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Dorothy Gale Week Day 1: Dorothy Dwan in The Wizard of Oz (1925)

Wizard of Oz 1925Director: Larry Semon

Writer: Frank Joslyn Baum, Leon Lee & Larry Semon, adapted from the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Dorothy Dwan, Mary Carr, Virginia Pearson, Bryant Washburn, Josef Swickard, Charles Murray, Oliver Hardy, Frank Alexander, Otto Lederer, Frederick Ko Vert, Larry Semon, G. Howe Black

Plot:  A toymaker (Larry Semon) crafts a set of dolls for his granddaughter, recreating the characters from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, then sits her down and to read the book with her. Or rather, he reads some alternate universe version of the book that only exists in this movie, because despite the fact that Baum’s own son got a screenwriting credit, it is almost unrecognizable from the book. My friends, I have written about 80 or so different movies since I first started this project, but this may be the craziest thing I’ve ever watched. Normally I don’t blame you if you skim over my somewhat detailed synopses, but this time I implore you… read on.

In this version, the people of Oz have managed to achieve a tense, suspicious peace many years after their baby princess was kidnapped and lost. In the place of the royal family is the treacherous Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard).  His actions (which are completely undefined) are beginning to bring the people of Oz to rally around Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn), who demands the return of the rightful queen. Kruel turns to his advisor, Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer), who suggests they take their case to the Wizard (Charles Murray) and ask him to use his power to distract the people while Kruel schemes. Nobody knows the Wizard is merely a huckster – a man with impressive tricks, but no real magic.

Upset by the story, the toymaker’s granddaughter urges him to read the part about Dorothy and her friends, and he complies. In Kansas, we meet a rose-adorned girl named Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) and her loving Aunt Em (Mary Carr). Her Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander) is less enamored of her, and grows angry at her for wasting time on the farm, where a farmhand (Oliver Hardy) defends the women as Henry berates them. Semon and G. Howe Black also appear as buffoonish farmhands, also victims of Henry’s temper. Semon and Hardy (both nameless) fight over Dorothy’s affections, and Henry gets angry at them all. Dorothy turns to Em, upset at Henry’s cruelty, and Em confesses that he isn’t really her uncle. She tells Dorothy the story of how, many years ago, baby Dorothy was delivered to their doorstep in a basket, and if you don’t know where this is going then congratulations on making it this far in life without ever having watched a movie before. Anyway, Dorothy arrived with a letter to be opened by her on her 18th birthday and not a moment before.

Back in Oz, things are getting even more tense, as Kynd warns Kruel that coronation day is approaching. He has until the new moon to produce Oz’s rightful queen, or Kynd will throw him into the dungeon. Kruel knows there are papers in a faraway place called Kansas that will save his regime, and sends Wikked on a journey to find them. The granddaughter, showing the sort of patience that would no doubt lead her to blow up her high school science lab in later years, forces her grandmother to jump back ahead in the story to Dorothy, who now is celebrating her 18th birthday. She goes to Henry, reminding him that today is the day he gives her the papers that came with her upon her birth. Before he can do so, Wikked arrives, flying in a biplane and landing on Henry’s farm. He demands the letter that came with Dorothy, offering to bribe Henry to prevent Dorothy from knowing the contents of the letter, but Henry grows angry and shoos them away. Wikked turns to the farmhands, who are fighting over Dorothy’s hand, and tells Hardy that she will never marry him if she reads her papers. Henry is about to give the papers to Dorothy, but Wikked and his thugs capture them at gunpoint. Henry manages to hide the letter, and Wikked has Dorothy tied to a watertower, threatening to burn the rope and let her fall if he doesn’t get the papers. Semon manages to catch her, because physics don’t apply in silent movies, and gives her the letter, which he found. Wikked tries to attack again, but apparently even God wants them to just get the hell to Oz, because all of a sudden a storm comes out of nowhere, lightning striking the bad guys (and knocking off Semon’s hat and bow tie) and wind forcing everyone else inside. Dorothy, Henry and the farmhands, in the house, are caught by the wind and blown away.

The five of them and Wikked crash outside the land of Oz. Semon hands Dorothy the letter, which indicates that her true name is Dorothea, rightful ruler of Oz, and destined to take the throne upon her 18th birthday. Kynd, Kruel, and the Wizard come out to greet them, although only Kynd is happy. Kruel orders the wizard to do something to the farmhands while he deals with Dorothy and Henry, but the Wizard is powerless. The farmhands each disguise themselves so that they and the Wizard won’t get in trouble – Semon putting on the clothes of a Scarecrow, Hardy a suit made of tin. Kruel captures them all and Hardy and Semon each accuse the other of kidnapping Dorothy in the first place. Black (the remaining farmhand) and Semon are sent into a dungeon where they are immediately mistreated by people dressed like pirates. I think this movie is going to give me a nosebleed.

With Dorothy’s true status revealed, Wikked advises Kruel to marry the new Queen to maintain his power. Hardy is made a “knight of the garter,” which somehow makes him immune to metal, and Henry is made Prince of Whales, which is not a typo. Back in the dungeon, the Wizard approaches Black and has him don a lion costume so he can frighten his captors and WHY THE HELL IS THE WIZARD TRYING TO HELP THE FARMHANDS THIS DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE AND he and Semon manage to escape. Semon plans to help save Dorothy from being the victim of a frame-up (FRAME UP? WHAT IS SHE BEING FRAMED FOR?) and sneaks out of the dungeon, but winds up being chased back down by Hardy, where he and Black encounter real lions. But Semon isn’t worried because lions like “dark meat” and Black is actually black and I think I need to sit down.

Kruel and Dorothy are about to get married (I think) when Kynd shows up and engages him in a swordfight and the Wizard helps Semon escape the dungeon. Together they defeat Kruel, who confesses to kidnapping Dorothy in the first place, claiming he whisked her away to save her from a “hostile faction.” Dorothy turns to Kynd, who she has apparently fallen in love with because of his mustache, and Black and Semon fly away in Wikked’s biplane.

Thoughts: This is truly a bizarre movie, unlike any other version of Oz I’ve seen put to screen. The long, frankly tedious focus on the bumbling farmhands at the beginning makes it clear that the film was really intended as a starring vehicle for actor/director/co-writer Larry Semon (he in fact is the only actor credited on the only original movie poster I could find). As a historical footnote, the film is more notable for featuring a young Oliver Hardy, who would go on to be one-half of one of the greatest comedy teams of all time, whereas Semon would go on to die of pneumonia at the age of 39. This is especially notable as, even when he’s not wearing his old man makeup, he looks like he’s about 64 years old in this movie.

The story here is something of a chore to get through. I can handle a story that adds new things to the Oz mythology, but the almost unforgivable thing here is the way Semon and his co-writers spend a ridiculously long time showing the various farmhands going through comedic antics back in Kansas, this after the granddaughter has specifically asked to hear about Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and so forth. I’m also very uncomfortable with re-casting Uncle Henry as this cruel, heartless man who practically tortures Dorothy and Em, regardless of the question of Dorothy’s true parentage. Even worse, though, it’s internally inconsistent, as the cold-hearted Henry suddenly becomes Dorothy’s stalwart defender when Wikked shows up to take back her birth papers.

I admit that I’m not exactly privy to the demands of a 1925 filmgoing audience, but I can’t imagine anybody who loved the novel (which was 25 years old at this point, enough for parents and their children alike to have grown up with the book) watched this and came away satisfied. So much of it simply makes no sense. How did Kruel come to power? What the hell is Prince Kynd actually the prince of? What were Kruel and Wikked doing that turned the people of Oz against them? And didn’t anybody find their names at all suspicious? Why do the farmhands disguise themselves? What the hell does it matter to them if the Wizard gets in trouble for faking his powers all these years? They have literally just met the man, and he’s working with the guy who wants to destroy them. Typing this paragraph is giving me a headache.

Considering the complete mess made of the story here, perhaps the thing that disturbs me about this movie the most is the way it completely strips away all of the magic of Oz. Not only is the Wizard a humbug, but there’s no magic anywhere – the scarecrow and tin man are just disguises, and the route between Oz and Kansas is easily accessible by a 1920s-era crop duster. The closest thing to magic is the storm that hurls them to Oz, and I’m still willing to chalk that up to the intervention of a deity that can’t believe they were 44 minutes into an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy hadn’t left Kansas.

The characters, meanwhile, are paper-thin. Dorothy Dwan (Semon’s wife) as Dorothy is less of a character and more of a living doll for the men to fight over. Her affections bounce between men from moment to moment with no reason or logic, and we’re never given a satisfactory reason why she should fall in love with Kynd in the end. The rest of the characters are similarly ill-developed, acting without any real motivation. Howe’s “Cowardly Lion” farmhand is the sort of racial stereotype you expect in a movie from this time period, which I usually try to tolerate for the sake of context, but the line about lions liking “dark meat” just sent me over the edge. In the end, the whole thing seems to exist solely to showcase Larry Semon’s slapstick abilities. That’s fair, I suppose – a lot of the comedies in the era of silent movies were little more than the star comedian performing their antics in front of a camera. But I have to ask – is an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz really the right place for that kind of one-man show?

The good news is that this movie is largely a footnote in Oz lore. Very few people watch it anymore, which is as it should be, and it’s not remembered very well. The bad news is that the one thing from this movie that did make it into the greater Oz Mythology is probably one of my least-favorite parts: the conceit that Dorothy’s friends in Oz are based on the people she knew back home. In and of itself, that’s not really a bad idea. It’s cute, it’s fanciful, and it has worked its way into many other fantasy films over the years. The problem, though, is that the way it was used in the 1939 film birthed the notion that Dorothy dreamed her entire Oz adventure. This is something Baum never intended, but something a lot of people think is Oz canon… and the whole thing rather cheapens Oz to me, almost as much as the stripped-down Oz we got in this movie.

I need to cleanse my palette, friends. I need a good movie to cleanse my mind. Fortunately, the next one on this list is the classic to end all classics. Tomorrow it’s time for Judy Garland in MGM’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 3: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

phantom-of-the-operaDirector: Rupert Julian
Walter Anthony & Elliot J. Clawson
Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin & Norman Kerry

Plot: As new owners take possession of an Opera House, they begin to hear tales of a Ghost that inhabits its walls. The Phantom, as he calls himself, begins leaving threatening notes, telling them to place Christine Daae in the lead role of their performance of Faust. When they fail to comply, a curse is brought upon the house, the Phantom abducts Christine, and a chase for her life and the survival of the opera house ensues.

Thoughts: This is the last of the silent films I’ll be watching for this little experiment, but I think it’s easily my favorite. To begin with, it’s just extremely well made. The sets are elaborate and well-constructed, the performances aren’t quite as over-the-top melodramatic as many silent era performances tended to be, and the work of the immortal Lon Chaneyas the Phantom is truly extraordinary. It’s said he did his makeup himself, and that it was hidden from the audiences until the premiere of the film. Contrast that to the movie trailers we get these days, that give away the entire damn movie in 90 seconds. Chaney, friends, was a true showman.

But I think something else that helps this film appeal to me is that it feels more modern in the telling than the other movies I’ve watched. It’s still silent, of course, but I’m starting to see a lot of the language of modern storytelling begin to appear. This film is not merely a filmed stage play, the way so many early films are. There are different angles, different cuts, different ways of telling the story we didn’t see before. It’s not as drastic as the cinematic evolution we’d later get in Citizen Kane, of course, but it’s definitely there. There’s a scene, for instance, where Christine (Mary Philbin) and her lover (Norman Kerry) fall down in the midst of an angry mob. Instead of watching them overwhelmed, the camera stays with them while the mob runs around it. It’s not an unusual shot at all by modern standards, but by the standards of the time it was a really clever trick.

In terms of horror, we’re seeing the monster beginning to evolve as well. The Golem was literally a lifeless beast, propelled by the whims of its creator. Count Orlock in Nosferatuwas evil for evil’s sake – which can be terrifying, but lacks some depth. Erik, the Phantom, progresses cinematic monsters to the next level by giving him an actual motivation: love. Granted, it’s a sick, twisted kind of love, but let’s be honest here, so are half the relationships you see on screen these days. (It is arguable, for example, that Erik is any worse for Christine than Edward is for Bella in the Twilight franchise.) Erik is a madman, of course, and a multiple murderer, but by giving him that warped love for Christine as his motivation, we’re given for the first time a monster that we can really understand.

Aside from his motivation, the Phantom’s methods also start to hint at the evolution of monsters in modern cinema. We see him employ a lot of the techniques that become familiar in later years – not just the secret passages and the skulking in the shadows, but the methods of abduction, of leaving the bodies of his victims in rather theatrical poses to best terrify the survivors, and the use of deathtraps. I really liked the deathtraps, in fact – rooms of mirrors, hotboxes, tricking Christine into starting a flood that threatens the life of her lover… these are the trademarks of later monsters and mad scientists, everybody from the Joker to Jigsaw, and it all seems to begin right here.

Once again, though, I’m forced to deal with what seems to be a piecemeal print of the movie courtesty of Netflix. The film is dark, moody, atmospheric – all kinds of great adjectives you want applied to a horror movie. Then, out of the blue, a scene in the middle of the film is in full color. It doesn’t quite look as oversaturized as most colorized movies, so I’m forced to wonder if the scene in question is actually taken from another film and wedged in here – but all of a sudden we see the monster waltz into a ballroom scene wearing a bright crimson costume with a skull mask. The lighting is bright, the scene could be in broad daylight, and the effect is ruined. The only thing that makes me less than 100 percent certain the scene is plucked from another film is that Chaney arrives in the next scene – once we’re back in the proper black and white milieu – wearing exactly the same mask.

The ending is the biggest deviation from the original novel, and it seems we’re given here an early example of focus groups altering a film. The original ending filmed, like in the novel, featured the Phantom dying of a broken heart when Christine leaves him. Test audiences apparently felt it wasn’t dramatic enough, so a new ending was shot featuring the Phantom fleeing from an angry mob that finally manages to overwhelm him, beat him, and throw his body into the river. You’re even left with a nice shot of bubbles rising to the surface, leaving the lingering question of whether the Phantom died from the beating or drowned once they had him down.

More so than the other two silent films, in this one I’m really starting to see what we recognize as a horror film today. And I’m really enjoying that.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 2: Nosferatu (1922)

nosferatuDirector: F.W. Murnau
Henrik Galeen
Max Schreck, Gustav Van Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell

Plot: A wizened old man seeks a new home and becomes obsessed with the wife of his real estate agent. As it turns out, the mysterious Count Orlok has a much darker agenda than finding a castle to call his own. This unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is rightly considered a classic.

Thoughts: You don’t often see a movie that resulted in the bankruptcy of a studio considered one of the greats (except, of course, Cutthroat Island), but here ya go. The estate of Bram Stoker refused to allow permission for F.W. Murnau to adapt Dracula in a movie, but showing the kind of spunk and sass that have made the Germans so beloved throughout history, Murnau just changed the names, abandoned some subplots, and made it anyway. Stoker’s estate sued, Prana Film went out of business, and an attempt was made to destroy all copies of the movie. Fortunately for us, that attempt failed, and the movie is now in public domain.

This film, a silent movie of course, is incredibly successful at creeping you the hell out, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Max Schreck as Count Orlok. Although he doesn’t really fit into what we not think of as a classical interpretation of Dracula (although the “classic” Dracula is really Bela Lugosi’s interpretation), he’s become an archetypical monster in his own right. Orlok’s body is incredibly slender, almost unnaturally so – his limbs, his torso, his head all look like they’ve been stretched out. The  extremities, on the other hand, are all pointed and sharp – his fingers, his nose, his chin, his ears. Add that to his sunken eyes and you can see monsters from throughout the 20th century. The long body stirs up images of H.R. Giger’s Alien, the pseudo-zombies from the 2007 I Am Legend, any manner of creeps and crawlies, all the way up to the new Slender Man urban legend. In the introduction to this little project, I talked about the unknown being one of the pervading human fears. I didn’t mention one that may be even a little stronger – the manipulation of what is known. Orlok’s body is supposed to be human, but the little tweaks and alterations that define the character make him something even worse than what we don’t know: it makes him into what we should know, but don’t.

Think of it this way. We turn on the news, we hear terrible stories about things done to children by some nutjob or psychopath. I don’t feel the need to elaborate here, you guys know as well as I do what some human-shaped monsters are capable of. We hear these stories, and we think it’s terrible. But how much worse is it if the monster isn’t some random stranger, but someone the victim knows, someone they thought was a friend, maybe even a member of their own family?

It’s an extreme example, but the same principle that makes Orlok so creepy. Fortunately, trapped as he is on the movie screen, it’s a hell of a lot safer than the psycho on the news.

Anyway, on to a bit lighter fare. I haven’t included many silent films in this project (just one more after this one), but this movie really illustrates the need for a good print of these films. Nosferatu, of course, is in public domain now, which allows anybody to do whatever they want with it. In some ways, that’s a good thing – look at the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, about the making of Nosferatu, in which Willem DaFoe plays Max Schreck as a real vampire. It’s a great piece of work that couldn’t have been made were it not for public domain laws. (Which is funny, when you think about how Nosferatu was made in the first place, but there ya go.) The problem is, this allows people to put out really bad versions of the film. This was one case where I didn’t think I would need to turn to NetFlix for my hit, as I already happened to have a DVD set of many, many vampire films, Nosferatu included. As I started the movie, I realized that this version had actually changed all the title cards, replacing the names of Orlok and company with the original names from the Dracula novel. I realize, logically, that this shouldn’t have impacted my enjoyment of the movie, but I had a gut-level reaction that rejected the entire thing as wrong and bad and evil!

I turn into a purist at incredibly strange times.

So I did turn to NetFlix, where I found Nosferatu: The Original Version, which did in fact have all the classic names right where they belonged. This was much more acceptable… but in a few minutes, I found a flaw with this version as well. The music. Dear lord, the music. Old silent films we watch today don’t have any soundtrack except the one tagged on by whoever releases the DVD, and whoever put out the “original Version” of Nosferatu included one god awful super-synthesized soundtrack that went from happy, chirpy music at the beginning to a better (but weak) score towards the end. You’ve got to have the right music for these silent movies to make them come across properly. NetFlix also has a listing for Nosferatu: The Gothic Industrial Mix which, frankly, is a prospect I find horrifying.

While I can appreciate the artistry of these old silent films, I do have to admit, it’s hard to connect with them. I’m used to a completely different kind of filmmaking, and although there’s a definite style to telling a story I this way, it’s not my style. Only one more film from the silent era, and then we’ll move on to the talkies. Come back tomorrow for 1925’s Phantom of the Opera.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 1: The Golem-How He Came Into the World (1920)

golem-1920Directors: Carl Boese & Paul Wegener
Henrik Galeen & Paul Wegener          
Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Hans Stürm, Max Kronert & Otto Gebühr

Plot: In 16th century Prague, the Jewish people are being oppressed by a vindictive emperor who blames them for the death of Christ and accuses them of engaging in black magic. To protect his people Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) creates a Golem (Paul Wegener), a powerful creature made from clay. Löw summons the demon Azaroth for the magic word needed to bring the Golem to life, and brings him to the Emperor’s court. During a display of magic the people of the court break the one rule they’re told to obey – don’t talk or laugh – proving that people in horror movies have been unable to follow simple directions since the beginning of the medium. The Golem goes on a tear and the Emperor agrees to pardon the Jews if Löw saves them. All is well, until Löw bothers to read the next page in his magic book, where he learns that Azaroth is going to come back and turn the Golem against him. No problem, though, he simply removes the amulet with the word of life from the Golem’s chest. It looks like things are fine, until Löw’s assistant gets jealous that the girl he desires is running around with someone else. He brings the Golem back to life, and he goes on a tear that threatens the entire city, forcing Löw to step forward and fight his creation once more. In the end, the Golem escapes Löw, but is defeated when he befriends a little girl, who simply plucks the amulet from his chest.

Thoughts: I didn’t know it when I chose this film to begin my experiment, but this silent German classic is actually the third film in a trilogy. The original The Golem was released in 1914, and its sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, came out in 1917. This concluding chapter is the prequel to the other two, though, and is the one that is best-remembered today, and for good reason. First of all, it’s the only film in the trilogy that survives intact. More importantly, even at this incredibly early juncture, it’s easy to see in this movie a lot of the horror movie tropes that are so familiar today.

Beginning with Rabbi Löw himself, the character visually evokes both the archetypical pointy hat-wearing wizard, and the lab coated mad scientist of the likes of Victor Frankenstein. In fact, even though this film predates the most famous version of Frankenstein by eleven years, it displays a lot of the themes and ideas that we most clearly recognize as part of that franchise: the Golem himself is the creation of man, a giant creature of incredible strength that is turned to dark purposes against his will. Even his interaction with the children at the end seems to feed the later scenes of the Frankenstein monster playing with the famous little blind girl.

This film is considerably darker than Frankenstein, though. While Vic’s monster is usually portrayed as the misunderstood beast, a gentle giant of sorts, the Golem is no benign creature. He’s angry and surly from the first, and seems to revel in the destruction he causes. In fact, in the scene where he carries Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) down from the tower where he kills her lover, there’s a truly disturbing hunger in his eyes. When he lays her down on a table and runs his hands over her body, there’s a second there where the clay beast actually raping the young woman seems like a distinct possibility. Then there’s the demon-summoning scene itself. When the creature’s head first appears, it’s a jump-out-of-your-seat moment. It snaps into frame, this ugly face with bulging eyes that seems to be looking down at Löw with terrible glee. Once the shock passes and the camera  zooms in at the head, you start to appreciate it for the prop that it actually is, but by then you’re already invested in it as a creature of darkness. Smoke billows out of its mouth, and you question just what the hell kind of Rabbi Löw actually is, if he’s willing to deal with a beast of this nature. Today, you know the head would be CGI and the smoke would probably billow with the shapes of Hell itself, and you know that it wouldn’t be a tenth as effective as it is in this simple scene.

This isn’t the first horror movie ever, of course, although it seems to be credited as being the first ever horror franchise, and I think that’s fair enough. It also gives me a chance, very early in the process, to make an important point: although I’m looking at film in this project, it would be a terrible mistake to pretend any art form exists in a vacuum. Movies can be influenced by novels, can influence comic books, can later be influenced by comic books, can feed influence back into novels. The film is based on actual Hebrew legend, but the filmmaker presents the legend in a way that’s very evocative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818. The actual framework, though, as is the case with so much supernatural horror, comes from a religious stance. Regardless of your own personal religious faith (or lack thereof), it would be foolish not to recognize religion as part of culture, and as those things we find scary come directly from our culture, religion plays a vital role in deciding that. If anything, that’s only going to become more obvious as this little adventure continues.

Come back tomorrow and we’ll look at what may be the first vampire film of all time, the 1922 classic Nosferatu.