It not easy bein’ Larry Semon–not only is he almost completely forgotten, but the few who watch his work will often just scour it for evidence of why he’s ranked below the Big Four of silent comedy (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon). “Sure, he was super popular back in the day,” they’ll say, “and okay, his popularity even rivaled Chaplin in some areas–but did he create a cinematic masterpiece worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather and Tokyo Story?…yeah, I didn’t think so.”
It’s not like naysayers don’t have a point–Semon’s work can get pretty goofy, and he had a fondness for repeating certain gags almost ad nauseum (although this is more obvious when you’ve watched a bunch of his shorts in a row). He especially loved people falling into puddles, gals flying off swings, and birds doing various unsettling things (such as spitting out streams of water, because birds can do that, as everyone knows).
But what’s with this disdain for comedies that haven’t made it to “Best of…” lists? Why not just have fun watching something that was never meant to be taken too seriously to begin with? After all, it’s not like you’d limit all your feature films solely to entries on the Sight and Sound lists–right?
I’ve liked Larry’s work in the past, and reading the brand-new Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen that I reviewed earlier this month really revved up my interest. So I thought it would be fun to share a few of his shorts with y’all today–shorts that I hope you’ll judge by their own confusingly wacky terms.
One interesting thing about Larry is that he really wasn’t just your “typical slapstick” clown. When the former cartoonist became popular in the late 1910s his crazy, large-scale stunts were something unique. They’re even exciting today, obvious editing and all–it’s no wonder audiences flocked to his films. It seems that they operated with cartoon logic–thus, gags are meant to be absurd and over-the-top. They’re also nicely produced and display great editing and camerawork. All in all, he was an influential figure in silent comedy and deserves just a little bit more than a “not as artistic as Chaplin” brush-off.
Now that you’re armed with that important info, here’s a selection of five fun Larry Semon shorts to enjoy (FYI, a couple of videos below have foreign subtitles–decent prints aren’t always easy to find online! Think of it as an experience, folks):
5. The Hick (1921)
Let’s start with this great “rural hijinks” short, with a clear cut storyline and nicely-spaced gags that fall briskly into their places. Larry is a farmhand who proposes to the farmer’s daughter. She refuses and decides to flee to the city where she becomes a stage singer (wearing a pretty “edgy” costume!). She becomes homesick and ill-treated, but soon faithful Larry comes to the rescue. The print is a bit blurry, but happily we still get to see it in its entirety–Italian title cards and all:
The story is probably “inspired” by a popular Keystone plot–the country girl is whiled away to the Big Bad City, and then saved from unhappy circumstances by the naive, yet loyal country boy. Leading Lizzie Astray (1914) is a good example. I liked Larry’s take on it, especially the skillful buildup of the action and the way everything ends with a bang.
4. The Rent Collector (1921)
Larry gets a job as a rent collector in a gritty tenement neighborhood, which goes precisely as well as you’d expect. He gets into a skirmish with one burly tenant, resulting in a long chase and plenty of delightfully brittle pottery being thrown. This is the kind of slapstick where people get thrown like footballs and fly off cliffs in cars that explode on impact–without getting so much as a bruise, of course. Check any pretentiousness at the door, for there is no place for it here!
This video is in two parts and was originally broadcast on Italian TV. There’s some annoying sound effects, so you may want to turn off the sound and play some ragtime in the background.
Yup, the “heavy” was Oliver Hardy, who was one of Semon’s stalwart supporting players! He invariably played a bully, one that was always kept pretty one-dimensional.
The rent collector who quits his job is the fearless young Bill Hauber, who I’m happy to count as a fellow Minnesotan. Hauber was Semon’s stunt double and put his life at risk countless times for the sake of laughs and gasps. (Surprisingly, his unfortunate early death in 1928 was from a plane crash while scouting for film locations, not from doing these hair-raising stunts.)
3. Huns and Hyphens (1921)
This is one of what I call Semon’s “This and That” comedies–the titles were always made up of a couple words starting with the same letter connected by an “and”: Masks and Mishaps, Bombs and Blunders, Frauds and Frenzies, etc.
This film centers around a deliciously dated plotline: Larry is an oddly clad waiter in a restaurant who discovers that it’s full of pro-Kaiser spies. Why yes, this was made during WWI, why do you ask? The chase scene at the end is a glorious burst of loony slapstick energy, where people get thrown right through brick walls and men dangle high above the busy Los Angeles streets, anticipating certain Harold Lloyd films to come.
An extra treat is getting to see the young Stan Laurel, who worked with Semon several times. His role as a German spy is small, but his screen presence is pretty obvious. In several scenes he was simply standing with the other background players, but my eyes kept going to him in spite of myself, expecting him to do something!
2. The Grocery Clerk (1919)
Larry is, obviously, the titular clerk in a grocery store (perhaps inspired by Roscoe Arbuckle’s The Butcher Boy and certainly by his The Bell Boy–Semon seemed to regard Roscoe as his muse). This is considered one of his best available comedies, brisk and straightforward.
The hapless cat was apparently Semon’s pet, and hopefully got through his flypaper “stuntwork” with minimal blows to his dignity. Supposedly this gag was such a hit that some people had “cat shimmy” parties where they recreated it with their own pet kitties (who no doubt went on to nurse a deep grudge toward Larry Semon forevermore).
1..The Show (1921)
This short, where Larry is the hapless property man’s assistant, is basically setup for one of the coolest chase scenes I’ve ever seen (are you sensing a trend in Semon’s films?). The stunts are breathtakingly dangerous, the timing akin to ballet choreography.
You’ll notice a number of racial gags in this one–in fact, there’s a lot of them in Semon’s work overall. If you watch old movies, material like this is going to pop up occasionally, it is what it is. If it helps, Semon did regularly employ the services of an actor named Spencer Bell, one of the first black actors to get a Hollywood contract. Err, he was usually billed as “G. Howe Black”…but still. Silver linings, folks! Silver!
Darn amazing ending, that’s all I can say.
You SilCom fans may notice that I didn’t include Semon’s most well-known short, The Sawmill (1922). Well, it’s an ambitious short with plenty of action…but compared to The Grocery Clerk or The Show (or the short Golf that we didn’t cover since I can’t find a complete print online), it’s…not his best work.
Oh, and speaking of “not his best work”…Semon’s most famous film of all, a certain much-derided feature? That just might be the subject of my next post–stay tuned!