[Above: With his then girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife as Dorothy, Larry Semon produced, cowrote, directed, and starred in Chadwick Picture’s 1925 silent screen release, THE WIZARD OF OZ. This Swedish poster for the film is indication of the comedian’s world-wide appeal; his clown-like demeanor was highly-regarded in Italy, France, England, and Spain, as well.]
Welcome back to another duo-purpose blog for 2022!
Across this year, we’re offering a once-a-month celebration of the centennial of Judy Garland -- “Dorothy” in the classic 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. In the process, each entry also heralds one (or some) of the many other actresses who have played that role in diverse mediums across the last one-hundred-and-twenty years.
This time around, the spotlight falls on a Dorothy -- named Dorothy! Or to be precise: Dorothy Dwan. In late 1924, she took the part of Dorothy Gale in a feature-length, seven-reel, silent movie comedy version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, released by Chadwick Pictures and overseen by (and starring) popular movie comic Larry Semon.
A clownish and wildly physical screen persona, Semon came to film fame after earlier careers in vaudeville, cartooning, and graphic arts. Vitagraph Studios signed him in 1915, and within two years, Semon had progressed from scenarist to director, producer, and then star of scores of one-and-two-reel comedy shorts. His movies (as defined by the book, WHO’S WHO IN HOLLYWOOD 1900-1976) were “loaded with sight gags [;] he was the simpleton who drew violence like a magnet – resulting in the inevitable chase.” Semon’s popularity with audiences was based on both his madcap antics and general visibility; he was involved in more than one hundred movies in the first decade of his film work.
By 1924, Semon had expanded into feature-length motion picture production, and the public fame and familiarity of THE WIZARD OF OZ – and the role of the Scarecrow -- seemed a likely showcase for his energetic and slapdash performing mode. As he was the OZ director, as well, he was responsible for casting eighteen-year-old Dwan as Dorothy; they’d worked together in a couple of other films earlier that year.
[Above: A portrait of actress Dorothy Dwan, the 1925 motion picture Dorothy Gale.]
Ms. Dwan was the fourth actress to assay the role of L. Frank Baum’s heroine on the motion picture screen. (For those who might be interested, last month’s blog provided information and detail about the first three.) Born Dorothy Ilgenfritz on April 26, 1906, in Sedalia, MO, Dorothy Dwan made her film debut in 1922. Pert, pretty, and appealing, she was enjoyed by audiences across eight years and in some forty movies, eventually appearing in westerns opposite Tom Mix and Ken Maynard. Her speaking voice was considered a natural for “the talkies” (she’d done some stage work in the late 1920s), but Dorothy Dwan retired in 1930. She had one son, with her third husband, and died of lung cancer on March 17, 1981 – just five weeks before her seventy-fifth birthday.
But what of the Larry Semon/Dorothy Dwan excursion to OZ? Unfortunately, things got off-track fairly early on, thanks to a script which (if understandably) catered to Semon’s penchant and strengths for buffoonery and knockabout physicality. The star/director/producer coauthored the scenario – with Leon Lee and “L. Frank Baum, Jr.” (actually Baum’s oldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum) – and the resultant movie was a mass of a mess. It included a framing and recurring device of Semon, in the guise of an elderly toymaker, reading THE WIZARD OF OZ book to his granddaughter. Fortunately, that version of the story began and ended onscreen in this adaptation. To wit:
Dorothy is discovered in Kansas as an eighteen-year-old “lost princess” and the rightful ruler of Oz. Her Aunt Em is sympathetic, her Uncle Henry is rotund, duplicitous, and abusive, and there are three farmhands, played by Semon, Oliver Hardy (both of them in love with Dorothy in the plot), and African-American Spencer Bell, billed in THE WIZARD OF OZ under the unfortunate appellation G. Howe Black. (Piling up the stereotypes, his character name was given as Snowball.)
([Above: To show how far away from THE WIZARD OF OZ its 1925 film version actually got: Here in the Emerald City throne room, we see Oliver Hardy (who was only briefly disguised as a Tin Man in the movie), Dorothy Dwan (as “lost princess” Dorothy Gale), Larry Semon (who donned Scarecrow garb only briefly and as camouflage), Bryant Washburn (Prince Kynd), Charles Murray (the Wizard), Josef Swickhard (Prime Minister Kruel), and Otto Lederer (Ambassador Wikked). Of these last four male characters, only the Wizard was “from” Baum’s first Oz book and more-or-less the same humbug as therein. Meanwhile, Dorothy was scripted as happily content to serve as the new queen of Oz and had no desire to return to Kansas. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion characters, for their parts, had no requests to make of the “Great and Powerful Oz”; brains, heart, and courage were never intrinsic to the 1925 movie scenario. Thus the Wizard – though present -- had fairly little to do.]
Much of the film’s running time is spent in high jinks on the Kansas farm, and the storyline eventually concedes the appearance of a tornado to whisk some of the participants to Oz. Once there, Semon, Hardy, and Bell fleetingly don makeshift disguises as a Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion; to say it’s far too little, far too late is a massive understatement. Dorothy nevertheless manages to ascend to the throne, despite evil forces raging against her (Prime Minister Kruel, Ambassador Wikked, Lady Vishuss), and she finds joy with local Prince Kynd. For a finale, farmhand Hardy and Ambassador Wikked pursue the hapless Semon, and the chase involves castle towers, a rope “swing” between them,” a firing cannon, an airplane rescue by Bell, and – not a moment too soon -- Semon’s tumble through the air from the plane’s dangling rope ladder. At that point, the picture concludes with the toymaker and the granddaughter; she trundles off to bed with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Dorothy dolls he's created, and his Oz book tells us that Dorothy and the Prince live happily ever after. (The fate of Semon’s character, given his freefall from the plane’s rope ladder, is left – you should pardon the expression – up in the air.)
THE WIZARD OF OZ opened in Los Angeles in February 1925 and in New York City two months later. It was widely promoted, and its slapstick, capering, and effects were initially, reasonably well received by critics and all-age audiences. Yet there must have been a raft of unfulfilled expectations among those pulled in by the picture's title, the original Baum fantasy novel and ongoing Oz book series, or recollections of the hit stage musical that toured the nation from 1902-1909. Initial box office in Los Angeles and Manhattan for the Chadwick/Semon WIZARD OF OZ was good, though not great, and word-of-mouth must have been tame. Additionally, the fact that Chadwick Pictures was an independent firm, without the clout of the major film studios of the time, meant the movie had to scramble for bookings across the country. Reaction to it varied during those engagements as well, although Semon's fame abroad led to the exhibition of OZ in a number of European countries.
[Above: This industry trade-paper advertisement endeavored to boast about the first two theatrical engagements played by THE WIZARD OF OZ – one on each Coast. There’s some promotional chicanery at work, however: the picture did decent business during its three weeks in Los Angeles and played to just about half the gross it might have garnered in two weeks in New York. This reflected a respectable income, to be sure, but ’twas neither “capacity” nor especially record-breaking in the truest sense of the phrase.]
While awaiting initial launch of THE WIZARD OF OZ, eighteen-year-old Dorothy Dwan and thirty-five-year-old Semon were wed in New York City in January 1925. It was the second marriage for both, and as a wedding present, he purportedly presented her with a portion of his own financial interest in OZ. Unfortunately, the latter came to nothing, and the deep-in-debt actor hastily returned to cinematic short subjects and vaudeville. In March 1928, however, he was compelled to file for bankruptcy; later that year, he suffered a nervous breakdown and then died of pneumonia on October 28. He was thirty-nine, and in a poignant bit of mystery, Dwan was reported either at his bedside at the time or forbidden to see him. (A legend has Semon faking his death to avoid his creditors -- and then completely disappearing.)
The Larry Semon/Dorothy Dwan WIZARD OF OZ was certainly an ambitious effort. Unfortunately, the misplaced emphasis on his relentless scampering and her flapper-age Dorothy turned out to work against the property itself. Only Oliver Hardy came out of the production with immediate (and then enduring) fame on the horizon. Two years after his OZ appearance, he teamed up with Stan Laurel. As Laurel & Hardy, they’ve delighted audiences ever since!
[Above: This is how an Oz fan, even in 1925, would have expected to see them in a movie titled THE WIZARD OF OZ. Yet Semon and Hardy were dressed like this for only a comparatively few minutes of the film – and then “in disguise” and NOT as Ozian characters. By the same token, Ms. Dwan (while appealing in her embodiment of a mid-1920s flapper) didn’t much resemble a simple little girl from the great Kansas prairies.]
Let’s now spend a few concluding moments with our preeminent Dorothy Gale, who – as noted above – marks her one-hundredth birthday anniversary this coming June 10th. When Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg wrote (respectively) the music and words for her song “Over the Rainbow” for THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1938, neither they, Judy Garland herself, nor anyone else could have foreseen the impact the song would have. Yes, it won the Academy Award “Oscar” as best motion picture song for calendar year 1939. More than sixty years later, however -- in 2001 -- it would be voted the number one “Song of the [Twentieth] Century” in a poll conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America. Three years later, the American Film Institute cited “Rainbow” as the number one movie song in motion picture history.
Yet for all those accolades (and many more), “Over the Rainbow” is first and foremost “Judy’s song.” Her performance of the number in OZ is arguably more familiar and better loved by more people than any other historical combine of vocalist, interpretation, orchestration, melody, and lyric. Its power, in her hands, was almost immediately felt in several ways. Two weeks after THE WIZARD OF OZ opened on Broadway in August 1939, Germany invaded Poland and launched World War II. The Nazi forces subsequently began several years of bombing London, which led to the establishment of air raid shelters; it was quickly discovered and reported that the song most often heard in those overnight underground havens – second only to “God Save the King” – was “Over the Rainbow.” Judy herself was singing at Fort Ord in California on December 7, 1941, when news came of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a month, she turned a delayed honeymoon trip into a tour of army camps in middle America, and “Over the Rainbow” was always her most requested song from any group of service personnel. The same thing happened on two subsequent base tours in 1943, and when she made her first journey abroad – to appear at the London Palladium in 1951 – “Rainbow” served as the finale of her twice-nightly, thirty-five minute performance.
[Above: Everywhere she went during her initial trip and appearances abroad in 1951 – England, Ireland, Scotland – Judy Garland was warmly greeted and embraced by thousands of fans of all ages. No matter the theater, the audience’s love of her films and movie songs (including, or perhaps especially, THE WIZARD OF OZ and “Over the Rainbow”) was something they clapped, shouted, and cheered to convey to her.]
By public demand, Judy took her Palladium mini-concert on tour throughout the United Kingdom, adding and subtracting specific songs per each locale and audience demands. Yet “Rainbow” was the song for which she was most treasured there, as it had been among the United States forces – and as it would be among the world-wide audiences that clamored to see her “live” for the next eighteen years and through her final performances in 1969.
It had started with Dorothy – Baum’s character – and with the Arlen and Harburg capacity to create a song that defined that little girl, her wishes, her dreams, and her longings. But it took Judy Garland to sing it into the hearts of the world, so that it could then be about their own faith and hopes. Across the course of her life, and in the intervening fifty-three years since her passing, her rendition remains unequalled in its direct magic, appeal, unforgettable sincerity and comprehension.
Happy Soon-to-Be One-Hundred, Judy! It’s a joy to acclaim you. 😊
Article by John Fricke
With gratitude to, among others: Ragan, David: WHO’S WHO IN HOLLYWOOD 1900-1976 (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1976)
Swartz, Mark Evan: OZ BEFORE THE RAINBOW (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)
Article by John Fricke