The Wizard of Oz (1925)
“One of the most entertaining children’s pictures of all time that grown-ups will equally enjoy.”
Director: Larry Semon
Cast: Dorothy Dwan, Charles Murray, Oliver Hardy
Synopsis: Dorothy, heir to the Oz throne, must take it back from the wicked Prime Minister Kruel with the help of three farmhands.
Watching an unfamiliar version of a much-loved favourite is a little like journeying into a parallel dimension: one in which everything is recognisable, but nothing is quite the same. MGM’s definitive 1939 version of L. Frank Baum’s dark children’s story is more familiar to the modern world than the majority of films released in the last 12 months. In fact, the majority of the population will be completely unaware of the fact that the Judy Garland version was at least the fourth to be filmed. To add to the strangeness of this 1925 version — and in terms of the storyline familiar to us all, it is very strange — Oliver Hardy (billed as Oliver N. Hardy) appears sans Stan Laurel as a villain who, while not disguised as the Tin Man, acts as the potential romantic interest for Dorothy (I told you it was strange).
This version is the brainchild of one Larry Semon, who co-wrote, directed and stars as the hero, a toymaker, and the scarecrow. Now, I’ve watched movies for the best part of thirty years and, until seeing this flick I don’t recall ever coming across Semon before. Apparently, he was hugely popular back in the twenties, vying with Chaplin and Keaton for box office status, but today he is unknown. Perhaps this is because he died of pneumonia in 1928, at the age of thirty-nine, or perhaps it is because, on the evidence of this film he really can’t hold a light to the other comedy stars of the day. Watching this film, seeing Semon caper through a stream of slapstick situations, I couldn’t help thinking how much better Keaton would have done it all. The timing, the moves, everything. Semon’s career was apparently already in decline when he made this, his only feature, and it virtually signalled the end of his career — as a major star at least.
The story bears no resemblance to the book, or the 1939 version (which, itself, bears only a passing resemblance to the book). For a start, Dorothy is no virginal 14-year-old in a gingham dress, Dorothy Dwan’s Dorothy is a sensuous wench of 18 who spends much of her time fluttering the lashes of her big eyes with the tip of her finger inserted coyly in her mouth. She also seems to be playing Hardy (who, I swear, is the image of Meat Loaf in this flick) off against Semon’s farmhand, blowing hot and cold between them. Dorothy’s Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander), within the shadow of whose girth a relatively slimline Hardy could easily hide, is a rather cantankerous soul, given to beating both his workforce and his niece, while Aunt Em (Mary Carr) is little more than a doormat who disappears after thirty minutes (without being missed by anyone who knew her), and is never seen again. Toto is nowhere to be seen, and neither is the wicked witch.
Less than twenty minutes into the pic, and it was obvious that this movie wasn’t about the Wizard of Oz at all, but was merely a showcase for Semon’s failing slapstick talents. It was fully forty minutes before Dorothy — along with Uncle Henry, Semon, Hardy, and a stereotyped black guy named Snowball (played by Spencer Bell, but billed as G. Howe Black) — is finally whisked off to Oz in a shed carried off by an extremely impressive storm. It turns out that Dorothy is actually the Queen of Oz, and was left on Uncle Henry and that old aunt that used to hang around’s doorstep as a babe, spirited there by the wicked Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard). Finally reinstated to her rightful position within two minutes of arriving in Oz, Dorothy plays little part in the remaining half of the movie, which focuses on Semon’s attempts to escape from Oz’s lion infested dungeons.
While Wizard of Oz boasts some impressive special effects for its era, and some terrific stuntwork, were it not for the huge popularity of its successor it is doubtful whether this version would be remembered today, let alone released on DVD. Worth seeing only as a curio, Semon’s version has little going for it and, with too many slow sequences and too much self-indulgence on Semon’s part (check out the number of close-ups he receives compared to the rest of the cast), this film provides unsatisfactory entertainment.
(Reviewed 21st June 2008)