On her 18th birthday, farm girl Dorothy discovers that she is the lost princess of Oz, abandoned as a baby. Unfortunately, her kingdom is in the hands of an unscrupulous Prime Minister and his lackeys, who will stop at nothing to hang on to power.
If this silent version of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy were released today, it would no doubt be described as a ’reimagining’ of the tale, as, despite Baum’s co-writing credit, it has almost nothing to do with him and almost everything to do with Larry Semon. He was a movie comedian, whose clowning in a series of short films was so popular that, in the early 1920s, he was a serious rival to Charlie Chaplin. By 1925, the star was confident enough to branch out into features, and to take on the role of writer, director and star for his first attempt.
While it’s no surprise that Semon tailored the material to his own slapstick persona, it is remarkable that he throws out almost everything from the popular stories. To begin with Oz doesn’t appear to be a magical land at all, appearing more like a neighbouring foreign kingdom of some sort, just a short bi-plane ride from the Kansas farm where Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) lives with her aunt and uncle. She’s being favoured with romantic attentions from both farmhand Oliver Hardy (yes, that Oliver Hardy!) and a wacky itinerant drifter played by Semon. Also home on the range is Spencer Bell, who is introduced sitting in a watermelon patch eating a slice of the fruit, because he’s a black man, right? Through various awkward plot machinations, the trio are obliged to disguise themselves as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion, and there’s no prizes for guessing who gets to play the king of beasts.
Apparently, this is little more than a compilation of Semon’s most popular gags from his short films. There’s no real effort at establishing characters and the humour is of the basic ‘banana skin’ variety that inexperienced audiences tend to associate with silent cinema. Even the Wizard is reduced to a peripheral character, who is exposed as a cheap confidence trickster anyway. Predictably fans of the books weren’t keen on Semon’s take, and even his fanbase wasn’t impressed. The film bombed and killed his career.
Just before the movie hit theatres, Semon married co-star Dwan (born Dorothy lllgenfritz), despite a 17-year age difference. Happiness did not follow. The flop left Semon almost penniless, and his life spiralled out of control, taking in a severe nervous breakdown before his death at the age of only 39 in 1928. However, the circumstances of his demise were somewhat mysterious, and some believed he faked his own death to escape his creditors.
Considering the failure of Baum’s own trio of film adaptations less than a decade before, it’s interesting to speculate what drew Semon to the material in the first place. True, he had some common ground with Baum, both of them were reckless spendthrifts who blew fortunes, but Baum always bounced back from his various bankruptcies while Semon was not so capable. It took until MGM’s Judy Garland version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) for someone to successfully adapt Baum’s work and get a return on their investment. Yes, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, it did not bellyflop on its initial release at all. On the contrary, it did decent, if unspectacular, box office and won 2 Oscars. Of course, it was subsequent re-runs on TV that elevated it to the classic status it enjoys today, but it was not originally the financial disaster that many commonly believe.
Baum’s own ‘Oz’ films may have been a little crude and unsuccessful but they exhibited a level of creativity and imagination that is sorely lacking from this adaptation. One for the curious only.