As one of the earliest examples of “Why on earth did they bother buying the rights when they were going to change the story that much?” the Larry Semon The Wizard of Oz has baffled Oz aficionados and film historians for years. A farm girl named Dorothy who has an Aunt Em and an Uncle Henry travels via cyclone to a marvelous kingdom where resides a humbug Wizard, but there the similarities pretty much end.
Semon’s Oz is not a fairyland, and the only “magic” is that performed (not always successfully) by Charles Murray’s Wizard. Far from being uncivilized, this Oz has airplanes, which you would think would obviate the need for a tornado, but there is one in the picture anyway. And to be sure, it is among the film’s good points, being a very effective and indeed somewhat frightening recreation of one of nature’s most powerful phenomena.
The film is impressive in its appearance, the palace of Oz being a gorgeous bit of architecture. The costumes are of high quality, Semon wanting only the best for his production, and those worn by him as the Scarecrow and Spencer Bell as the Lion are closely modeled on the ones used in the Baum-Tietjens musical. Oliver Hardy’s Tin Man costume (title slides refer to him as “Tin Man”; though he does carry an axe, it is intended to scare off the royal guards) is of a new design, with painted-on rivets and an armored skirt.
The performances are also uniformly good, and Dorothy Dwan makes a fetching ingénue, though a little upscale for a farm girl; then again, with her being a princess born, this might be intentional. Semon himself is an able comedian, and while his hijinks on the farm may be superfluous to the story, they do demonstrate his style of comedy. Oliver Hardy, despite ultimately playing a villain, is also likeable, and his interplay with the skinny Semon foreshadows the teamwork which made him and Stan Laurel the amazing success they were to become.
The character of Snowball is at first glance a reflection of the unfortunate prejudice with which too many white people were afflicted at that time, particularly given his portrayer’s screen name, G. Howe Black. As with many black characters in silent films, Snowball is easily and frequently frightened, a quality to be pardoned, if at all, by the fact that he sort of adopts the Cowardly Lion role. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that he is resourceful and appears to be more intelligent than Semon’s character, and makes a rather spectacular aerial attempt to rescue him towards the end.
So the final verdict from your humble History of Oz Examiner? Larry Semon’s 1925 silent treatment of The Wizard of Oz is worth a look. As an adaptation of Baum’s story, it’s pretty poor, but it does provide some impressive imagery, not a few well-rendered special effects, and it does deliver its share of laughs and thrills.