11 February, 2009

Larry Semon

Larry Semon was an American actor, director, producer, and screenwriter during the silent film era. During that era, Semon was considered a "Comedy King", but is now mainly remembered for working with both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy) before they started working together.

He is also sometimes noted for directing (as well as appearing in) Wizard of Oz, a 1925 silent film that had a slight influence on the more famous 1939 MGM talkie version.

Born in West Point, Mississippi, Semon was the son of a vaudeville magician, Zera the Great, while his mother worked as his assistant. Along with his older sister, Semon joined his parents' act until his father's death. After completing his education in Savannah, Georgia, Semon moved to New York where he worked for The New York Sun and later, The New York Morning Telegraph, as a cartoonist and graphic artist. While working as a artist, Semon appeared in monologues in vaudeville where he attracted the attention of Vitagraph Studios. In 1915, he was offered a contract with the company.

After signing with Vitagraph, Semon worked behind the scenes as a scenario writer, director, and film producer for actor Hughie Mack's films. He occasionally cast himself in bit parts in the films he worked on before Mack signed on with another studio. When Mack left Vitagraph, Semon began playing the lead roles. He usually played a white-faced goof in derby hat and overalls, who would enter any given setting (a bakery, a restaurant, a construction site, a prison camp, etc.) and cause chaos, with people being covered with debris, and property being destroyed. His short slapstick comedies were made and released quickly and prolifically, making Semon very familiar to moviegoers.

As his fame grew, the films expanded from one to two reels each, and Semon was given a free hand in making them. This became a dangerous policy, because Semon became notorious for being expensive and extravagant: his two-reel comedies could easily cost more than an average five-reel feature film. A former cartoonist, Semon staged similarly cartoony sight gags, using elaborate special effects. No gag was too big for Semon. He loved chase sequences involving airplanes (sometimes using three in a film) exploding barns, falling water towers, auto wrecks and/or explosions, and liberal use of substances in which to douse people. A typical Semon comedy might involve barrels of flour, soot, ink, jam, mud pits, etc.

In The Bell Hop, a man sleeping under the spray of a malfunctioning fountain imagines he's swimming in the ocean, and in his sleep he dives off the bed, through the floor, and into a tremendous vat of paint standing in the lobby below. Oliver Hardy recalled in an interview that Semon, when staging his comedy short The Sawmill in a lumber camp, would not use traditional, painted stage sets. Instead, Semon insisted on building permanent log cabins, complete with modern conveniences. The production budget soared, and his bosses at Vitagraph Studios finally demanded that Semon become his own producer and underwrite his productions personally.

Semon tried to reverse his financial problems by entering the more lucrative field of feature films. He produced and starred in a few features in the mid-twenties, but by 1927 he was back in short subjects, released through Educational Pictures. After filing for bankruptcy in 1928, Semon returned to vaudeville. While traveling on the vaudeville circuit, he suffered a nervous breakdown and went back to Los Angeles.

After returning to Los Angeles, Semon was sent to a sanatorium in Victorville, California where, on October 8, 1928, he died of pneumonia and tuberculosis


Mike Hagley said...

I enjoyed seeing your post on Larry Semon. His great nephew is a friend of mine.

Mike Hagley said...

His great nephew, Larry Semon, is one of my best friends. Thanks for the listing on your site.