Once upon a time, when Hollywood was in its infancy, moviegoers fell in love with Larry Semon, a man with a ghostly white face and broad, tight-lipped smile. He was one of the early clowns of silent cinema, and at the height of his popularity, he brought in $5,000 per week, which is a huge sum by today’s standards, let alone nearly a century ago. However, his popularity (and his fortune) wouldn’t last. He sank into obscurity, and most modern audiences are unfamiliar with his name or his long list of films.
Larry was born Lawrence Semon to a Vaudeville family on July 16, 1889 in West Point, Mississippi. The family played the small time circuit all over the country, led by Semon’s father, a magician who went by the name Zera the Great. Like most children brought up in theatrical families, young Larry learned the ins and outs of the stage, and became very good at pantomime. Unlike many children who had a similar upbringing, he was able to complete his formal education, graduating high school in Savannah, Georgia.
Semon’s father passed away while Semon was still young, but when he was on his death-bed, he had one last wish for his only son: leave the stage and find a career as a cartoonist. The elder Semon was an accomplished artist and recognized this talent in his son, so he wanted him to pursue it, make a career for himself. And that is just what young Larry did. He enrolled in art classes in New York City and eventually found work at several newspapers, including the New York Sun.
Using his full name, Lawrence Semon, he had a strip, and little characters, that were often seen in advertisements for Tuxedo smoking tobacco, as seen in the photo below (click to enlarge image):
Semon’s work on The Sun attracted the attention of the burgeoning motion picture industry, and by his 24th birthday in 1913, he left cartooning to work for Vitagraph Studios as a gag man. He eventually moved up to writing, directing, producing, and starring in more than 100 films, mostly short subjects, for Vitagraph, Mack Sennett, and others. His first credited role was as a valet in the 1916 short subject Terry’s Tea Party.
His talent behind and in front of the camera made him rich and famous. Remember, by 1916 he was making $5,000 per week, which would be well into the six figures in today’s money. And he was able to help many other actors in their burgeoning film careers and develop brief partnerships with them, including Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (who would later come together and form the most beloved comedy team of all time, Laurel and Hardy.)
Like Semon, Stan Laurel had come from a theatrical family. He entered motion pictures in 1917 and had made a handful of comedy shorts before doing several pictures with Larry Semon in 1918, where he mostly played skirt chasers.
The first film he appeared in with Semon was Huns and Hyphens. Semon played a waiter in a café crawling with German spies that are trying to get their hands on the plans for a gas mask created by Semon’s girlfriend. Stan Laurel plays one of the bad guys. The film is watchable, and includes all the usual slapstick gags—kicking and shooting people in the backside, throwing food, clothing, and other inanimate objects. At the end of the film, everything in the café destroyed, but Larry the waiter emerges a hero. If you’re interested, you can see part one and part two of the picture on YouTube, and it is also included on Stan Laurel’s Slapstick Symposium collection.
By the middle of the 1920s, Semon decided to venture into the more lucrative world of full-length feature films. And in 1925, he directed and starred in a film version of the famous children’s novel, The Wizard of Oz. Semon plays two characters in the film: a toy maker who reads the Wizard of Oz to his young granddaughter, and a farm hand in Kansas. In Kansas, Semon and a young Oliver Hardy (who co-starred with Semon in more than 20 short subjects between 1921-1926), fight for the affections of young farm girl Dorothy (played by Semon’s wife Dorothy Dwan). Dorothy is actually the rightful ruler of the land of Oz, and the evil Prime Minister Kruel tries to prevent her from finding out about it after the townspeople demand that he find their queen.
The 1925 motion picture bears little resemblance to the book or the famous 1939 musical, and wasn’t very well received by audiences. The film was allegedly also partly responsible for putting the final nail in the coffin for Vitagraph. The studio went bankrupt and was sold to Warner Brothers in April that year.
Larry Semon’s fame and fortune began to rapidly decline after Wizard of Oz flopped. By March of 1928, he was broke and filed for bankruptcy. The following is an excerpt from the Eugene Register-Guard:
Yesterday Semon appeared in court here and asserted in a voluntary bankruptcy petition that he owed nearly a half a million dollars and he had only $300 to pay it with—not to mention the fact that he wanted to keep half of the three hundred.
In exact figures the comedian said he was in debt $454,639.87 of which secured claims total $80,000, unsecured claims $277,639.87, and accommodation papers $97,000. Municipal and superior court judgments totaling over $2,000 and various other debts including bills due attorneys, doctors and cafes were listed in the petition.
After more than 10 years of phenomenal success in motion pictures, Larry Semon was down to his last $300. Desperate for a way to pay the bills, Semon returned to the Vaudeville stage. His act didn’t last long. While on tour he suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in a sanitarium in Victorville, California. While at the sanitarium, his physical health began to rapidly deteriorate. He suffered from double pneumonia and tuberculosis, and just a little over 6 months after he filed for bankruptcy, Semon passed away at the tender age of 39 years old. A sad end to a gifted man.
And that wraps it up for this edition of Silent Star Saturday. Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment below! And please considering subscribing via email or RSS if you would like to receive daily updates of new posts on this blog. I’d love to have you, and look forward to your feedback!
***Special thanks goes out to my friend James Zeruk, author of the upcoming biography on actress Peg Entwistle. He helped me out with research on Larry Semon by sending me a crap ton of files from UCLA Research. Thank you, thank you, thank you!***