Every genre and every era has its infamous bombs. In the case of silent comedy, that bomb is the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz. It’s not the worst silent movie ever made but it is certainly nowhere near the best, good or even competent. If you look at the Oz books and think, “Hmm, pretty swell but it needs more jailbait, projectile vomiting ducks and racist humor” then this is the movie for you. As for the rest of us, we will just be backing slowly away.
That being said, there is a lot of bad information floating around about this film. In Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr recalled that the film was unavailable at his local theater because the studio that produced it went bankrupt. Nope. Chadwick Pictures continued production until 1928. In Mr. Kerr’s defense, he was only eleven or twelve when he heard about Chadwick’s financial woes and did not publish his book until a half-century had passed. By then, the studio was long gone.
In fact, Chadwick was able to release Oz throughout the United States and it did good business in Europe. It wasn’t the blockbuster everyone had hoped for in part because the film was heavily marketed toward children. Remember, kids generally have limited finances and so they went to cheaper matinee shows and sat in the cheap seats. As a result, the film took in far less than it otherwise would have. It takes a lot of extra tickets sold to make up for low seat prices.
While the film was not deemed a masterpiece, it was not panned either. Even if the critics did not like star Larry Semon’s brand of humor, they did praise the look of the film and felt it was good for children.
You can read more about the production and release of The Wizard of Oz in the wonderful Oz before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage and Screen to 1939 by Mark Evan Swartz, a very thoroughly researched book on the stage and screen productions of the classic book made before the beloved 1939 film.
Availability: If you must, the film is widely available on DVD. It is in the public domain and dozens of editions are available. I recommend seeing the version included as an extra on most of the deluxe DVD or Blu-ray releases of the 1939 film. The Robert Israel score helps immeasurably in getting through this turkey. Plus, you get the classic Judy Garland version to cleanse your palate. If you don’t feel like forking out the dough, the bargain editions are cheap.