Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

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Jeff Rapsis

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Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostSun Mar 26, 2017 8:36 pm

I'm curious if anyone can share audience reactions they've experienced to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925).

After resisting this picture for years because of its reputation as a misfire that shows silent film at its worst, we screened Semon's 'Oz' today at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre to an audience of about 100, and I was surprised to find that people LOVED it!

I think it helped that I prefaced the film by making sure everyone knew they were NOT going to see Judy Garland, or much of anything that was familiar. Also, I gave a thumbnail sketch of Semon's comedy world of mud baths and tall towers, and also braced viewers for the casual racism of the comic relief character credited to "G. Howe Black." A little context can make a big difference.

Still, I didn't expect much, other than hard-core Oz fans to be outraged by the way Semon ran roughshod over L. Frank Baum's beloved story and characters.

Instead, the film produced big laughs throughout, undiminished by crude visual effects such as the animated swarm of bees or lightning bolts. People really, really enjoyed it! And the story held together enough for Semon to actually win cheers several times near the end when he comes to Dorothy's rescue.

Has anyone else ever been part of an audience or public screening of Semon's 'Wizard?' What was the reaction?
Jeff Rapsis
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Saint-Just

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostMon Mar 27, 2017 3:08 pm

My brother and I attended a free weekend afternoon showing of Oz '25 at a local library nearly 30 years ago - the only thing that occurred from to start to finish of the film, and for several minutes afterward, was a stunned silence, as if nobody could really believe there were seeing such a dreadful abomination - except for one elderly man who applauded at the end, more because that's what they did in his day than anything to do with the movie. For me the only thing that keeps it from being the worst silent ever is 'Topsy and Eva' and I would have serious questions about the mental faculties of anyone who found any sort of enjoyment in it. Well, my brother and I did find some enjoyment in mocking the thing for a few minutes but we didn't want to be overly obnoxious and potentially spoil the day for anyone else - little did we know - so we resorted to just not looking at each other. I have a copy on DVD as part of one of the many releases of Oz '39 and have given it a couple more chances but it is a film without merit or charm of any kind - other than I like the opening with Semon as the toymaker with dolls of all the Oz characters.
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostMon Mar 27, 2017 8:26 pm

I first saw it by way of VHS; Dave Goldin's I think?

The Wife and I had a reaction much like the one that Saint-Just notes above.
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NotSoSilent

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostTue Mar 28, 2017 5:56 am

Jeff Rapsis wrote:I think it helped that I prefaced the film by making sure everyone knew they were NOT going to see Judy Garland, or much of anything that was familiar. Also, I gave a thumbnail sketch of Semon's comedy world of mud baths and tall towers, and also braced viewers for the casual racism of the comic relief character credited to "G. Howe Black." A little context can make a big difference.

Leading with a disclaimer was a great call on your part. I haven't watched it with a crowd, but when it aired on TV a while back I decided to give it a try (or maybe I streamed it - it doesn't matter). I went into it knowing the film's reputation, the variance of the story, and Semon's comedic style. Basically I heard your introduction in my head long before you delivered it! While I didn't think it was great, and didn't really enjoy it, I honestly wondered what all the fuss was about. In fact, I may have actually enjoyed it a bit with 99 other people laughing and having a good time with it.
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oldposterho

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostTue Mar 28, 2017 7:31 am

It's a real testament to seeing a film with an audience though.

I also watched the film solo with a built in caveat and found it well worthy of its mediocre reputation. That said, when you're sitting with a bunch of people that are predisposed to and are really wanting to have a good time we could probably predict a more sympathetic reaction. I suspect getting along with the tribe is built into our DNA, that, or there's nothing like a good mob mentality, be it to laugh together or bring out the pitchforks. In the case of Semon's Wizard of Oz, why not both?
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostTue Mar 28, 2017 1:17 pm

I like Larry, but few people do. I think WOO is one of his best. However this film repulses me for a completely different reason.

In the beginning of the film Larry plays a toy maker entertaining a little girl. I thought it was one of the sweetest moments in silent film. Subsequently I learned Larry abandoned his own daughter after becoming famous which degraded my regard for this film and for Larry personally.
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Saint-Just

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostTue Mar 28, 2017 2:57 pm

I didn't mean to derail this by pontificating on the film as such, however I did see it with a group at a public showing and it fell as flat as it possibly could. I think it's instructive that Mr. Rapsis knew the only way the film would have a chance was if he knocked it down first - it's a film that one has to apologize for.
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostTue Mar 28, 2017 8:56 pm

Early example of drugs in Hollywood.
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostWed Mar 29, 2017 8:17 am

telical wrote:Early example of drugs in Hollywood.

The leaping fish strikes again.
Twinkletoes wrote:Oh, ya big blister!
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostWed Mar 29, 2017 7:06 pm

Well, here is my experience:

Some time ago I watched the Semon version of “…OZ” available through Warners, and was stunned by the pristine and gorgeously-tinted print, and by the perfect, beautiful and comedic music by Robert Israel. I watched it all the way through, no fast-forwarding, and then a day later watched it again.

I found it completely engaging and entertaining.

To test whether or not I had become insane, I invited five friends to watch the film.

I prepared them by warning them that this is not THE “The Wizard of Oz”; rather, it was “Larry Semon’s Slapstick World of Oz”.

I also gave them a synopsis of the story, with some of the “holes” filled in with annotations. For instance, the letter accompanying the infant Dorothy is signed by “Pastoria”. Explaining who he was (and why he is not a presence in Oz) makes more sense out of the story. Apparently audiences in 1925 still knew the musical version of the story, and Semon was playing to a certain familiarity that we now lack.

All five friends loved it.

They were not bored by the exposition; they were amazed that Larry was both the toymaker and the farm-hand; they enjoyed all the farce, were impressed with the storm, and had NO PROBLEM with the re-working of the major Oz characters or with the messy script-writing. Two of them commented on how enjoyable the music was (it certainly helps the movie!); and no one was disturbed by the absence of Aunt Em after the storm, the characterization of the black man, the discursive nature of the story (wandering in and out of slapstick riffs), or the abrupt ending. I think every one of them exclaimed more than once that they thought Spencer Bell was a GREAT actor, whom they thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated that he had such a big role. One woman specifically pointed out that she liked the acting, the stunts (without CGI), the humor, and the plot-twists.

Some of the gags were so outrageous that they left everyone laughing for a while; we guys in particular could not stop chuckling for quite a time after Oliver leaps off the tower, slams to the ground, gets up a little dizzy, and runs off.

So then I read to the group a few of Carl Bennett’s frenzied malevolent comments about the film, posted at SilentEra.com. Everyone just shook their head.
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostWed Mar 29, 2017 8:27 pm

There's a place for juvenile, zany, physical comedy.

And then there's THE WIZARD OF OZ.

I just think that the mixing of the two doesn't jibe for most folks.
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Saint-Just

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostWed Mar 29, 2017 8:54 pm

wich2 wrote:There's a place for juvenile, zany, physical comedy.

And then there's THE WIZARD OF OZ.

I just think that the mixing of the two doesn't jibe for most folks.


It's a crap film. Bottom line. And a waste of Robert Israel's talents.
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Jeff Rapsis

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostThu Mar 30, 2017 7:52 am

Follow-up from Jeff R.: This has been a really interesting discussion to follow. Some strong feelings out there!

The thing is, my 'Oz' experience shows to me that in the fixed world of cinema of 100 years ago, there are no absolutes.

The films may not change (although we may get better restorations), but what we expect from them does seem to evolve.

So films dismissed as worthless can sometimes surprise us. That's how I see what happened with Semon's 'Wizard of Oz.'

I think to modern audience unfamiliar with silent film, Semon's Oz is just SO weird that it sustains interest on that score alone.

Presented a certain way, and with expectations properly set, it can hold and even entertain an audience, as I witnessed last weekend. Somehow, 92 years out, it all came together.

Was Larry ahead of his time? No—what I mean is that in the great slot machine of entertainment and public taste and pop culture and context, Larry's 'Oz' finally came up with three bars.

I saw the same phenomenon earlier the same weekend, when I accompanied a double bill of bottom-of-the-barrel aviation thrillers: 'The Phantom Flyer' (1928) and 'Sky Rider' (1928).

This was for a program at the N.H. Aviation Museum, so audience interest was high just because of the planes and flying.

No one expected much else. But people in the audience (mostly NOT silent film regulars) found themselves getting engaged by the melodramatic stories, which were so simple-minded as to be refreshing.

Bottom line: the audience bought both pictures completely. Reactions were strong throughout, and both received big ovations. And it wasn't just for the planes. Somehow, the whole experience came together.

I'm not saying we should low-ball expectations of films from the silent era. Instead, I think it's worth keeping an open mind about pictures that have "reputations," deserved or not, so that they're not shut out of the chance to once again have a shot at delighting or disappointing an audience once again.
Jeff Rapsis
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostThu Mar 30, 2017 11:10 am

I had an even bigger mountain to climb with this film: I don't like Larry Semon at all in anything at any time; but I thoroughly enjoy this film. It's enchanting and funny and magical, all the more so if one can put one's self into the mind-set of the 1910s-1920s (despite its production date, it feels more Teens to me). Any show that can make me tolerate Semon has achieved a miracle; and so it is with his Wizard of Oz.
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostSat Apr 01, 2017 5:33 pm

When one sees the title in 2017 "The Wizard of Oz",
80% have never heard of Larry Semon and automatically
assume it follows the story line of the classic L. Frank
Baum children's book. Some have even scheduled public
showings (not seeing it in advance) because they think
the story line used by the 1939 version will unfold on screen.
(imagine their shock when G. Howe Black is shown).
Larry Semon made dramatic changes
to the plot while keeping the same characters. He changed it,
it seems, to make it a framework for him to hang gags on.
That and trashing great looking sets and costumes that a better
movie could have been made with makes me avoid it.
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Jeff Rapsis

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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostWed Apr 05, 2017 4:06 pm

Oh no—we're doing it again!

If you're interested in seeing the 1925 'Wizard of Oz' with an audience, we're running it on Sunday, June 4 at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. If the film isn't enjoyable by itself, you can always make up for it with the beer.
Jeff Rapsis
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Re: Reaction to Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

PostFri Apr 07, 2017 5:13 pm

I was only able to stomach one viewing of Semon's version. Luckily it was on the same Alpha Video DVD with three 1914 OZ films starring Violet MacMillan: The Patchwork Girl of Oz; His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz; and The Magic Cloak of Oz. These were reasonably enjoyable, especially considering the year and the antics of Fred Woodward.
I completely agree with Odinthor, who said "I don't like Larry Semon at all in anything at any time." I suppose von Sternberg figured he needed a clown in the film, but Semon's antics in Underworld made me nauseous.

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