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Oz on Film, Part Thirteen: An Inauspicious End to Silent Oz, Part One

Larry Semon and Dorothy Dwan
Larry Semon and Dorothy Dwan
Photographers unknown; composite by Peter Heimsoth

Unless something previously unknown comes to light, the final Oz-related product of the silent screen era is a well-produced, but extremely loose adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Most dramatizations of that story leave out the "Wonderful," but in the case of this movie, it was a wise move.

It is of value to film historians because of the presence of a certain portly comic actor who had not yet teamed with a rail thin English comedian named Stan Laurel.

To tell the story of this film, it is necessary to tell something about the mind behind it. Lawrence Semon was born into a show business family, his father being the vaudeville magician Zera the Great and his mother being Zera's lovely assistant. As tended to happen with such families, young Larry and his sister grew up all over the country and worked in their parents' shows. As an adult, he worked as a cartoonist for a time in New York City, but soon returned to the stage as what we would now call a standup comedian. In the fashion of showbiz legend, he was discovered by a representative of a movie studio.

Semon soon established himself at Vitagraph Studios as a more than able producer, writer, and indeed actor. Much in the style of Buster Keaton (to whom he has been both favorably and unfavorably compared), Semon specialized in the role of the poor sap who wanders into trouble no matter where he goes. Like Keaton and Harold Lloyd, he also set up elaborate (and very dangerous) stunts, as well as sequences resulting in huge messes.

The trouble with Semon was that he had feature film aspirations when he was supposed to be making shorts, and was notorious for running up huge bills with his productions. Nevertheless, people flocked to his films and he made a lot of money for the studio. Eventually, he did get into features, and one of his stated wishes was to do a movie of The Wizard of Oz, mainly as a vehicle for his own brand of slapstick comedy and to provide a prestigious starring role for his ingenue wife, Dorothy Dwan.

Being an even less perspicacious businessman than L. Frank Baum had been, Semon spent most of his money for the rights to film the book. He even secured the offices of Frank Joslyn Baum, L. Frank’s eldest, who allegedly helped pen the screenplay and is referred to in the credits as “L. Frank Baum, Jr.”

Semon's enthusiasm for the project makes what he did with it all the more surprising.
To be sure, he did introduce elements which a later film adaptation used to better effect, such as an extended opening sequence in Kansas, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry employing three farmhands, and, as in the Baum-Tietjens musical, a Dorothy who was older than her literary counterpart.

But as far as the film's story is concerned, any resemblance between it and the novel seems almost coincidental.

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