Monday, June 9, 2014

DVR Diary: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1925)

Try to keep the title in mind as I describe Larry Semon's film to you. An elderly toymaker in an Expressionist toyshop reads to a little girl from L. Frank Baum's famous novel. He relates how the land of Oz is ruled by Prime Minister Kruel following the disappearance years earlier of the baby princess who was to become queen at age eighteen. The rabble are restless so Kruel turns to his minion, the Wizard, to keep them terrified by summoning the Phantom of the Basket. At this point the little girl interrupts the narrative to say, in effect, what the hell? She wants to hear about Dorothy and her friends. Fortunately, the toymaker is nothing if not obliging.

Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) is a teenager, though her mental age seems somewhat younger, frolicking on her Aunt Em's farm. Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander) is a distant, obese figure, less lovable than Em, but to be fair, Auntie doesn't have to deal with the farmhands. Two of them, played by the auteur and his frequent stooge Oliver N. Hardy, are rivals for Dorothy's affections. Another, called Snowball, is played by an actor billed as G. Howe Black. There's a lot of slapstick action here that aspires to comedy. But you lose much the point of Oliver Hardy if you have an actor playing Uncle Henry who is far fatter than Ollie. And there seems to be no point to G. Howe Black (whose real name was Spencer Bell) except that, well, black folks are funny. For instance, Snowball is described in a title card as a "meloncholic." Because black folks do like to eat that watermelon. Isn't that funny?

All this bores the toymaker as much as the palace intrigue bored the little girl, so we return to the palace. The rabble remains restless, impatient for the rightful queen to claim the throne. To prevent this, Kruell dispatches his faithful lackey, Wikked, by biplane to the land of Kansas, where he must take possession of certain papers that might otherwise bring down the government. At this point the little girl interrupts once more to say, really -- honestly -- what the hell? It was clever of Larry Semon to embed the obvious criticisms of his project in the film itself -- not that it helps reconcile anyone to its free-to-the-point of anarchic adaptation of the Baum book, for which one L. Frank Baum jr. must share the blame.

Wikked and his helpers touch down on the vast Gale farm and seek to take possession of the damning documents. Ollie turns traitor when Wikked tells him that the papers would prevent him from marrying Dorothy, but Larry manages to steal them at the last moment, before a great storm strikes. Semon is star, director and co-writer of The Wizard of Oz, so there's no way Larry is staying behind when the big wind picks up the barn. In fact, Ollie, Uncle Henry and Snowball all accompany Larry and Dorothy on their tempestuous journey. Snowball had actually been hiding in a rain barrel and missed the takeoff, but a persistent bolt of lightning propels him all the way to the roof and through the chimney. Because if black people are funny, black people getting hit in the ass with cartoon lightning bolts is hilarious.

So our farmers land in the land of Oz and face an armed guard at the gates of the capital. Kruell impatiently implores the Wizard to transform the farmhands into monkeys or other harmless things, but the Wizard's powerlessness leaves Larry and Ollie, now back on Dorothy's side, to their own devices. Larry has it easy; he simply steals a scarecrow's clothes and assumes the role, thought I can't say where he got the makeup for his face. Ollie reveals hidden talents; diving into a scrap heap, he emerges as a tin woodsman, complete with axe and hat. Snowball does not transform. That's because a black man already looks funny.

Our heroes somehow get Dorothy into the palace and have her proclaimed queen, though Kruell insists that he retains certain prerogatives as Dictator of Oz. The farmhands must be put into temporary custody in a dungeon, but Ollie avoids this fate by turning on Larry again, while Uncle Henry is made Prince of Whales. Because fat people are funny, and since Uncle Henry is much fatter than Ollie he gets a funny name as well. Larry and Snowball are sent below, doomed to torture in molten mud until the Wizard reappears to give Snowball a lion suit. This suffices to frighten away the dungeon guards but creates confusion when Snowball and Larry find themselves trapped in a cage with real lions. Snowball dives through a window and G. Howe Black's stuntman takes an epic tumble down a hillside while Larry escapes to assist in the belated overthrow of Kruell by the good Prince Kynd. Yes, all the names in Oz are like that. There's a vamp character named Vishus in Kruell's entourage, but most of her role seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor.

There's a pretense of pathos when Dorothy ends up favoring Kynd over Larry, but Ollie is still on the loose and gives chase to our hero. Larry climbs a high tower -- some of this film's sets look terribly cheap but some of the props are huge -- just as Snowball, whom we've all underestimated drastically, has hired a plane for the trip back to Kansas. Larry leaps for the rope ladder dangling from Snowball's plane, catches it -- but the ladder breaks! And down he goes! But by this point the little girl in the toyshop has fallen asleep and the toymaker simply gives up. Since he is also Larry Semon, I expected a payoff revealing that he had once been Larry the farmhand, but that would have made sense in a way Semon's Wizard never does. So a title card tells us that The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy marrying her prince and ruling happily ever after.

Semon had just about broken into the top tier of silent comics with a series of expensive shorts dominated by stunts and special effects when he jumped the shark -- had he heard the term he would probably have tried to do it literally -- with his Wizard, a project that reportedly bankrupted the independent studio that released it, though it was still turning up in theaters through the end of the silent era, after Semon himself was dead. The film lives down to its dire reputation as grimly described in Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns. I don't know how Semon thought he could get away with his loose-to-the-point-of-liquid adaptation of Baum, since the Oz mythos was already quite well known thanks to stage versions and a film series produced by Baum himself a decade before Semon. I suppose he assumed that talent would justify the liberties he took, as it justified the liberties taken by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a generation later. Then, talent prevailed to the point that the 1939 musical is the definitive version of the Dorothy story for subsequent generations. And that leaves Semon no excuses. If his Wizard failed, it was because he failed. Out of his usual comedy costume, Semon looks nondescript, and he doesn't do much with the scarecrow gimmick. He wastes time with self-indulgent effects-driven gags that stop the story dead. In the worst case, when the storm hits Kansas, Larry stalls, taking a step or two, getting hit by cartoon lightning, waiting, and tentatively taking a few more steps before lightning hits him again. Later, pursued by Hardy in the dungeon, Larry takes on a Bugs Bunny aspect, hiding under one wooden box only to appear miraculously under another, and at one point seeming to split in two and run in opposite directions. It's one thing for an actual cartoon character to do this sort of magic, but in live action it looks like cheating.  In the end Semon only cheated himself by revealing his own limitations as a clown and a director. A feature as bad as this one reminds us of how far ahead of the pack the top three or four comics were. It's a shame that Semon had to destroy his career to prove this point, but the gesture seems typical of the man's work.

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