Stars of Slapstick # 132: Larry Semon
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!
Born the son of a vaudeville magician named Zera the Great while touring in West Point, Mississippi in 1889, Larry participated in the act until he was 13, doing acrobatics and pantomime. His father’s dying wish, however, was that Larry 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 viable act. (Look, if people will watch cooking shows or golf on TV, they’ll sit for anything). In 1913, Semon made his vaudeville debut at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.
Semon had an inventive gag mind. 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 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’s 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). In 1928 he went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and died of TB, in that order.
And now one of my favorite Larry Semon shorts (and a fairly typical one) The Show (1922), also featuring Oliver Hardy.
To learn more about silent and slapstick film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.