I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.
"Wizard of Oz is on again", I noticed recently while flipping through my favorite classic movie channels. Then I spotted the year on the movie listing: 1925.
Here it was, the early version I'd always been curious to see! This silent-era Wizard came out fourteen years before the great Judy Garland classic, and even though I'd heard the 1925 version was a box-office dud and an artistic failure, I'd long been curious what this interpretation of L. Frank Baum's children's book contained.
It doesn't take long before the problems with this ambitious production begin to reveal themselves. Departing wildly from L. Frank Baum's story from the very start, the movie introduces a meandering political subplot: a prime minister, a threatened land, a secret lost princess whose identity is sealed inside a mysterious envelope. These dreary machinations barely connect to the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, and the melodrama makes the movie immediately wearying to watch. We would barely know that this is L. Frank Baum's story at all as the movie begins if we didn't see an old man reading the book to a little girl.
This girl, however, is not Dorothy. The 1925 Wizard of Oz was the masterwork of a then-popular moviemaker and clown named Larry Semon whose spindly motions and sad-sack expressions recall Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Larry Semon financed and directed this movie, and he cast his vivacious starlet wife Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy. Here she is -- a rather worldly child -- with kindly Aunt Em in an early scene on the Kansas farm.
Larry Semon cast himself as the Scarecrow, and surprisingly it's not Dorothy Dwan but Semon himself who prances proudly on camera through much of this movie. Larry Semon's vintage comic routines bear traces of various stage traditions from vaudeville to music hall to mime to slapstick, and he's an energetic marvel to watch, even as he shamelessly hogs the screen. Many of his routines go on too long, but he finds the right note in his initial Scarecrow number, a set piece that clearly informed Ray Bolger's Scarecrow in 1939.
The 1925 Wizard of Oz has no Wicked Witch, no Toto, no yellow brick road. It does have a tornado (as seen in that wild image at the top of this page). It also has a gleaming Land of Oz, and one wonders if Larry Semon's movie might have succeeded if he'd left L. Frank Baum's original plot elements to work their natural magic. (As it happened, this Wizard of Oz destroyed Larry Semon last hope for a breakthrough Hollywood hit. He would die three years later at the age of 39).
Now that the bad news about the 1925 Wizard of Oz being a turkey is out of the way, here's the good news: the film provides a fascinating opportunity to contrast what one film version may do badly and another may do well. While the impeccable and nearly perfect 1939 Wizard of Oz beats the 1925 movie on almost every count, there is a single important innovation in the 1925 version that clearly inspired the 1939 version.
This is the notion of transformation, the idea of a Land of Oz that is a mirror of the farm in Kansas, which causes three clumsy farmhands to emerge as their shadow selves: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. So much of the beauty of the great 1939 Wizard of Oz is tied up in this magical transformation, which does not occur at all in L. Frank Baum's original book. It is found, however, in Larry Semon's 1925 movie.
Before Larry Semon's Scarecrow becomes a scarecrow, he's one of three farmhands who travels in the flying house with Dorothy to Oz. He then hides himself by stealing the clothes off an actual scarecrow and stuffing them with straw.
It's delightful to see young Oliver Hardy (sans Stan Laurel) as the Tin Man, who similarly adopts his junk-pile uniform in order to hide from predators.
It's an even-bigger surprise, and not a very happy one, that the Cowardly Lion in the 1925 movie is played for broad laughs as a racist caricature of a shiftless African-American. We first meet this character as a farm worker played by G. Howe Black (his real name was Spencer Bell), and even before he reaches Oz he's forced to run through a few variations of the depressingly familiar "scared by a ghost" comedy routines that audiences seemed to always expect from African-American performers in the 1920s and 1930s. Why, we must wonder today, was it so entertaining in this era to watch African-American actors pretend to be scared out of their wits? The 1925 Wizard of Oz mines that trope mercilessly. During the tornado scenes (which, for some reason, are filmed in vivid blue) a blot of lightning tries to chase him down, and this happens:
Later, this character transforms himself into the Cowardly Lion (cowardly -- get it?) by hiding inside a costume that he finds in a cave.
Meanwhile, the Wizard of Oz doesn't stand out much in this movie, and mainly serves as a foil for the other actors:
Despite the many disappointments of this movie, we must give it proper credit for inventing the metafictional device that was used so effectively in the 1939 version when the farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr morph into the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the (now white, still funny) Cowardly Lion. One wonders if the 1939 script might have missed the innovation of aligning Dorothy's three friends from Oz with real-life counterparts from the farm in Kansas if Larry Semon's movie hadn't come up with it first.
There's something haunting about Larry Semon's face when he hams it up as the Scarecrow. We see in his eyes the deep hopes he held for this expensive production, and can only imagine with sadness how lost he must have felt when the work crashed at the box office, taking his career down with it. The transformation was only half complete.