Sunday, January 30, 2011

Wizard of Oz (1925)

For a variety of reasons, this review relied heavily on my memory as well as sources I found online. Therefore, some (mostly, if not all, minor) details regarding the plot of the film may not be entirely accurate. But then again, you probably are not going to see this anyway, so it should not matter that much; I just thought you all should be aware of this in case you do. By the way, this is another "summery" review (though I have once agin skimmed over certain parts to reduce the length), so there will be spoilers. That being said, let's get right into:

Starring: Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy, Dorothy Dawn
Director: Larry Semon

Ok, in case you can't tell by the information listed above, this isn't "The Wizard of Oz". We all know and love the 1939 Judy Garland version, but most people are probably unaware that there were earlier adaptations of L. Frank Baun's classic book. So I was surprised to come across this 1925 silent film (produced by Baun's son) that depicts the story. Having viewed it, I can say that...well...let's just say that it is a little different...

The story starts off with a little girl asking her grandfather, a toy-maker played by director Larry Semon, to read to her "The Wizard of Oz". It then shows the Land of Oz, where some guy named Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard) is in charge. And guess what, he's evil! Wouldn't have know that from a guy with that name! Though to be fair it's a little difficult to take someone that seriously as a dictator when he looks like Mozart:

I would like to make an "Amdeus" reference right now, but I haven't seen the movie yet, so I guess I will have to pass.

Anyway, he has his minions, including his right-hand man Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer) and the Wizard himself (Charles Murray), who looks like a mixture between a proper English gentleman and a Muppet:

"MEEPMEEPMEEPMEEPMEEPMEEPMEEP!!!"

The people of Oz, as represented by Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn), are not very happy with their leader and they demand the return of their princess. Not really sure why the Prince can't just rally up the people and take over by himself, but believe me there are far more obnoxious plot holes than this to get riled up about. On a side note, there is one scene where a woman is dancing and one person mentions that (I'm paraphrasing a little here) "she is a lot of applesauce!". Really, because I thought she looked more like a cranberry kind of girl.

We then skip to a scene that is a little more familiar: Dorothy (Dorothy Dawn) living with her aunt (Mary Carr) and uncle (Frank Alexander) in Kansas. However, it soon starts to show some differences from the 1939 version. First of all, Uncle Henry is an asshole. The first scene he is in, he goes over to his wife, destroys the flowers Dorothy had just given her, and then yells at Dorothy for doing it. Ummm...why? I don't think it's a really a big deal, Henry, just take a chill pill. But no, he proceeds to get angry at the other farmers.

First, he goes over to Snowball, a black man, who is seen eating from the watermelon patch.........................yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, this is not like today where the most people can get away with in terms of racial insensitivity in a mainstream movie is any annoying alien named Jar Jar and two equally annoying Transformers robots. Back then, people didn't worry about that; they were just explicitly racist! Isn't that wonderful! Oh, by the way, the actor who plays him is Spencer Bell, but in the film he is credited as G. Howe Black. I am dead serious! Anyway, as Uncle Henry continues to have a hissy fit, we come across our other main characters, one played by Semon (I kind of surprised he wasn't the one to change his name), and another played by Oliver Hardy before he gained fame as the bigger half of the famous "Laurel and Hardy" duo. They both love Dorothy, and they proceed to fight over her. And by fight over her, I mean Semon runs away from Hardy (I forgot their character's names, if they were given any) and the other people on the farm for about 10 minutes, using slapstick and bad special effects that looks like what would be featured in a "Home Alone" rip-off today.

Soon there after, Wikked and his minions come over by plane, because I guess Oz can be reached through the use of a 1920s airplane (I will get back to this point later). They demand possession of a letter from Dorothy's past. It turns out that Dorothy was found on the doorstep of her aunt and uncle's house with a note that stated that when the girl turned 18, she should read a note meant specifically for her. Wikked threatens to kill Dorothy by tying her up from a silo, sending everyone around to look for the letter. When it is found, a fight breaks out between Seron and Hardy, which of course means more slapstick! At one point, Sermon falls from the top of the silo, lands on the ground head first, and yet is completely unharmed. So why is everyone so concerned about Dorothy falling off? Did women's bones break easier than men's in this era?

Eventually a tornado forms, forcing everyone to seek shelter in a shed, except Aunt Em, who disappears and is never seen or mentioned in the film again. Sucks. Meanwhile, Snowball (gee, maybe that name is supposed to be ironic...or maybe it's because he's Irish) walks outside for some reason where he is hit by lighting bolts repeatedly and they bounce off his head. You know, because black people are so stupid and thick headed! Hahaha, oh racism...This eventually leads to the most visually striking and yet bizarre part of the film. The lighting comes down, pushes Snowball up in the air where he continues to run across the sky with the lighting on his trail until he eventually ends up in the house which is still flying away. This would be the point where I would accuse the filmmakers of using LSD, except LSD hasn't even been invented at the time this was made. So what's their excuse?!

Anyway, the house goes over a ledge and crashes. As you can imagine, no one is hurt. And where do they end up, you may ask? Russia. Ok, fine its Oz, but the way the palaces are set up it looks a lot like Moscow. Well, one thing is for sure, I don't think they are in Kanas anymore...no, I'm not quoting the Judy Garland version, because I am not 100% sure that they left Kansas; they really didn't travel that far! If they did leave the state (yeah, when I think of Kansas, I think of ledges) they certainly didn't go far enough to leave the country, so even the Russia thing isn't an excuse! Oz is supposed to be a magical place in the realm of imagination, not some random kingdom located in Middle America! WHAT THE HELL?!

Well, after that tiny plot hole, Dorothy reads her letter, which declares that she is a princess and rightfully heir to the throne of Oz (even though this would be considered illegal under Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution which states...ok fine, I'll drop it) and her uncle is taken along and given a title as the Prince of Whales (because he is fat; that's right, we are making fun of fat people now). The others, however, are placed under arrest (ummm...why?...and why doesn't Dorothy help them?), and the Wizard is ordered to turn them into monkeys. However, unknown to the rest of the kingdom, he is not an actual wizard, so he cooperates with the would-be prisoners, warning that if they don't do something "We're all in Dutch!" (????????). Seron and Hardy then try to disguise themselves as a Scarecrow and a Tin Man. Ha, Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man, that's kind of a joke isn't it? But wait, it's that time again...SLAPSTICK! After a few minutes of that, they are arrested, and while Hardy is let loose because he accuses his workers of kidnapping, Semon and Snowball are thrown in a dungeon. While they are there, they are confronted by prisoners and lions. Semon tries to trick them by disguising Snowball as a lion. Semon is a first afraid of the real lions, but then decides that he is safe because these lions only like "dark meat". Wow, that was both corny and racist at the same time, good job.

Eventually, they escape, with Semon breaking into the palace and Snowball getting out a different way, doing a bunch of summersaults in the air (not quite as strange as it sounds, but still...). Uncle gets trapped down in the dungeon, because of the door in the floor being opened. Well, that along with bad editing and since he just kind of randomly decided to fall backwards for no reason at all. Kruel is defeated in a sword fight by Kynd with the help of Semon, and after Kruel admits to being the one who hid Dorothy (oh right, almost forgot about her didn't you?) as a baby, he and his forces are arrested. Wait, I just realized something. If she was such a threat to his rule why wouldn't her just kill her as an infant? Or...no, I'm done, let's just rap this up. Seron then discovers that Dorothy is in love with Kynd, meaning all his wooing was for not. Sucks to be you (though Sermon and Dawn were married in real life, so I guess he was just poking fun at himself).

Anyway, it appears he is not the only one upset, because Hardy and a bunch of soldiers once again are going after him. That's right, got to fit one last bit of slapstick in there before you go, don't you? Snowball launches a plane and Semon grabs onto the ladder attached to it to escape. However, the latter breaks, he falls from the sky, and............…it all the sudden comes away from the story again, with the doll of the Scarecrow falling down. The toy-maker had fallen asleep, but the noise wakes him up, he tells his granddaughter to go to bed. He then opens up the story one last time to say that Dorothy and Kynd lived happily ever after.

Really....that's how you are going to end it?! "Oh, the rejected Sermon falls to his death (maybe), every other character kind of just fades away, but that's ok, because Dorothy and Kynd, both of whom we spent very little time discussing, especially in the last third of the movie, lived happily ever after!" SEE?! EVERTHING WORKED OUT! Wikipedia says that there is some stuff that is implied which would make for a more climatic ending, but that would assume that the film is in someway cleaver, and I am not yet willing to accept that!

This movie is...weird. That's kind of a strange thing to say about a story originally about munchkins, witches, talking scarecrows and lions, and men made of tin. But if they were going to go in a different direction from the book, this was not the right way. The characters are one dimensional, the paper-thin plot is filled with endless and unfunny slapstick, and bunch of the stuff that they include makes no sense. Did I mention it is racist?

Ok, to be fair, all of my observations are taken from a modern-day perspective, so much of what I made fun of here is a victim of being outdated, which includes both technically and creative aspects. I don't think that this film was supposed to be taken that seriously even when it first came out; it was just a dumb little movie about dumb people doing dumb things. That being said, it does show its age and there are other kinds of films, both from the silent era and today, that are more enjoyable to watch for your viewing pleasure. So, if you want to check it out for curiosity's sake, go ahead. As a source of pure entertainment, however, I do not recommend it.