US Release Date: 06-27-1925
Directed by: Larry Semon
- Dorothy Dwan, as
- Dorothy/Princess Dorothea
- Larry Semon, as
- Oliver Hardy, as
- Farmhand/Tin Woodsman
- Mary Carr, as
- Aunt Em
- Spencer Bell, as
- Snowball/Cowardly Lion
- Bryant Washburn, as
- Prince Kynd
- Josef Swickard, as
- Prime Minister Kruel
- Charles Murray, as
- Wizard of Oz
- Frank Alexander as
- Uncle Henry
Dorothy Dwan in The Wizard of Oz.
This silent version of L. Frank Baum's classic children's book is nowhere near as good as the 1939 MGM masterpiece. The story is completely bizarre and instead of a sense of wonder we are given slapstick and utter silliness. The cast, at least, boasts Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman, before he made history with Stan Laurel as one of the greatest of all screen comedy duos.
The mixed up plot has an eighteen-year-old Dorothy, with bee-stung lips and a flapper's pout, finding out she is really the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Oz. It seems she was left on the Kansas doorstep of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em by the evil Prime Minister Kruel in order to keep her from fulfilling her destiny by marrying the handsome Prince Kynd when she grew up.
Through several interspersed scenes, a narrator/ toy maker, reading to a small child, tells the story. There is no witch in sight, good or bad, and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion are just people who don costumes. Although the Judy Garland version does steal at least one idea from this rather confusing flick, namely the fact that the characters are all hired hands that work on Uncle Henry's farm.
This movie does have one of the largest roles for an African American actor that I have seen in almost any silent movie. Unfortunately he is a walking Stepin Fetchit like stereotype, complete with knocking knees and silly, wide-eyed stare. The one redeeming feature about his role is that he is the one who puts on the Cowardly Lion costume, so a little known black actor named Spencer Bell played one of the original screen incarnations of this classic character.
The man behind this failed attempt is almost forgotten today. Larry Semon, who plays the Scarecrow, wrote, directed and starred in dozens of silent comedies and was a well-known star of his day.
This movie is worth watching only as a curiosity. It does feature some somewhat inventive special effects but overall it is not a very good movie.
Oliver Hardy, Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon in The Wizard of Oz
As Patrick wrote, the movie plays out as a bizarre story being read to a grandchild. It begins with a group of characters in Oz that do not exist in L. Frank Baum's classic tale. Some soldiers stare and get turned on by a dancer in a large head dress. Prince Kynd remarks in a suggestive manner, "That's a lot of Applesauce."
The granddaughter grows as tired of the story nearly as quick as I did, asking her grandfather to get to the part with Dorothy. He does and the film continues with its weird, sexual under tone.
Dorothy is not only of the age of consent and wears all kinds of makeup, but she also enjoys the flirtations of the hired help, who compete for her attention. She looks like a flapper in a dirty little ditty about the farmer’s daughter. She gets pushed on a swing where her shapely legs get exposed by the wind. Later she is raised up on a rope where everyone can look up her dress.
Larry Semon, whose name sounds like a crude porn pseudonym, puts himself in front of the camera far too often. He gets more screen time than anyone else. He does lots of slapstick routines that involve eggs, a duck, bees and lightning. None are all that funny. He is like a second rate Harry Langdon.
As soon as the group arrives in Oz, Dorothy starts giving Prince Kynd the lust look. This wanton Dorothy probably has some red garters to match the ruby slippers. When in Oz, some women gently caress Dorothy as they escort her into another room. Later, the dictator tries to have his way with Dorothy, who is now wearing a low cut, clinging white gown. In her final scene, she kisses the Scarecrow before going off to be alone with the Prince.
The funniest bit, and hopefully unintentional, is that the scarecrow has a white pouch that hangs from his belt. In some scenes it is hanging out at his crotch. The little bag makes it look as if his junk is swaying about in the open whenever he moves.
Patrick mentioned Spencer Bell. As a black actor in an almost all white cast, he does have quite a large role. However, his character is constantly getting picked on. From lightning strikes to his head and butt, to being kicked in the butt. Bell seems around only to take abuse. The most racist moment is when they introduce each character as they first appear on screen with a caption. For Bell, they do not use his real name they use, “G Howe Black.”
As Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) demonstrated, there is plenty of room for other films to be made about the Land of Oz. The only way I see this one working is if it were an adult film. It contains a couple of lines that could easily be used in a mature scene. Early on one dialogue card reads, "Kruel's actions were arousing the townsfolk of Oz." Later, the Scarecrow says, “I have heard that these alley cats like dark meat…” Sure, I am viewing this film in a very different time, but the only way it was entertaining for me was to view it as a sort of Dorothy Does Oz, if you know what I mean?
Larry Semon in The Wizard of Oz
Sometimes it's hard to see what audiences found so entertaining about certain silent films. Other times, there are silent films that flopped at the time, but are now considered classics. Neither is the case with this version of The Wizard of Oz. It failed to please audiences of the day and it will still fail to please modern audiences. It's bad in a timeless manner.
Larry Semon was the writer, director and producer behind this flop. As Patrick mentioned, he was a well known and successful early film star, earning nearly as much as Chaplin for a time. He was also known for building extravagant sets, complicated sight gags, special effects and consequently constantly going over budget. His budgets grew so large that eventually his bosses at Vitagraph finally demanded that he underwrite his own productions personally. This would prove costly however, with the release of The Wizard of Oz. It cost so much and flopped so badly that the studio and Semon would declare bankruptcy and his career would never recover. Unable to get a new movie produced, Semon returned to Vaudeville, suffered a nervous breakdown and died in a sanitarium just 3 years after this movie was released.
Semon's story of rise and fall, while a common one in the world of celebrity, is far more interesting than this version of the familiar Oz tale. I say familiar, despite, as my brothers mentioned, the plot being twisted and framed unnecessarily by the grandfather (also played by Semon) reading the story to his granddaughter. L. Frank Baum Jr., the author's son, is given co-writing credit, but he seems to have had little respect for his father's work. None of the changes made to the story are an improvement.
The slapstick is the film's worst aspect. Semon's antics at the beginning of the film are particularly annoying. His shtick with the egg and the bee and the duck are painfully unfunny and must have seemed old hat even in 1925.
There are some inventive special effect, as Patrick mentioned. The sets and costumes are also fairly impressive, but they do little to improve the film's entertainment value. It would take more than some razzle dazzle to make this Oz tale entertaining.
Photos © Copyright Chadwick Pictures Corporation (1925)