hyphens, Frauds and Frenzies and Bears and Badmen (they all had titles like that). Among his collaborators were director Norman Taurog, who was to be a director of awful Hollywood comedies for the next fifty years, and Stan Laurel.

Semon with a young Stan Laurel in “Frauds & Frenzies” (1918)

He amassed his own stock company, whose members included Oliver Hardy (still separate from Laurel), Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Spencer Bell, and two leading ladies/ wives: Lucille Carlisle (1922-23) and Dorothy Dwan (1925-28, his death).

Semon contends with an animated bee

Semon had a highly distinctive style, characterized by surreal, nonsensical, extravagant gags sometimes involving specially designed props or animation. In Chain of Fools, I made the case that he was an influence on Buster Keaton. He also did at least one “thrill comedy” prior to Harold Lloyd. Semon was big into spectacle and he can often be said to even top Mack Sennett in the large scale of his gags, which often involved the destruction of trains, planes and automobiles, and even entire buildings. He loved to blow things up with TNT. And he loved goo and mess: jam, glue, pie filling, ink, paint, flour, whipped cream. There’s usually a scene where one of those substances gets spilled all over a room. Critics then and now have found fault that he was repetitive, was uninterested in story or character, and didn’t do his own stunts, as most others, like Keaton and Lloyd did. But I have learned to really appreciate his comedies. In all justice he belongs near the top of the pantheon of silent comedy masters, and hopefully he’ll be restored to his rightful place in the public’s mind (at least the portion of the public that pays attention to silent comedy).

Semon never forgot the fundamental fact, as others sometimes did, that his only responsibility was to make people laugh

Semon’s ultimate undoing was features. When he tried the longer format in the mid-twenties he ran aground on his inability to sustain a story. (his most notorious is his 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which we described at length here). And he spent too much on his films, eventually resorting to putting up his own money to please the public. In 1928 he went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and died of TB, in that order.

Go here to read a more in-depth tribute I wrote upon the centennial of Larry Semon’s debut as a comedy star. Meantime, there are a TON of his comedies on Youtube. Partake! But if you do, remember this: he’s great, but small doses are best. His comedies weren’t meant to be watched all at once.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film, including stars like Larry Semon, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about  the history of vaudevillein which Larry Semon also performed, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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