'The Wizard of Oz' - the Silent Film
Created | Updated May 16, 2012
In 1899 writer Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919) and artist William Wallace Denslow (1856-1915) teamed up to create a children's book. That book, entitled Father Goose, His Book, was a runaway best-seller. For their second book Baum wrote a novel about a Kansas girl named Dorothy who, with her dog Toto, was blown through the air by a cyclone to the magical land of Oz. There she met the Scarecrow, who desired a brain; the Tin Woodman, who desired a heart; and the Cowardly Lion, who desired courage. With their help, Dorothy was able to defeat a wicked Witch and get her heart's desire - to go home again. Though the Wizard himself proves to be an ordinary man, he does know enough magic, of a sort, to help the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, was not at first the sensation that Father Goose had been, but it had staying power. Generations have grown up with Wizard and its many sequels, and now it is one of the best-loved children's books in all English literature.
In 1902, The Wizard was adapted for the stage. Theatre director Julian Mitchell took Baum's story and turned it into a vaudeville show, with dance numbers, comedy skits and only a slight resemblance to the original book. Toto was replaced with a comic cow named Imogene; a waitress and a poet and a former King of Oz were added; the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow became a comedy duo. Songs were added, removed and altered during the play's long run.
Though this alteration, and even distortion of the story, might seem barbarous today (especially when The Wizard is adored by so many), the stage show was a tremendous success, and very positively received, even drawing admiration from Baum, who was not so happy about the changes at first. David Montgomery and Fred Stone, who were a comedy duo, became stars playing the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. In the course of the stage show they also performed a skit about American football and sang a song entitled 'Hurrah for Baffin's Bay1'. The show played for years, and remained long in the memory of many who saw it.
L Frank Baum loved the theatre, and the theatrical possibilities of the Oz books intrigued him. He decided to take to the stage himself in 1908, with the aid of the newfangled motion picture technology. He produced, with the help of the Selig Polyscope film company, several short film segments involving Oz characters. Baum himself would introduce these segments from the stage, and provide narration as they played. The Fairylogues and Radio-Plays, as they were called (Radio refers to Michel Radio, a Frenchman who colour-tinted the films) were successful, but could not recoup the considerable cost of film production.
Selig used some of the Fairylogue film to produce their own brief versions of several Oz stories in 1910. How much of Baum's film was used is not clear; some recasting was done. A little girl named Romola Remus played Dorothy in the Fairylogues, while in Selig's film Dorothy was played by Bebe Daniels, who would later work in films with Harold Lloyd, and on BBC Radio with her husband, Ben Lyon.
Baum was only temporarily out of the movie business. He started his own film studio, The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, in 1911. He produced films of several Oz stories, and a few non-Oz, but no version of The Wizard of Oz. The films were expensive, and audiences were reluctant to see children's films - a recipe for failure. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company went out of business in 1915.
Larry Semon was a very popular comedian in silent films but, unlike Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Semon's work and reputation have not withstood the test of time.
Semon was clownlike on film, from the pale white makeup he wore to the pratfalls and physical comedy that filled his short films. His pictures were popular but costly; for his film The Sawmill (1922) he built a complete, functional sawmill for a short that only runs 20 minutes. The Vitagraph company, which produced Semon's shorts, did not make back much of the cost of these films, and let Semon go.
Semon had bigger plans. He signed with Chadwick Pictures, an independent company that was aspiring to grow larger. At Chadwick, Semon aspired to join the ranks of comedy stars such as Chaplin by producing feature films instead of shorts. The Wizard of Oz was quickly chosen as a good source. L Frank Baum's son, Frank Joslyn Baum, worked on the script. Semon would produce, direct and star.
Perhaps Baum and Semon drew their inspiration from the 1902 stage show; they certainly didn't draw it from the book. Only the barest remnants of L Frank Baum's story remain. Semon spent quite a lot of money, though Chadwick's announcement that $300,000 was spent is probably press-agent hyperbole. The film, which runs 83 minutes, opened in Los Angeles on 7 February, 1925, to surprisingly good reviews. It drew good business throughout its run in theatres, especially for a film not made by one of the major studios. Final revenue figures no longer exist, but officials at Chadwick seem to have been disappointed that it was not more of a hit.
Cast and Synopsis
Here is the cast of the film, followed by notes concerning some of the performers.
- Larry/Scarecrow/Toymaker - Larry Semon
- Little Girl - (Unknown)
- Dorothy - Dorothy Dwan
- Uncle Henry - Frank Alexander
- Aunt Em - Mary Carr
- Babe/Tin Man - Oliver Hardy
- Snowball - G Howe Black (Spencer Bell)
- Prime Minister Kruel - Josef Swickard
- Ambassador Wikked - Otto Lederer
- Countess Vishuss - Virginia Pearson
- The Wizard - Charlie Murray
- Prince Kynd - Bryant Washburn
- The Phantom - Frederick Ko Vert
Clark Gable is said to have worked as an extra, but he has not been identified.
The farmhands played by Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy are never identified by name; the list above and the synopsis list Semon as 'Larry' and Hardy as 'Babe', which was his real-life nickname, for convenience. Hardy and Frank 'Fatty' Alexander often played Semon's nemeses. Hardy went on to stardom a few years later, when he began working with Stan Laurel.
Dorothy Dwan was Semon's leading lady off-screen as well as on. They were married in 1924, when Semon was 35 and Dwan was 18.
Bryant Washburn and Virginia Pearson had both been stars a few years earlier, but were on the way down when they appeared in this film. Semon may have cast them for marquee value; Washburn does very little in the film, and Pearson's character is completely superfluous.
Frederick Ko Vert was a female impersonator.
The real name of the actor billed as 'G Howe Black' is Spencer Bell, but he appears in several Semon films under that alias; the character he plays is every bit as demeaning and stereotyped as you might think.
The story is told by an old toymaker to a little girl; he has been making dolls of Dorothy and her friends.
The Land of Oz is in an uproar: the people, led by Prince Kynd, are demanding to know the whereabouts of Dorothy, rightful heir to the throne. Prime Minister Kruel is at a loss. Dorothy has been missing for years; why are they so worked up now? Kruel commands the Wizard to distract the people. The Wizard summons the Phantom from a magic basket; the Phantom dances gingerly, as he2 is wearing a large headdress augmented with peacock feathers. Ambassador Wikked is dispatched to deal with the situation in other ways.
The little girl isn't interested in this, and asks the toymaker to tell her about Dorothy.
Dorothy is a pretty, young woman just about to turn 18; in the book she is nearer to 6. Larry and Babe are both quite interested in her, much to the annoyance of Uncle Henry, who would rather they worked. It is a bad day for Larry: he is kicked by a donkey, sits on cacti, is chased by wasps and even has a duck vomit on him. Worse, Babe seems to be more in Dorothy's heart than he is.
Dorothy is an orphan, who was left on Uncle Henry and Aunt Em's doorstep along with an envelope to be opened when Dorothy turns 18. She opens it and discovers her true heritage just as Ambassador Wikked arrives by airplane with some henchmen to destroy the papers. Uncle Henry, Babe and Larry unite to hide them from him. Wikked ties a long rope from Dorothy's waist and hangs her from a tall tower; Larry must climb and rescue her (climbing and falls were two staples in Semon's repertoire). She is rescued, but a vicious storm rises. Wind, lightning, and presumably thunder - it's a silent film - ensue. Uncle Henry, Dorothy, Babe, Larry, Snowball and Wikked all end up in a little shack, which is blown into the air by the cyclone. The farm is demolished by the storm. Aunt Em and a few unidentified farmhands are unaccounted for.
They land, none too gently, in Oz, and are met by Kruel and a phalanx of troops. Dorothy is hailed as Queen, though Kruel is clearly unhappy to see her. Though Uncle Henry is safe, as the Queen's guardian, and no one notices Snowball at this time, Larry and Babe are threatened; Kruel orders the Wizard to transform them. The Wizard whispers to Larry, 'I couldn't change a quarter.' (Apparently, The Phantom of the basket doesn't count as magic.) Babe and Larry hide, and the Wizard announces that they are invisible. Larry finds a Scarecrow and dresses up in the clothes, so the Wizard can perform another 'trick'; Babe has hidden in a tin pile, and comes out suitably garbed in metal.
Inside the city, things don't go much better for Larry. Uncle Henry has been named the Prince of Whales, and Babe has become the Knight of the Garter. Dorothy is Queen, though Kruel reminds her that he is still Dictator. Kruel sentences Larry and Snowball to the dungeon.
The dungeon appears to be run by pirates, and badly run at that. Wikked and Babe lead soldiers to apprehend Larry and Snowball, but with lots of pratfalls and little success. The Wizard sneaks down and gives Snowball a lion suit, so he can frighten the guards. However, there are real lions in these dungeons, too; Larry finds this out when he mistakes a real lion for Snowball.
Kruel is on the edge of a tottering throne; Wikked suggests he marry Dorothy, and so become King. Kruel makes advances, but is rebuffed, and Prince Kynd challenges him. Larry and Snowball have escaped the dungeon, and Larry keeps Kruel's soldiers from helping their boss, mostly by dropping things on them from a height. Kynd wins the duel - not surprising, as he is twenty years younger than Kruel - and has Kruel arrested. Dorothy is thrilled; she gives Larry a little kiss on the cheek, and then walks off for a much longer kiss with Prince Kynd. Apparently, though Kynd is a Prince and Dorothy the Queen, they are not blood relatives. Once more, Larry loses the romantic race.
But things aren't over yet. Babe appears, and starts chasing Larry. Snowball has found an airplane, and knows how to fly it, too. Larry has to climb another tower to grab onto a rope dangling from the plane. They speed away before Babe can turn a cannon on them, but Larry is having trouble holding on to the rope. He slips, he falls...
The toymaker awakes. Yes, it was all a dream. The little girl leaves, and the toymaker opens the book to read the happy ending. What happens to Larry, plunging out of the sky, we never learn.
The dream ending, perhaps the worst cliché in movie history, also occurs in the 1939 MGM version of The Wizard of Oz. In both films Dorothy's companions remain the same, though in the 1939 film the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Lion have counterparts in the 'real'; world; in Semon's film they are the same people in disguise. L Frank Baum brought Dorothy to Oz with no companion other than Toto. There is no Toto in Semon's film.
The Wizard of Oz marked the end of Semon's Golden Age. He produced a few more features for Chadwick, but the art of film comedy was quickly passing him by. Larry Semon could jump about and appear funny, but he did not inspire affection for his characters. Audiences laughed at Semon's antics; they loved Chaplin's little tramp.
In 1928, everything fell apart. Semon declared bankruptcy, and suffered a nervous breakdown. He died at age 39, leaving his wife Dorothy a poor widow at age 22.
Chadwick Pictures was in a similar decline. It went out of business the same year. Because The Wizard of Oz is the most frequently seen of all Semon's pictures, his reputation has suffered more than might be fair. The Wizard is arguably Semon's worst film; certainly it is the worst adaptation of an Oz book to date. Both the story and the star deserved better.