Dorothy can’t believe what she’s watching. Neither will you.
Mike Myers or Roberto Benigni would understand, I guess. Take a beloved children’s classic and make it a star vehicle for a popular comedian! If the role isn’t really appropriate for the comedian, change the story, which doesn’t matter anyway because who cares what kids think? Put in plenty of leering gags to appeal to “adults,” the way they did in The Cat in the Hat, or pretend there’s nothing deeply disturbing in a fifty-year-old man playing a little wooden boy.
But long before kiddy lit was outraged by the moderns, it was violated without so much as a kiss or a box of chocolates by Larry Semon, in his 1925 adaption of The Wizard of Oz.
By 1925, L. Frank Baum was several years in his grave. His widow Maude made a priority of regaining the rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (though, oddly enough, she failed to realize that there was any value in his original manuscripts, which she burned in the backyard incinerator!). Maude turned the rights over to her eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum. Nothing much was done with them; another filmed version of the story was begun in 1921, directed by Ray C. Smallwood, but was never completed.
Enter Larry Semon.
Semon was a comedian who specialized in doing the sort of stuff Pee Wee Herman parodied: the child-man, the little guy, the Pierrot clown who dances through life licking a lollipop, often brutalized by fat villains but always winning out in the end through his innocence. For a while he was nearly as highly paid as Chaplin, until audiences began to realize that each Larry Semon comedy had essentially the same slapstick plot as the last. Matters grew worse when Semon was given some creative control over his two-reelers at Vitagraph, running them far over budget. Vitagraph had enough, in the end, and suggested Semon might want to produce and underwrite his own films thereafter. Semon was a balloon drifting downward, working at Chadwick Pictures, when he decided to option The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
He laid his money out; he did more, enlisting Frank Joslyn Baum (billed as “L. Frank Baum Jr.”) to write a script treatment. It was understood that Semon would play the Scarecrow and that should have worked out all right, given Semon’s shtick. Baum the younger may even have donated the original Cowardly Lion costume to Semon’s production, out of the relicts of the Oz Film Manufacturing Company; the one seen in the film certainly looks like the same one Hal Roach wore. But then Semon himself and a writer named Leon Lee worked over the screenplay, and… ohhhh, dear.
It’s not enough to say the result was a disaster. It’s not enough to say Wizard of Oz bears no resemblance to the original book. The result was a bizarre, disjointed, appalling disaster that bears no resemblance to the original book and manages to score heavily in the “Things You Never Thought You’d See in an Oz Film” trials.
What sort of things, you may ask? How about a vomiting duck? A female impersonator (played by one Frederick Ko Vert—is that droll or what?) in a peacock headdress doing a mystic dance. A black character sitting in a watermelon patch, eating a watermelon. Spies from Oz, dressed as gauchos, arriving in Kansas in a biplane and threatening Auntie Em with revolvers. The Emerald City represented by a Russian cathedral. Lines like “Wizzy, do your stuff!”
You have no idea any of this will be paraded before your horrified eyes when the film starts, as reverently as can be, with Semon as an Old Toymaker working in his shop, where dolls representing the Tin Man, Dorothy and Scarecrow are on display (though not the Lion; one assumes he has a separate but equal shelf somewhere out of sight, on account of he’s, er, African). In toddles the Toymaker’s little granddaughter, who asks her grammpy to read her The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Grammpy has no clue about what it takes to please a child, judging by the story he proceeds to relate: How one day the “townsfolk” of Oz woke up to discover their baby Princess had vanished, which drove them nearly to riot, and somehow or other they remained in that condition for the next eighteen years without ever actually doing more than grumbling loudly and maybe shaking pitchforks under the castle’s windows now and then. Oz, we learn, is ruled by the evil Prime Minister Kruel, assisted by Lady Vishuss and Ambassador Wikked. Subtle, no?
And there is also a handsome mustachioed Prince Kynd hanging around the palace. It is never explained why he isn’t ruling in the lost Princess’s stead rather than what he is doing, which is joining the populace of Oz every day at noon as they dress up like Dutch peasants, crowd into Kruel’s throne room and shake their fists. Kruel squirms and grimaces on his throne, and calls for the Wizard to distract them with magic tricks. The Wizard, played by old Keystone warhorse Charles Murray, is described as a charlatan without any real magic. Nevertheless, he summons the Phantom of the Basket, who dances most scarily. At least, the populace are terrified; Prince Kynd laughs heartily and pronounces it all “A load of applesauce!”
Cut back to the tot being read to, who protests, “Grammpy, I don’t like this!” We are so with her. She wants to know when she’s going to hear about the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Not anytime soon, honey, because now the plot shifts to Kansas. We meet Dorothy, as portrayed by Semon’s wife Dorothy Dwan, a boop-oop-be-doop maiden gathering roses. We meet Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. She’s mild and sweet and motherly; he’s a hugely fat and abusive psychopath. Hired hands on their farm include Semon, who spends most of his time napping in the hay; Oliver Hardy, surprisingly young and trim and… gee, actually sort of handsome without his mustache; and a black actor named Spencer Bell, though billed in this film as—get this—G. Howe Black.
You can make the argument that art shouldn’t be judged outside its historical context, you can grit your teeth and hope Bell collected a fat paycheck that paid his rent and bought groceries… it’s still pretty hard to watch the scenes in which he is made the butt of almost every cheap racist joke that could be devised. Example: he’s the only one of the three farmhands to have a name. It’s Snowball. Are you having fun yet? No? Well, deal with it; matters aren’t going to improve any.
Hardy’s character is actively courting Dorothy; Semon’s character loves her wistfully from afar. Uncle Henry unleashes a torrent of rage on Dorothy. Dorothy remarks to Auntie Em that he scarcely acts in an avuncular fashion and Auntie Em explains that Dorothy is, in fact, adopted. Flashback to eighteen years earlier, when on a dark and stormy night someone left a basket on the doorstep of the farmhouse. Inside the basket were a baby girl and a letter containing another letter, which the basket’s occupant must not open until her eighteenth birthday.
Meanwhile, in Petrograd… I mean Oz… the peasants are revolting again. Kruel can’t deal with it and sends Ambassador Wikked on a mission to the farm in Kansas. Wikked is to recover the secret letter left with the baby, because “It can save us,” and if he can’t get the letter he must do away with Dorothy. Wikked and his thugs dress up in the aforementioned costumes—maybe they’re not gauchos, maybe they’re supposed to be Zorro, or the guy on the Sandeman Sherry bottle—and away they go in their biplane to Kansas, where they land and come sneaking up to the front gate just as Dorothy is having her 18th birthday party and about to read the secret letter.
Wikked demands the letter. Uncle Henry, having suddenly undergone a complete change of character, refuses and stoutly defends Dorothy. There is a lot of violent and sadistic behavior before a storm erupts and sweeps everyone off to Oz, except for Auntie Em, who is presumably killed, because we never see her again. The storm, by the way, is one of the best moments in the film. Not only is it a bravura piece of special effects work, it is a positive delight to watch the damn farm wiped off the face of the earth. By the time you get that far in the film, if you do, you’ll understand why.
Now the plot logic breaks down completely. It turns out the secret letter merely explained that Dorothy was the true Princess of Oz. That was going to save Kruel and his cronies? Dorothy is installed as Princess but does nothing to prevent her friends from Kansas from being thrown in the Dungeons of Oz. They run away and, briefly, to avoid capture, don their respective disguises as Scarecrow and Tin Man. Snowball is later presented with a lion costume to lend him protective coloring—or something—in the Dungeons, because they’re filled with lions. And Gypsies. Or possibly pirates. Or maybe they’re supposed to be banditti. There’s a breathless rescue involving another biplane. And so on and so forth.
Profoundly offensive and incoherent, Wizard of Oz nearly bankrupted Chadwick Pictures, which was already one of the Poverty Row studios. Both the studio and Semon were history within a few more years, though Semon’s story ends with an intriguing mystery: after filing for bankruptcy in 1928, he returned to vaudeville and suffered a nervous breakdown that same year. He vanished into a sanatorium in Victorville, a little town on the edge of the Mojave, and supposedly died there of pneumonia and tuberculosis. He was only 39. Dorothy Dwan insisted that something weird was going on; she was only allowed to see him once, in a dimly lit room and from a distance, and two days afterward was told he had died and had left strict instructions that his was to be a closed-casket funeral with immediate cremation afterward. Exit Larry Semon, dead or alive. His career was certainly dead.
And the years rolled by… L. Frank Baum’s heirs quarreled. Maude sued and disinherited her eldest son, Frank Joslyn, and he was so ostracized by the family that almost no one would agree to be interviewed when he wrote his father’s biography, To Please a Child, resulting in a lot of improvised history. Ozcot, the charming little home on the corner of Cherokee and Yucca, grew emptier and more rickety year by year, and one hopes it had no structural precognition of the future when it would be unceremoniously bulldozed and replaced with a hideous apartment building. That prime piece of Hollywood Nothing architecture squats on the corner to this day, devoid of any commemorative plaque.
I like to imagine that somewhere in the ruins of Baum’s garden, the drifted pearly ashes of his manuscripts worked their way into the soil and diffused magic. The magic added a pleasant weirdness to an already strange little town, but it also went seeking, like silver lightning underground. Somehow or other, after years, it came to the surface again in Culver City, and despite all the concentrated crassness of the movie industry it jumped the gap to spark the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz.
Which, is, of course, a talkie; so our road trip ends here.