By Phil Hall | August 28, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 298: “Wizard of Oz” (Larry Semon’s 1925 slapstick feature version of the L. Frank Baum classic).

LAST SEEN: It can be downloaded from several web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been available for many years from companies specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An orphan film with an expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It was included as a special feature in the 2005 DVD release of the superior 1939 version.

During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Larry Semon was among the most popular film comedy stars. A great deal of the press coverage of the era put him on a level that was equal to Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and his two-reel slapstick comedies enjoyed great success in the U.S. and around the world.

Today, movie lovers would probably say “Larry Who?” If Semon is remembered at all, it is because of the production that killed his career and helped speed him to an early grave: his 1925 feature film production “Wizard of Oz.”

Long before Judy Garland put on the ruby slippers, there were a number of silent film adaptations of the L. Frank Baum “Oz” books. Baum himself tried to create a contiuous series based on his stories – which marked the beginning of the concept of the film franchise – but his cinematic skills were wobbly and the resulting productions were weird, silly creations that audiences hated.

Semon, who wanted to keep up with his big screen rivals by making the transition from shorts into features, was not concerned that the “Oz” books appeared to defy big screen adaptation. Investing a considerable amount of his own money into the endeavor, Semon purchased the rights to The Wizard of Oz and set about casting his 19-year-old sweetie (and soon-to-be Mrs. Semon), Dorothy Dwan, as its star.

What happened next is one of the true mysteries of silent movies: rather than offer a straightforward adaptation of Baum’s book, Semon literally threw out nearly all of the story and created a production full of knockabout chases, pratfalls, a dungeon packed with pirates, spectacular aerial stunts, and heaping chunks of blatantly racist humor. For all intents and purposes, the film could have been called “The Wizard of Cresco, Iowa” – any resemblance between Semon’s screenplay and the Baum classic was strictly accidental.

“Wizard of Oz” (it is also unclear why Semon jettisoned the “The” from the title) opens with the comic in old man make-up. He is a kindly toymaker who has created dolls to resemble the characters of the Baum book. His young granddaughter walks in and demands that the toymaker read her a story.

The old guy starts to read about intrigue in the Land of Oz, a strange place where the buildings have the onion dome architecture used on Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral. It appears the rightful leader of Oz was a baby princess named Dorothea, who disappeared 18 years earlier, when she was an infant. In her place, Prime Minister Kruel reigns with an iron hand and the help of a dancing drag queen (really, don’t ask after that aspect of the plot!). While Prince Kynd is leading popular opinion on bringing the long-lost Princess Dorothea to the throne, Prime Minister Kruel and his aide Ambassador Wikked decide to locate and eliminate their royal rival.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, lovely young Dorothy finds herself turning 18 in a bizarre domestic situation. She lives on the farm with her saintly Aunt Em and her cantankerous, morbidly obese Uncle Henry. Dorothy is courted by a pair of silly farmhands – a small and stupid-looking bumbler (Larry Semon) and a pudgy, impatient beau (Oliver Hardy in his pre-Laurel days). There’s also an African American farmhand named Snowflake who eats watermelon.

Unexpectedly, a biplane lands on the farm and five men wearing gaucho costumes emerge. It is unclear how they squeezed five men into a tiny biplane or why they are dressed like refugees from The Pampas. They demand a letter that Uncle Henry possesses, which is supposed to be delivered to Dorothy on her birthday. As luck would have it, Dorothy, Uncle Henry, the farmhands, and the men in gaucho costumes seek shelter in a farmhouse from a too-convenient twister, which blows them over a cliff (not over a rainbow, natch). They wind up in Oz.

If you are expecting the Wicked Witch, you’re in the wrong Oz. The remainder of the film involves court intrigue as Dorothy and Prince Kynd manipulate around Prime Minister Kruel and his gang. The farmhands wind up in a dungeon full of pirates. There are several chases, including a daring aerial escape where Snowflake flies back to Kansas with his diminutive white colleague hanging from the biplane by a ladder.

Oh, in case you are wondering about the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion – the Wizard (a charlatan employed as Prime Minister Kruel’s magician) disguises the farmhands in the costumes of the Baum characters. Yeah, that’s it.

Admittedly, it is impossible to judge any version of “The Wizard of Oz” against the 1939 masterpiece. But Semon’s version is so inane that it would provoke gasps and groans even if there were no 1939 film. In lieu of Baum’s timeless story, the bulk of the movie finds the star in anvil-subtle slapstick situations: getting stung in the rear by animated bees, being spit upon by a duck, falling down a hole, not realizing the phony Cowardly Lion was replaced by a real beast, etc. Semon mugs outlandishly at every indignity heaped upon him, which makes the gags even less amusing.

A lot of “Wizard of Oz” is difficult to watch because of the miserable racial humor directed at the Snowflake character. He was played by Spencer Bell, who is burdened with the ignoble pseudonym G. Howe Black in the credits. While it was unusual for an African American to have a prominent part in a film of that era, the demeaning stereotyping (including a bizarre gag of having lightning bounce of Snowflake’s supposedly thick skull) speaks poorly of both Semon and the environment that encouraged such “humor.”

To its credit, “Wizard of Oz” was a very elaborate production: the sets and special effects (especially the twister) clearly show that a great deal of preparation went into this endeavor. And, ultimately, that is where the film took its fatal blow. After a successful New York premiere, the film’s distributor, Chadwick Pictures, went bankrupt. Semon was unable to secure another distributor and theaters that booked the film were forced to cancel their engagements. The financial debacle ruined Semon’s career and drove him into bankruptcy. As someone who was once considered to be on par with Chaplin, Semon found himself unemployable. Small roles in films and vaudeville engagements kept him active, but his health was wrecked. He reportedly had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a sanatorium, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia tuberculosis. He died in 1928.

As an orphaned and barely-seen film, “Wizard of Oz” was quickly forgotten. It lapsed into the public domain and has been duped endlessly by bargain basement film and video labels. It was included as a special feature in the 2005 DVD release of the 1939 classic, and it was shown on Turner Classic Movies. However, the film’s wobbly contents have worked against the chances of having a proper restoration of the materials.

“Wizard of Oz” is a curious and crummy blip in the history of Oz culture. Follow the Yellow Brick Road away from this mess!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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