After at least reluctantly approving of the last couple of Larry Semon films I wrote about and worrying that I might be brain damaged for doing so, it feels good to be back to a Larry Semon film that’s unequivocally garbage.
Pietro Aramondo is out driving with his girlfriend Florence Curtis when his car breaks down. Larry Semon is… I don’t know who Larry Semon is, but he’s in the road and is hit by another motorist and thrown up into the air. He lands next to Florence and drives off with her, running over Pietro several times in the process. Pietro alerts the Big V Riot Squad who are an absolutely original creation and are in no way a knock-off of the Keystone Cops. And they are totally indoors and there is no shadow of a tree blowing in the wind on the back wall. Three squad cars are sent out in pursuit, which is a great way to pad out the runtime since now the film can repeat every gag three times. I suppose there’s more, but it doesn’t matter — I’m done. There’s no plot, there are no characters, the gags were terrible the first time around and don’t improve with repetition. Literally the only interesting thing about this short is how flagrantly it pilfers from Keystone.
There’s obviously four or five minutes of material missing. It begins in media res and doesn’t end so much as it just stops. The footage is missing in the pre-print, though. There’s only one physical splice in the print and it’s just to mend a film break — no more than a frame or two is missing around it. The splices joining the title and end cards are on the negative. I also suspect this is from a reissue with new titles added. They make a Flying Finn joke and I somehow don’t think Paavo Nurmi would have been a household name in America before his 1920 Olympics win.
I misspoke before, this isn’t a Kodascope, but it is a very similar amber-tinted show-at-home released in 1924. Sharp focus, dense image, obviously a print-down struck directly from the camera negative — it looks great. It’s a shame the film is so awful, but it does look beautiful.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Available from Harpodeon
You don’t have to hang around long with a group of silent comedy enthusiasts before at least a few of them will make sure you know of their vehement hatred of Larry Semon. I wonder how much of that is because of his adaption of The Wizard of Oz (1925). Oz is a film so terrible I don’t think even his defenders would pretend to like it, but unfortunately for Semon, it’s probably the work he’s most known for today.
Certainly, his work is formulaic. In my review of The Sawmill (1922), I gave a rundown of features common to pretty much every Larry Semon film — and the film I’ll be presently getting to, Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs, is no exception — but in his day, Semon was rather popular. I think the similarity of his films worked in his favor. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and if his shtick is the kind of thing you’re into, well, you know you won’t be disappointed no matter what title is playing.
I just acquired a new print of Bathing Beauties a few weeks ago that’s of infinitely better quality than any of my other ones. It shouldn’t matter — theoretically, a good film should be able to shine through a muddy picture — but of course, quality does matter. You, me, and everyone else is going to give a fairer shake to whichever print looks the prettiest. Going back to The Sawmill, I recall that I had to re-evaluate my opinion of it after screening an original Kodascope.
Larry Semon is at the beach and falls in love with Madge Kirby (I’m just going to call them that—they’re not characters enough to have names), but her father disapproves. Naturally, the only course of action is for Larry and his rotund friend Frank Alexander to stage a robbery which Larry can then foil and thus win over the old man. Unfortunately, there’s also of pair of actual robbers running about to be contended with. Cue the chase and the inexplicable tower that must be jumped from several times. The robbers caught and the swag retrieved, Larry goes to claim his girl only to see her and Frank hand-in-hand — “I owe everything to this stout young man,” her father says approvingly.
It’s… not bad? Yes, there’s the unfortunate scene where Larry confuses the maid for Madge — “Man, yo’ sho’ am a fast worker!” “You’re tanned up a bit too much for me!” — but that aside, I’ve seen much worse slapstick comedies. Yes, it ticks every box on the Larry Semon Checklist of Plot Points, and yes, the requisite tower comes out of nowhere, but still… it kind of works.
I think I’ve seen too many Larry Semon pictures. I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome.
My rating: I like it.
I certainly wouldn’t describe Larry Semon as one of my favorite comedians, but all the same, The Sawmill (1922) isn’t a half bad short slapstick comedy.
The setting is a forest and sawmill in the Pacific Northwest. The characters are the owner (Frank Alexander) and his daughter (Ann Hastings), the boss (Al Thompson) and his daughter (Kathleen O’Connor), the foreman (Oliver Hardy), and the “dumbbell” (Larry Semon). There’s very little plot, but the film can be roughly divided into four segments:
- The owner arrives at the mill and the foreman starts pressing his men to work harder to impress him. The foreman is sweet on the boss’s daughter, but she’s rather taken by Larry. This does not put the two men on good terms. Commence the first chase sequence, the foreman going after Larry.
- Larry, fed up with nearly being killed several times over, launches a counterattack on the foreman’s gang. Commence the second chase sequence, Larry after the foreman’s henchman. The owner becomes collateral damage, being soaked at various times in sawdust, soup, and paint.
- The owner blames the foreman for losing control of the mill, and consequently, fires him. The boss’s daughter has disappeared from the picture at this point, so Larry’s attentions have been redirected to the owner’s daughter. The owner does not care for these developments. Commence the third chase, the owner after Larry.
- The foreman returns with a gang of disgruntled employees. They take the owner hostage. Larry and the owner’s daughter escape. Commence the fourth chase, the foreman’s gang after Larry.
Semon films were never much for characterization and The Sawmill is not an exception. “The boss”, “the owner”, and “the foreman” are only distinguished by the title cards that introduce them, and as for Semon’s character, he doesn’t have one. Really, there’s not anything to even suggest that he works at the sawmill. He just plays a clown, pure and simple.
When sitting down to a Semon film, you can be pretty certain of what you’re going to see. The Sawmill covers all the familiar ground: tumbling, forward rolls, swinging from ropes, jumping off towers, and paint dumped on heads. It notably lacks any racial humor (there is a bit of yellowface, but the character is never involved in any of the gags).
Semon was big in the early days, but quickly vanished as the market for shorts dried up. He never made a successful transition to feature-length films. His features are mostly just shorts padded out with two or three unnecessary reels – although The Perfect Clown (1925) isn’t too bad, I don’t think. Most, including myself, would say his peak was the “The [Blank]” series – The Show, The Bakery, The Sawmill, etc. – made in the first couple years of the 1920s at Vitagraph. His earlier films from the late 1910s, the “[Blanks] and [Blanks]” series” – Dunces and Dangers, Frauds and Frenzies, Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies, etc. – are considerably rougher and even less plot driven.
The Sawmill is notable for being the most expensive two-reel silent comedy ever produced. The scene where the owner’s house explodes and Larry is catapulted into the sky inside a safe, only to land several miles away without a scratch on him, is remarkably similar to the much maligned refrigerator scene in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008). Remarkably similar.
I hadn’t seen The Sawmill in two or three years and I found that it was better than I remembered it being. This time, what I was watching was a video assembled from three prints, one an original Kodascope in very nice condition, and it’s around three-four minutes longer than any other version of the film I’ve seen. Maybe the additional footage is an improvement, or maybe it’s the more detailed and less tightly cropped picture. In any case…
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon