The First “Wizard of Oz” Feature

Tomasin en el Reino de Oz - El Mago de Oz - The Wizard of Oz - 1925 - Cartel007

A few words on the notorious 1925 Larry Semon silent version of The Wizard of Oz. This was actually the second screen version. A 1910 adaptation had been made by the Selig studio, with L. Frank Baum’s direct involvement and Bebe Daniels in the role of Dorothy. Semon’s was the first feature length version.

Any resemblance between this film and the Baum book is purely coincidental. Despite the fact that the film opens with an old man reading from a book of The Wizard of Oz scarcely any story detail remains intact (although Semon’s nose does resemble Margaret Hamilton’s). In this film, the Wizard is a mere toady of a mean despot named “Emperor Kruel”. Oliver Hardy is in the film, although, amazingly, he is not the heavy. That role can be said to be played by Fatty Alexander, here cast as Uncle Henry, a mean bully! Will the heresies never cease? Farm hands Hardy and Semon are rivals for the affection of Dorothy, who is about to turn 18.

While we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a plot, Semon runs afowl of a duck who spits animated white liquid in his face; and then a bunch of animated bees which sting his butt, but not before his fundament has been kicked by a mule, sending Semon flying into an enormous patch of cactuses that have mysteriously been transplanted to Kansas. (Semon anticipates Jerry Lewis by wearing inappropriate jewelry—in this case a large ring—that his character would never wear).

There is a third farm hand played by an African-American whose SCREEN name is G. Howe Black”. You can imagine the kind of comedy this character generates. He is first discovered rolling his eyes and slurping a stolen watermelon. Later he will run through the skies as lightning keeps zapping his butt.

But we are ahead of ourselves. We learn in a flashback that Dorothy is not really related to Henry and Em, she was left on the doorstep as an infant (played by the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen on celluloid). A note in the basket says to open the attached envelope when she turns 18—she is clearly the lost Queen of Oz. Bad guys from Oz come to steal the note before she reads it. (They leave Oz in a tri-plane; arrive in Kansas in a biplane. Must be like heaven, when you leave, you lose a pair of wings.)

The tornado arrives by divine intervention bringing Hardy, Semon, Dorothy, Uncle Henry and the black guy to Oz.  Dorothy learns she is to be queen, but the bad guys show up. Semon hides by dressing as a Scarecrow. Hardy, the Tin Man. They are arrested, but only Semon and the black guy are thrown in the dungeon. Everyone else is perfectly happy about the situation. While Emperor Kruel schemes to marry Dorothy, our friends in the dungeon try to escape. The black guy dresses in a lion costume, thus completing the trilogy and fulfilling aesthetic mandate. The film’s best (or most original) sequence emerges…one I believe resuscitated by Abbott and Costello for Africa Screams. Semon and the costumed black guy (do you WANT me to call him G. Howe Black?) get amongst some real lions. Of course at a certain point Semon will think he is with his human friend and get very saucy and confident with an actual lion. Well…you had to be there.

Anyway, in the end, Prince Kynd (remember him?) has a sword fight and defeats Emperor Kruel, thus making all the other male characters in the plot superfluous.

EPILOGUE: The requisite Semon set piece on towers with the acrobatic swinging of stunt men. Semon’s character jumps onto an airplane just as the tower he is on is smashed by a cannon—this would go in ANY action film today. Back to the little girl’s dream. End.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss 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

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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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