Monday, August 3, 2015

The Wizard of Oz (1925)

The rightful queen of the Township of Oz was sent off to Kansas as an infant by the evil Prime Minister Kruel. Prince Kynd demanded the return of Queen Dorathea so Kruel travels to Kansas with the great and powerful charlatan to steal Dorothy's mail once and for all. From there is starts to make less sense.

This version of The Wizard of Oz is a framework for exhibiting vaudeville gags, not a story unto itself. Director and would-be scarecrow Larry Semon runs from the cruel Uncle Henry, is attacked by bees, and creepily try to woo the teenaged Dorothy, seventeen years his junior. (Creepier still, the actors were actually married at the time!) And don't get be started about the duck!

The film, silly and shallow as it is, possesses some interesting visuals. The inclusion of animation with live action, interesting camera tricks, and stunts makes it more ambitious than most of it's era. Ambitious enough, it would seem, to bankrupt the studio before the film's release. Many theaters who ordered prints never received them. But it's rather telling of the story that this 70 minute fantasy was annoyingly tedious. If a gag worked for four minutes, they ran it for ten. Then they began another.

I never read the Baum stories, so I don't know what elements are accurate to the source material, but this flick resembled the Garland extravaganza not in the least. No witches, no munchkins, no slippers, and no Toto too. There is no brick road nor a flying monkey in sight. Several characters travel to Oz (a short plane ride from Kansas), not just Dorothy, and their alter egos (woodsman, scarecrow, lion) were disguises to avoid capture.

Let's talk about our cowardly lion, shall we? Of course he's a black laborer whom we first see sitting in a field eating watermelon with a giant grin. The bar has been raised for racially insensitive films.

Terrible uncle Henry, played by obese Frank Alexander, gets into the good graces of the Evil Prime Minister, and thus earned the title of Prince of Whales. Yea, cuz he's fat. Alexander lived to the ripe old age of 58. A youngish and slim-ish Oliver Hardy played the tin woodsman and scarecrow's romantic rival Dorothy's affections. He had done a huge pile of shorts by then but this was one of his first feature films.

The financial disaster that The Wizard of Oz was spelled the end of Larry Semon's career, and apparently his life. He did another film and a bunch of shorts, but would die in 1928 under unclear circumstances. I'm sure a bottle was involved.

I wanted to like this movie. It did have a lot going for it. But the weakness of the overall narrative and the tediousness of the bits made it fall short. And the samboesque stereotype didn't help. What a way to treat a war veteran. AMRU 2.5.
"I have heard that these alley cats like dark meat - personally, I'm not afraid!"

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