LARRY SEMON (1889-1928)

From left: Larry discovers a lizard in his clothes in The Bellhop (1921) and a tender moment from Risks and Roughnecks (1917)


Larry Semon was the one greatest gagmen to work on the silent screen, rivaling Keaton and Lloyd. The reason he is not as fondly remembered, was his inability to create a sympathetic and believable character. He played, quite simply, a whirlagig clown. But his gags were second to none. The Semon formula was to put "Larry" in any profession with potential for prop comedy (a bellhop, grocery clerk, baker, sawmill worker, even a prop man or stunt man). As many gags would be milked in two reels as possible, then the topper would come with an eye-popping, heart-stopping stunt at the end of reel two. For a while Semon was considered at the top of his field, but when features became the new playing field on which comics proved themselves, the little comic's weaknesses were revealed. Without a character the audience could relate to, five reels of this stuff was intolerable. Semon's biggest debacle was his Wizard of Oz (1925) with himself as the Scarecrow and Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. The resulting film might just as well have been called Larry's Dream for all that it had to do with L. Frank Baum's children's classic. Semon never regained his position in the comedy pantheon, and death at 39 prevented him from pursuing a career as a supporting comic in features or, what would possibly have been a means for a comeback, as a director of animated talking cartoons.



THE AGENT. Larry Semon offers an abundance of hilarious comedy in this. It is broad slapstick of the class that thousands will enjoy. He has handled old material with many original flourishes and the laughs come fast and furiously. Hootch barrels, trap doors and molasses combine to send his foes to ludicrous disaster. As usual, there are a few pretentious scenes, too, with Spanish settings and attractive girls...

- Motion Picture News, December 30, 1922


THE CLOUDHOPPER. Larry Semon, Norman Taurog and Steve Roberts are responsible for this story that stars Semon. It looks as though three of them might have contrived a better vehicle for the comedian. The story is not so bad, but it could be a lot better for one of the laugh-making proclivities of Semon.

As a matter of fact the lack of real comedy is more than offset by the thrills of the second reel, in which Semon accomplishes what appear to be some exceptionally hazardous feats. In the first place the action shows him changing from a fast-moving auto to the rope ladder attached to an areoplane. Later he is seen changing from the wing of one aeroplane to the wing of another. There is an exciting battle on the wing of this second plane, one that is apt to hold an audience tense. As a whole the picture should be acceptable where this class of two-reeler is liked.

- Chester J. Smith in Motion Picture News, 1925


VITAGRAPH SUES LARRY SEMON, COMEDIAN, FOR $400,000 CHARGING WASTE OF MONEY. The largest case in the history of the United States District Court of Southern California has just been filed by President Slbert E. Smith of the Vitagraph Company of America, who has sued Larry Semon, screen comedian, for a total of $407,388.22 in damages. It is alleged the defendant deliberately increased the costs of his productions through delays, carelessness and waste to an unreasonable figue, with the aim of forcing theVitagraph Company to release him from his contract.

The suit is unique in that Vitagraph does not ask that it be released from its contract, but insists the star make good the damages and continue his employment.

According to the terms of the contract filed with the suit, Larry semon was to make twelve two-reel comedies a year for thre years. Five pictures have been released, another has just been completed, and Vitagraph declares it is practically impossible for Semon to deliver more than a total of seven pictures during the first year.

- Moving Picture News, May 17, 1920

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Larry Semon is going to do a rapid-fire producing stunt and finish the number of pictures he would make during his two-year contract with Vitagraph by the first of the year. Not so many months ago, Larry started a commotion in threatening to break his Vitagraph contract. Vitagraph did a little commotion raising itself, and the the dust of the battle settled, Larry was temporarily vanquished. Now comes his novel plan to complete his two year contract in six months' time!

- Movie Weekly, June 17, 1922

OUT TO GET HIM. Semon is a big bet in the comedy field, ranking with the topnotchers Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Charlie Chaplin, of course, is in a class by himself. But Charlie plans to get away from the slapstick two-reeler and do more serious things in line with "The Kid". That leaves the comedy field to the above-mentioned three. Fox, it is said, is angling for Semon, now that word comes he is definitely leaving Vitagraph. First National, who release the Chaplin and Keaton comedies, also, it seems, wants Larry. He would fit in neatly with the scheme of things were he to sign with them, for with the expiration of Charlie's contract around the first of the year, Larry would automatically fill the "comedy gap".

- Movie Weekly, June 17, 1922

SEMON DISCARDS OLD MAKE-UP FOR SNAPPY CLOTHES. OVERALLS AND DERBY ARE LAID ASIDE IN NEW TWO-REEL COMEDY. Larry Semon, one of the most popular comedians of the motion picture screen, has taken a radical step and one which few leaders in his profession would undertake at the height of their popularity. Semon...has abandoned his familiar overalls and derby hat makeup with which he has been identified for a number of years and will henceforth be seen on the screen in clothes of the finest fit.

"I feel that the old make-up has passed its usefulness," said Semon. "Tastes in comedy change as do tastes and styles in clothes, literature and drama. The overalls and derby have been laid aside because I feel that the public is demanding more acting and action in their comedies and less of the clowning that is associated with the burlesqued make-up. I have inaugurated the change with my first personally produced comedies and I am sure that the result will be finer and funnier comedies than ever before."

- Educational Press Book for Her Boy Friend, Sept. 23, 1924

NOT WITH LLOYD. Larry Semon will not direct Harold Lloyd in his next picture, according to a statement by W.H. Fraser, general manager of the Harold Lloyd Corporation. Semon also denies the report. "We never reached the stage where we even talked terms, or where Mr. Lloyd made any proposition to me." Semon states. The report that Semon was to become Lloyd's director originated on the Coast.

- Moving Picture World, May 22, 1926

LARRY SEMON TO BUILD OWN STUDIO. In keeping with Hollywood's idea of economy, we hear that Larry Semon will very shortly be building his own studio on [?] acres of land he is said to have purchased in the recently developed area on Ventura Boulevard. Word reaches us from an excellent source that Semon figures that by building his own studio he can cut down on his overhead to a greater extent. It is reported that he is paying $1500 a month for lot space at F.B.O. where he made the first of eight short subjects for Educational.

- Moving Picture World, July 23, 1927


At one time there was reason to believe that Larry faked his death. The reasons for these suspicions were threefold:

1) His cremation was a small, private affair with no one in attendance other than a handful of family members.

2) No death certificate was found in a search throughout the state of California for the years 1927, 1928 or 1929

3) According to Semon's 1928 obituaries, he was to be cremated and his ashes buried in Philadelphia. There are no Semon burial records to be found in or around that city.

Semon scholar Claudia Sassen explored the mystery in her article "How Many Times Did Larry Die? for Slapstick! magazine.

But since the publication of Claudia's article, Bob Dickson has located the California death certificate, proving Larry did indeed die on October 28, 1928.  

LARRY SEMON CLIPS ON YOUTUBE (they will frequently change)

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