Book Review: “Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen”

I sometimes wonder: If comedian Larry Semon had been completely forgotten over the years–that is, if he hadn’t been discussed by Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, and hadn’t been mentioned by people like Buster Keaton, and hadn’t had public domain copies of his films passed around over the decades–in short, if he’d been relegated to the kind of obscurity once shared by Charley Bowers, Marcel Perez, and Musty Suffer, would we look at his films today and think, “Wow, this guy’s a great performer–why haven’t I heard of him before?”

Although it’s not like he had a forgettable face.

Silent comedy buffs are familiar with big-beaked slapstick king Larry Semon, but he’s unknown to many classic film lovers (and considering how his last name is pronounced, that maaay be a slight blessing–no, it’s not the same as “lemon”). You usually hear him mentioned in connection with Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, since they appeared (separately) in a bunch of his films. And you’ve probably heard people exclaiming over the legendary bizarreness of his feature The Wizard of Oz (1925). (Let’s just say that features weren’t his strong point.)

Still, The Wizard of Oz aside, if you clear away your mental cobwebs and watch his shorts with fresh eyes you might find yourself more charmed than expected. After all, this was a man whose popularity nearly rivaled Chaplin’s back in the 1920s. There must be something to him, right?

Even aside from his mad eyebrow painting skills.

Writer Claudia Sassen certainly thinks so, and to prove it she’s dedicated around twenty years of research to finding out more about the one-time megastar, culminating with her new book Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen–which also includes an authoritative new filmography. (The text is apparently translated from German, which makes the writing style unclear at times, but the amount of info presented still makes the book well worth a read.)

Sassen not only found a wealth of information on Semon’s career but on his family’s careers, too. His father was “Zera the Great,” a magician and vaudevillian who spent decades touring the country, assisted by his strong-willed wife Irene. Much like contemporaries such as Buster Keaton, Semon grew up “on the road” and performed onstage from a very young age (one of the great photographs Sassen includes is a priceless publicity shot of little Larry in his stage makeup).

We’re also given details about Semon’s early career as a cartoonist, including a generous sampling of his drawings. He could apparently create anything from photographic portraits to “cut-out” toys to comic strips, a skill that was key to his ability to think up broad slapstick gags.

In recounting Semon’s quick rise to film comedy fame, his manic scramble to stay at the top, and his painful decline by the late ’20s, Sassen addresses many assumptions made about his underrated comic style (and substance). While it’s certainly true that most of his shorts can only dream of being as masterful as, say, Keaton’s, the best of them are brimful of energy and some of silent comedy’s most impressive, outlandish stunts (usually performed by stuntmen, but I’d say that’s besides the point).  And Semon certainly slaved for his success. In one two-year period he allowed himself only a single vacation…of two whole days.

Fun Fact: In France and Italy Semon was almost more popular than Chaplin!

We also get some honest insights on Semon as a person. You often hear that in real life comedians can be very different from their film personas–that was definitely true in Semon’s case. One former employee said that you didn’t work with Larry–you worked for Larry.  Onscreen he was smiling, impish, and full of peppy grace that still bounces off the screen today, but once the cameras stopped rolling that smile would sometimes fade to a “sullen, suspicious, almost aggressive” expression. The director Norman Taurog once described the star as “not a nice guy and quite different from comedians such as Jerry Lewis, who made people laugh even offstage.” (The unfortunate history of Semon’s dealings with his first wife and his daughter certainly back up this statement, as you should read.)

Part of this could’ve been due to Semon’s obsession with perfectionism. Arguably no one was harder on Larry than Larry was himself. He apparently spent most of his days toiling on films, toiling on gags, and then snatching a few hours’ sleep before toiling on films again. His fellow actors and crew would gather in the projecting room and laugh uproariously at the day’s rushes, but Semon himself would never even chuckle.

Busy being hard on himself.

Despite his on-set prickliness, Sassen shows that Semon was a liked and respected figure in Hollywood, quick to give work to struggling actors (such as Stan Laurel) and generous in giving his supporting players screen time. One nice anecdote involves a stage performance given by Roscoe Arbuckle a couple years after the scandal that had wrecked his career. After the show the admiring crowd formed a ring around Arbuckle, but were unsure about getting closer to him. Semon broke the ice by boldly striding forward and giving him a hug.

Sassen also addresses Semon’s personal life (believe it or not, the man one person described as looking like he was “carved by a drunken puppeteer” managed to be a bit of a womanizer), as well as some rumors that have surrounded his death. In short, it’s been speculated that he might’ve faked his own demise in order to escape his ruined career and enormous debts. Let’s just say that there are sound reasons to believe that he met his maker back in 1928. (Although in all honesty, I can’t imagine that extreme workaholic Larry could’ve seriously chosen a life in quiet seclusion, even if he was in a ton of debt.)

Not exactly a quiet life kind of guy.

There’s few things I find more exciting than “getting to know” a lesser-known comedian. If you’re a fan of one of the Big Three of Silent Comedy like I am, you tend to devour as much info about them as possible. You get to a point where you feel like you have a pretty good handle on their era, but if you start studying someone new–someone more obscure–an unexpected window opens up and you look out and realize just how huge and multi-faceted the silent comedy world can be.

I would recommend Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen to anyone who enjoys exploring that world in all its detail. Looking for info Semon’s evolving comic makeup styles?  Wondering what fans thought of The Wizard of Oz (1925) when it was released?  Sassen has all that info and more. It will certainly make you want to start digging through YouTube for as many Larry shorts as possible (which describes my 2016 so far). It was published by McFarland (their order line is 800-253-2187) and can also be purchased on Amazon.

Image credit: Claudia Sassen

P.s. If you keep seeing the same few Larry shorts on YouTube and are wondering where to find more, here’s a cheat code: do a YouTube search for “Ridolini” and voila! A bunch of a new films to choose from! (Although they were originally from Italian TV, and may not have English intertitles. Scott Joplin background music may also be in order.) Enjoy!

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: “Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen”

    • Ah, Semon’s The Wizard of Oz–I should review that one soon. Yup, his shorts can be a lot of bizarre fun. One of them, “The Show” (1922) has a chase sequence toward the end with some of the most eye-popping stunts ever! IMO his best work was probably from the late ’10s-early ’20s. I like his classic costume a lot, too–I’m always a sucker for painted-on eyebrows. 😉

  1. Nice post!

    Like others I’ve only seen the inexecrable Wizard Of Oz which I am sure isn’t enough to judge Semon’s entire work on, but it sounds like there is an interesting story behind the man and his films. 🙂

    • While his shorts aren’t always works of art, I really like his style of performing–graceful, precise movements. And if anything, Semon certainly thought big. It wasn’t enough for a man to jump from a 20-foot cliff–an entire car full of men had to plunge over it. There wouldn’t just be a fight on top of a moving train–the men would first leap from a bridge onto the moving train and then maybe jump onto a car speeding alongside it. Still very impressive today.

  2. Interesting stuff. I’m midway through ‘The Persistence of Comedy’ (which is excellent), but I do feel like it might be time to branch out.

    There seem to have been few people with a bad word to say about Keaton – maybe someone a bit more ‘difficult’ could be a nice change of pace.

    • Persistence of Comedy = My Favorite Buster Book Ever. The author really “gets” Buster, thank heavens!

      Whenever I branch out and start learning about silent comedians other than the Big Three (or Four or Five), the result is that not only do I learn more about the silent comedy world in general, but this in turn helps me learn more about the Big Three! It’s a win-win situation.

  3. I cannot understand people’s dislike for Semon’s WIZARD. I showed it (a pristine print with superb musical accompaniment in the Warner Home Video set of Wizard of Oz’s) to a group of friends, including a Ph.D. in psychology, a math teacher-and-software engineer (from China), an English teacher, and his wife—various ages from late 50s to late 30s. They LOVED it. I just told them it is NOT the story they’ve come to know so don’t expect that. That thought it was hilarious! No, it doesn’t make perfect sense—the writing certainly could have been improved. But they were all engaged.

  4. Pingback: On the Grapevine: The Perfect Clown (1925) – Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

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