August 27, 2017 marks the 100 year anniversary of the release of Chumps and Chances, the first comedy short starring Larry Semon. Semon had been directing and otherwise contributing to comedies for at least two years by that point, most of them starring Vitagraph comedian Hughie Mack. It was natural, then — if brassy — for him to build a new series around himself. There are somewhere around 85 Semon comedies; I’ve managed to see 45 of them, or over half, between Youtube, home video, and live screenings. And something surprising has happened. He has steadily risen in my esteem and estimation.
You would think something more like the opposite would occur. The most common knock on Semon, among those who know his work at all, is that he is repetitious. Given that, one might think that the more one saw, the less impressed one would be. I am steadily moving in the other direction. In fact, looked at in a certain light, I am tempted to place him closer to the top of the silent comedy pyramid than I already have. I placed him sixth in my ranking of silent comedians in an earlier post, but as a comedy auteur he deserves to be higher — maybe fourth, third, or even second. This may appall many silent comedy fans, but I think there is a strong case to be made here for elevating his status under certain conditions.
Certainly, chronologically he comes second. Chaplin will always be first: nothing or no one will ever unseat him. Harold Lloyd had been at it longer than Semon, but he didn’t discover his ultimate screen character until slightly later. But more importantly, unlike Lloyd, Semon is the director of his own films. And he has a strong, easily identifiable vision. That is what an auteur is. A former cartoonist, in addition to being a former stage acrobat (more about his background here), Semon has one of the strongest clown looks for the screen, and a strong visual style for his pictures that is second to none and that is all his. By contrast, Lloyd, while certainly the producer and star of his films, seems to have had little to do with direction. His movies are well-shot but studio-like, impersonal. By contrast, Buster Keaton, while normally credited as co-director of his films, did assert a strong directorial vision and is naturally first or second in the pantheon, according to what argument you’re making. The only circumstances in which I might edge Keaton out of the way on behalf of Semon (unthinkable to most, no doubt) has to do with primacy: the fact that, like Chaplin, Semon came several years before him, doing the pioneering, problem-solving work of creating the art form in the first place. In my previous ranking, I had also placed Laurel and Hardy and Harry Langdon before Semon as comedians; as an auteur, Semon easily leaps ahead of them. The films of those guys were the result of committees, very talented teams of writers and directors, brainstorming to piece the whole film together. With the exception of a handful of films co-directed by Norman Taurog, Semon devised his own films.
And here again is where people are ready to sneer. Semon is supposedly low-brow and unintellectual or something. Not just because of his supposed repetition, but because of his fondness for what might be thought of as boorish gags: a) the obligatory messy substance routines; b) the large scale destructive set pieces. The other criticism is that he lacked integrity because he made use of stunt men and doubles rather than doing the stunts himself. These are all, btw, charges that are frequently leveled at Jules White, and I would answer the charges at White in the same way. (White of course didn’t act in his films, but he did cut away during gags, assembling them out of 2 or 3 shots so the performers didn’t have to do difficult, time consuming stunts, a similar blot on his integrity in the eyes of some.)
As to repetition, I have a couple of things to say. I happen to be an enormous fan of RITUAL in comedy. Ben Jonson (the Renaissance playwright, not the cowboy actor) wrote of “Humours” in comedy — easily identifiable character traits that the audience loves, wants and expects. It becomes almost like music. Dickens used this comic technique to the max. All the best comedians do. It’s what I love best about Laurel and Hardy for example. If something bad happens to Oliver Hardy, you pretty much know what his reaction will be before he even does it. That said (and this is true of Semon, too), the thing we are waiting for isn’t always EXACTLY the same, and this is what enhances our enjoyment. Semon has a formula, it is true, but so do all classical music composers. We know that a concerto will have parts A, B, and C — how will the composer handle those parts in this particular piece of music given the motive theme, which is always different? In the case of Semon the different theme will be a setting: a store, a barnyard, a school, the palace of a European king. There’s a kind of hilarity knowing that something will always come up that can be spilled: what will it be here? Glue, flour, honey, ink, milk, eggs, soot, oil? And what will he destroy at the climax? Crates, hay bales, a house, a barn, an airplane, a train, a water tower?
Added to that — and I don’t think enough is made of this, not nearly enough — is that both of those supposedly boorish recurring tropes are uniquely cinematic. They are both about movement through a shot, physical action. These scenes look good on a moving picture screen.
Add to this a third recurring element in his films, animated sequences. Almost invariably these have to do with an animal or animals he encounters: bees, flies, a woodpecker, a mouse, a baby alligator. Sometimes the encounters are live action (a monkey, a dog, a cat) but frequently it’s animated. It’s these sequences that made me realize how Semon’s mind worked, and which justify the overall vision of his comedies. Semon got these extravagant, far-fetched visions in his head first and then worried about how to stage them. He didn’t, like Chaplin, see an escalator or a revolving door, and say “I can do something with that.” And he didn’t, like Keaton, say, “Ya know, I’d like to leap through a window and emerge wearing a dress like I saw an act do once in vaudeville.” As a cartoonist, he let his imagination roam, and then tried to figure out how to realize his visions visually. The results, sometimes, are crude to modern eyes, but it’s usually pretty obvious what he’s trying to do and the results are usually hilarious. This is why I don’t particularly care that he didn’t do his own stunts. That omission might be a criticism of him as a performer, but not as a writer/director. I like what he thought up. He solved the realization of his vision as best he could. Frankly, if it comes to that, Semon’s films offer greater spectacle BECAUSE he used stunt men.
Semon’s narrative logic then is modular and sequential, much like panels in a comic strip, and this is more than okay in a short format. His movies make people laugh and they are far more exciting (and thus far less dull) than most movies of the era for a modern audience to watch. I won’t deny the well-known flaw in his work that character and plot are neglected. Semon’s vision treats people, animations, sets and props as all the same thing — stuff to move around in whimsical and funny ways. The people are cartoons, lacking inner life or motivation, at least at a consistent three dimensional level that will sustain a story. If a person wants something in one scene, he may well abandon the pursuit of it in the next scene if it has occurred to Semon for him to encounter a big, shiny new distraction. In a short format this is pretty much okay. After all, do we need an “inner life” in a Bugs Bunny cartoon? But on the few occasions when Semon attempted feature length it was fairly disastrous. The best known example of this today is sadly his best known film, his 1925 The Wizard of Oz. When it came time to try features, Semon simply made his films longer, and we do get bored after a while when the movie-maker seems to have A.D.D. and won’t buckle down to a proper story. (I will add that the acting in his films, including Semon’s, is just great. At various points his stock company included the likes of Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel (separately), Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Spencer Bell, Jack Duffy, Dorothy Dwan, Lucille Carlisle, and many others. It’s just the writing that needed to be taken in hand.)
And yet, now that I’ve seen films from every period of his roughly decade-long reign as a comedy star, it seems clear (and rather perplexing) that Semon didn’t GROW as an artist. The films of 1928 don’t seem any more sophisticated than the ones in 1917. Actually, if anything in some ways, he seemed to have moved backwards in that regard. One of his first comedies Romans and Rascals (1918) seems much more ambitious artistically than his last one A Simple Sap (1928). Normally, when you look at an artist’s body of work over a fairly long stretch like that, you’ll see a maturing, a movement in a certain direction. It wouldn’t have to involve length. It could be added polish. It could be tightened stories, new heights of acting. If Semon moved in any direction at all, it was towards bigger, more elaborate explosions. That was impressive in a way, but also unfortunate. It broke him financially and ended him.
One last undeniable flaw in Semon’s work, fully in keeping with his visual bent, his propensity for “types”, and his repetitiveness, and it will be a deal-breaker for many. It is the issue of racism. Most of his films have stereotypical gags involving African Americans. Sometimes the basis is visual (black person gets covered in flour and looks white; white person gets covered in soot and looks black). Sometimes, it’s more character-based (superstitious black person sees ghost, leaps into the air and runs). Sometimes it’s the dialect in the intertitles. Most often it’s all three. This would be a dealbreaker in terms of my appreciation if one didn’t find similar scenes in the work of nearly every comedian of the time, to one degree or another. Semon, born in Mississippi, raised in Georgia, seems to go out of his way though, and is certainly at the outer extreme of this universal condition. I would never show a Semon comedy without warning the audience first, and condemning this unfortunate historical blot on his record.
As is well known, Semon was one of the most popular comedians of the silent era. It’s fun for me to imagine what he might have done with sound in the early 30s, when there was a vogue for crazy nut comedies. His surreal imagination might have acclimated nicely. Semon remained popular in Europe during the sound era. In Italy, he was known as “Ridolini”; voices were added to his comedies and he was shown on television into the late 20th century. We should be thankful for that; many of the Semon comedies we have access to now are Ridolini versions.
Unfortunately, Walter Kerr, James Agee, and other critics wrote him out of the pantheon of silent comedy greats when the first histories of the form were being written. And now their view has become the predominating one. I think it is time for this lapse to be redressed. Semon is easily the peer of the comedians now commonly held at the top, as an auteur if not as a performer. It’s time to give the devil his due.
For more on silent comedy please see my 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.
I seem to remember reading about Chaplin and Keaton watching a Semon movie, and both being knocked out by the guy.
This is a fine appreciation of Larry Semon’s work. I used to subscribe the opinions of people like Walter Kerr about Semon, but as I have seen more of his work, I know he was a great talent. The problem I have with showing his movies to kids is the racist stuff.
Yeah, that’s hard. I think they way to deal with it is to use it as a teaching moment. And maybe there should be a cut-off…maybe little kids won’t understand. Thanks for the nice words!