Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on 16 July 1889, Lawrence “Larry” Semon rose to considerable fame as a silent film actor and director during the 1920s. While today his movies are difficult to find and his name has been virtually erased from American film history, during the early years of cinema he rivaled Charlie Chaplin in comic popularity.
Semon’s mother, a vaudeville comedian, and his father, a magician and ventriloquist, trained him in singing, pantomime, and acting, and while still a boy he began performing before audiences. By the time he was a teenager, the family had settled down in Savannah, Georgia, where he attended high school. He had shown an aptitude for drawing, and his father urged him to attend art school. After graduating from high school, Semon moved to New York and found employment drawing cartoons for several newspapers as well as for Vitagraph, a film production company.
Semon grew restless and used his entertainment experience to move into comedy screenwriting and then to become a stunt man, actor, and eventually director. Pleased with Semon’s work, Vitagraph allowed him to expand to two-reelers and feature-length films in 1918. An unknown actor, Stan Laurel, joined the Semon comedy team, and Oliver Hardy came onboard a few years later. For several years Semon turned out box office hits, including The Grocery Clerk (1920), and he became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainers, earning five thousand dollars a week.
His success proved short-lived. An extravagant spender with an egomaniacal personality, Semon often angered his employers, and he and Vitagraph became entangled in court battles over expenditures. In addition, audiences and critics began to lose interest in his comedies, finding his newer films to be less interesting duplicates of his earlier ones. In 1924 Semon had fulfilled his contract for Vitagraph and still held out hope for a return to the public eye. He decided to combat his popular decline with several new films, this time with producer I. E. Chadwick, and several new costars, including Dorothy Dwan, whom he married the following year. While two of his first projects with Chadwick were somewhat successful, The Wizard of Oz (1925) was recognized as one of the largest movie failures of the decade. Transforming L. Frank Baum’s fantastical story into a forced slapstick comedy routine, the movie found few fans. Following several more failed projects, Semon filed for bankruptcy in 1928. He could find work only by returning to vaudeville. He performed two or three times a day during the first half of 1928 before suffering a nervous and physical breakdown in August. He died unexpectedly of pneumonia on 8 October 1928. The circumstances surrounding his death and his small, closed-casket funeral led to speculation that he faked his demise to escape the country and his personal failures.
- Internet Movie Database website, www.imdb.com
- Richard M. Roberts, Classic Images website, www.classicimages.com