Saturday, March 25, 2017

Oliver Hardy plays the Tin Man, and other reasons to see the silent 'Wizard of Oz' (1925)

We're off to see the 'Wizard'—but not the one with Judy Garland in it.

Probably the most-requested silent film title I get is the 1925 version of 'The Wizard of Oz.'

Oz fans (and there are many) seem especially eager to see this early big-screen adaptation of the beloved fantasy.

And so far I've resisted.

Why? Because I've felt this version of the tale, concocted by comedian Larry Semon, can't help but disappoint audiences, and also reinforces stereotypes of silent film at its worst.

Held up against a familiar Hollywood classic, the 1925 'Wizard of Oz' not only can't compete, but diminishes the whole era that produced it.

So I've managed to avoid it for quite some time.

Until now. Tomorrow (Sunday, March 26) at 4:30 p.m., the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre will run Semon's 'Wizard of Oz,' with music by me.

Expect a thoroughly Judy-Garland-free screening, with Dorothy played by Semon's wife Dorothy Dwan, Semon as the scarecrow, and yes, Semon's then-sidekick Oliver Hardy playing the Tin Man.

And that's about all the silent 'Wizard' has in common with Frank L. Baum's well-loved tale. Semon basically used the material as a jumping off point to create his specialty: cartoonish slapstick mayhem.

Larry Semon, Dorothy Dwan, and Oliver Hardy in the 1925 'Wizard of Oz.'

Audiences at the time didn't know what to make of Semon's 'Wizard.' With years of exposure to the 1939 MGM version, I can't imagine what viewers today will think.

Well, we'll find out soon enough. If you'd like to judge for yourself, please attend! More details are contained in the press release pasted below.

Before that, I want to thank Jessica Pappathan and everyone at the Aviation Museum of N.H. for inviting me in for a silent film program on Friday, March 24.

On the bill: a double feature of two obscure aviation thrillers, each full of aerial acrobatics and daring stunt pilot work.

'The Phantom Flyer' (1928), a Universal "Thrill Picture," which marries airplane derring-do with a melodramatic plot, got an especially big response.

And people readily cheered Champion the Dog in 'Sky Rider' (1928) as time and again he outsmarted all the humans in the picture.

Neither of these pictures are celebrated as classics or studied in film schools.

But run them on a big screen with live music and a receptive audience, and they still do what they were designed to do: keep eyes glued to the screen and stir a crowd to a frenzy.

I think part of the formula is matching the right pictures to the right audiences. In this cause, for a program at an aviation museum, vintage airplane melodramas were a natural.

I'll do a similar program in May at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. To mark the annual Memorial Day running of the Indy 500, we're running the MGM drama 'Speedway' (1929), starring William Haines and Ernest Torrence.

The film was made on location at the actual Indianapolis 500 track, and is filled with scenes of period race cars zipping along at astonishing speeds of 90 mph or more!

And we're doing it at the request of a group of antique car enthusiasts, who are planning to hold their regular business meeting in the theater prior to the show.

So in programming these films, part of the fun is matching the right film with the right audience. It's great it happens!

Okay, here's more info on the silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925), which we're running tomorrow in Wilton, N.H. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Larry Semon as the Scarecrow.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rare silent film version of 'Wizard of Oz' at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, March 26

Feature-length Oz epic released in 1925 includes comedian Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man; to be screened with live music

WILTON, N.H. — You won't find Judy Garland in this version of Oz, or much of anything else that's familiar. That's because it's the forgotten 1925 silent film version of the famous tale.

Long overshadowed by the immensely popular 1939 remake, the rarely seen silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) will be screened one time only on Sunday, March 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The program, which will include an earlier short Oz film also based on stories and characters of author L. Frank Baum, will be accompanied by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

The silent version, released by Chadwick Pictures, was intended as a vehicle for slapstick comedian Larry Semon, who directed the picture and played the role of the scarecrow.

Dorothy is played by Dorothy Dwan, Semon's wife. Also in the cast is Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Prior to his teaming with comedian Stan Laurel later in the 1920s, Hardy often played Semon's comic foil.

The silent 'Wizard of Oz' bears little resemblance to the highly polished MGM musical released just 14 years later. However, due to the enduring worldwide popularity of Baum's 'Oz' characters and stories, the silent 'Wizard of Oz' remains an object of great curiosity among fans.

The film departs radically from the novel upon which it is based, introducing new characters and exploits. Along with a completely different plot, the film is all set in a world that is only barely recognizable as the Land of Oz from the books. The film focuses mainly upon Semon's character, who is analogous to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow character in the 1939 version.

The major departure from the book and film is that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are not actually characters, but are in fact disguises donned by three farm hands who find themselves swept into Oz by a tornado. Dorothy is here played by Dorothy Dwan — Semon's wife - as a young woman. In a drastic departure from the original book, the Tin Man (played by Oliver Hardy) is a villain.

Some elements of the narrative have their roots in earlier adaptations of The Wizard of Oz. For example, Prime Minister Kruel has a predecessor in King Krewl, the antagonist of His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. The note explaining Princess Dorothea's true heritage is signed "Pastoria", a name used for the exiled King of Oz in the 1902 stage version of The Wizard of Oz and for the father of Princess Ozma in The Marvelous Land of Oz and later Oz books.

Legend has it that Semon's version of 'Wizard' was so poorly received, Chadwick Studios was forced to file for bankruptcy while the picture was in theaters. In truth, the picture was a modest success, and Chadwick continued to release films through 1928, when the studio shut down prior to the industry's switch to synchronized sound.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating music that bridges the gap between an older film and the expectations of today's audiences. Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.

"It's kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that's part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "It's easier to be in tune with the emotional line of the movie and the audience's reaction when I'm able to follow what's on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music," he said.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'The Wizard of Oz' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

The silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) and other Oz-related silent films will be shown on Sunday, March 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

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