The silent movie era is filled with comedians, and fortunately, despite so many lost films from that era, there are several surviving examples of many early comic practitioners. DVDs that focus on the lesser known, and books that offer information about them, are readily available. It is a good time to explore beyond the acknowledged “Big 3” of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
Claudia Sassen spent decades studying the life and career of silent screen comedian Larry Semon, who enjoyed enormous popularity in his time, but whose indulgences negatively affected his status, causing him health problems and an early death. Her book is the quintessential study of Larry Semon, and one of the most important film books of the year.
Larry Semon had an extraordinary vision and a complex, expansive imagination. He understood the visual language of cinematic process, and how frenetic movement was the key to physical comedy. Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedies were already developing ideas within these parameters, so Larry expanded upon that concept by making his comedy much bigger and more abundant. Flying buckets and barrels, jumping from airplanes, leaping and bounding in the midst of dangerous moving traffic, Larry Semon’s one and two reel comedies made audience laugh at the slapstick and yell with excitement at the amazing stunt work. He had filmmaking creativity and daredevil abilities and used cinematic process to enhance their visual impact.
Claudia Sassen’s book explores Semon’s life, discusses his creative vision, and explains the highs and lows of his career. Her book is both a biography and a filmography, assessing classic short films like “The Grocery Clerk” and “Golf,” as well as unsuccessful later features like “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Perfect Clown.”
Larry Semon’s 1925 version of “The Wizard of Oz” has been eclipsed by the 1939 classic, but now that Semon’s film has been restored, we are allowed to see more nuance and get a greater understanding of Larry’s quirky take on L. Frank Baum’s story. It is not a good movie, but Sassen’s book points out the initial positive reaction the feature received in its time. The Perfect Clown has received somewhat better reaction from film buffs today, most of them more familiar with Semon’s offbeat method of comic presentation.
It is Larry Semon’s penchant for larger, more expensive gags that brought about his downfall. The expenditures of his productions did not make back their costs, despite the comedian’s popularity. The later features were especially unsuccessful financially. Sassen’s discussion of Semon’s death in 1928 and some of the circumstances surrounding it is among the most fascinating portions of her book.
Oliver Hardy, who worked often with Semon (he plays The Tin Man in Larry’s version of “The Wizard of Oz”) once told biographer Jack McCabe that he never saw anyone work harder on a gag than Larry, except maybe Stan Laurel (who also appeared solo in a couple of Semon’s movies). Claudia Sassen’s book puts this all into perspective. Her study is also filled with beautiful illustrations, not only photos and ads, but some of Semon’s own art. His early art career is another highlight of the book.
“Larry Semon: Daredevil of the Silent Screen” is the definitive examination of Semon’s life and work. It is very highly recommended for libraries, research center, and anyone with an interest in screen comedy’s rich history.