A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, November 21, 2016

Wizard of Oz (Larry Semon, 1925)

Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon in Wizard of Oz
A critical and commercial flop that seriously damaged the career of its director and writer, Larry Semon, Wizard of Oz (as the on-screen title has it) somehow survived the mass extinction of silent films, perhaps because of the perennial interest in Oz stories that was fed by the later and greater 1939 film with Judy Garland. But only the most die-hard Oz fans need to bother checking it out: It's a hopeless mess, a mishmash of conventional slapstick comedy and rather lame fantasy. It features characters from L. Frank Baum's book: Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan), the Wizard (Charles Murray), the Scarecrow (Semon), and the Tin Woodman (Oliver Hardy). But it does nothing with them but place them in various kinds of comic jeopardy that usually climax in pratfalls. Much of the film takes place in Kansas, where Dorothy is a farm girl about to turn 18, an age when she can open a mysterious letter that was delivered to her Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander) and Aunt Em (Mary Carr) when she was a foundling infant. The letter, of course, reveals that she is Princess Dorothea of Oz. She is being courted by two farmhands, also played by Semon and Hardy -- perhaps the inspiration for the 1939 film's casting of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as both farmhands and the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion. In Semon's film, the farmhands are swept off to Oz by a tornado -- or rather just a strong windstorm, since there's no funnel cloud -- along with Dorothy and Uncle Henry, where they assume disguises: Semon swipes the clothes off of a scarecrow and Hardy improvises an outfit from a scrap heap. In addition to the others, there's a black farmhand known, inevitably, as Snowball played by Spencer Bell under the pseudonym G. Howe Black. Get it? We first see him eating a watermelon, too. Aside from that, the racist humor is fortunately kept to a minimum, and in Oz, to which Snowball is somehow chased by lightning, he adopts a lion costume, creating the third in Dorothy's familiar trio of companions. The scenario was written by Semon, Leon Lee (who also wrote the intertitles), and Frank Joslyn Baum, credited as "L. Frank Baum Jr." (Frank J. Baum's efforts to capitalize on his father's name led to a break with the rest of his family.)

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