The Wizard Of Oz
US (1925) Dir. Larry Semon
I’m sure some of you may be surprised to learn that the much beloved Judy Garland classic from 1939 was not the first film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s celebrated novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz; in fact neither was this one, with a 13 minute version appearing in 1910, starring Bebe Daniels.
This version is more well known to silent film buffs and comedy fans since one of its stars is a slim Oliver Hardy before he became part of the greatest ever film double act. Back then he was a jobbing actor, often playing the bad guy because of his size, playing second fiddle to the top billed star, silent comedian Larry Semon, the white faced clown who enjoyed some success pre-1920’s with his special effect laden, spectacular stunt fest shorts.
Because of the budgets Semon would blow on his films his movement into feature length films was later than his contemporaries and would ultimately prove to be his downfall. Having so fiercely fought for the rights to Baum’s stories, it is somewhat odd that his adaptation ignores virtually most of the original material. Baum’s son, Frank Jr is credited as a co-writer but his contribution is unknown thus doubted. Semon actually managed to bankrupt Chadwick Pictures during the making of this film and died just three years later aged just 39 after a nervous breakdown, deep in debt.
So, how bad is it? Well, it begins with a toy maker (Semon) reading Baum’s book to his granddaughter, in which the current ruler of the Kingdom of Oz which Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard), Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer) and Lady Vishuss (Virginia Pearson) are challenged by Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) and the people of Oz to return the rightful Queen who disappeared as a baby many years ago. To stall them Kruel hires the Wizard (Charles Murray), a carnival charlatan, to perform some tricks while he sends Wikked to Kansas to reclaim some documents.
The documents in question were left in the crib with the baby left on the doorstep of a farm which were then locked away in a chest and buried. The baby is now Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan), who is close to her adopted Aunt Em (Mary Carr) but not to the bullying Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander). Dorothy’s 18th birthday is soon and Henry vows to tell Dorothy the truth about her identity. On the big day Wikked shows up and tries to claim the papers but Henry puts his foot down and refuses (despite admitting he hated Dorothy earlier). Eventually a thunder storm leads to a tornado and everyone is transported to Oz where the truth about Dorothy comes to light.
By now you are probably wondering about the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, possibly even Toto. Well, there is no Toto – in fact there is no Wicked Witch either – but the others can be explained. There are three farm hands working for Uncle Henry – one is black chap named Snowball (no really) played by G. Howe Black (yes, really!) – real name Spencer Bell – who is the butt of a lot of misfortune and the resident scapegoat. The other two farm hands (Semon and Hardy) are both love rivals for Dorothy although she seems to prefer Hardy. Yet on her birthday Dorothy inexplicably decides Semon is her man turning Hardy into the bad guy for the rest of the film.
And it gets worse because when they eventually arrive in Oz and Dorothy is taken in by the palace (yet somehow has no powers to overrule Kruel) the three farm hands need to hide do they adopt disguises. Semon dresses up as a conveniently situated scarecrow while Hardy hides in a scrap a metal pile and comes out as the Tin Man. Snowball is given a lion’s costume later on which explains his role but whichever way you look at it Semon has effectively dismantle the whole heart of the story for his own ego.
Even without hogging the screentime, this is basically a Larry Semon film masquerading under a familiar and popular title, although to be fair Semon isn’t the first director to divert wildly from an original story and won’t be the last. Obviously there are no lush musical numbers but we do get lots of poorly constructed and laboured slapstick comedy featuring a projectile vomiting duck, some cartoon bees, a racist lightening bolt and Semon not being able to differentiate between a man in a lion suit and real lion interspersed with some extremely high risk stunts.
As unnecessary as they are the stunts are probably the highlight of this film (although the stunt double for Dorothy was clearly male) as well as the storm sequence where Snowball is running across to the tree tops is chased by lighting; it’s cheap by today’s standards but effective enough here. Everything else is frankly a colossal mess. The story has so many holes and flaws there is enough material for an entire thesis while the script is just silly – when Dorothy ascends to the throne of Oz, Kruel declares “You may be ruler but I am still the Dictator!” What???
Apart from Hardy, Marshall and Bell throwing themselves into their roles the rest of the cast are painful to watch. The charisma free Dorothy Dwan only got the namesake role because she was Mrs. Larry Semon while the man himself comes across as the most awkward and derivative slapstick comedian ever seen, with little idea of pacing or timing of this gags, most of which weren’t even funny.
With no special world of Oz, no wicked witch or even a real wizard, let alone the hero being the Scarecrow and not Dorothy, this adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz will only be interest to hardcore film buffs with a curious bent towards the obscure while fans of Dorothy and co. are advised to stay well, well away. Somewhere over the rainbow perhaps?