The BIFF Silent Film Showcase sponsored by BMO Harris Bank has been the centerpiece of the Beloit International Film Festival since its inception, and this year’s production will be a “Wiz of a Wiz” according to Rock River Philharmonic Music Director Robert Tomaro.
Following on the success of last year’s sold-out production of the silent “The Phantom of the Opera,” Tomaro and his friends are back, this time with an original music score and a new production of “The Wizard of Oz.” The program is built around the first silent film version of the story, but it may not be the Wiz you know.
Fourteen years before Judy Garland skipped down the yellow brick road, Hollywood came out with a very wild, very crazy silent film of The Wizard of Oz. Lost since then, Dr. Tomaro will revive it for BIFF with one performance at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27 at Beloit College’s Eaton Chapel.
Tomaro’s original score will be complemented by songs such as If I Only Had a Brain and We’re Off to See the Wizard, selections from the Broadway musicals The Wiz and Wicked, and a memorable closing tribute to Judy Garland with Over the Rainbow. “This new moshed-up romp will have you rolling in the aisles,” the Maestro promises.
The film will be presented without intermission and will be preceded by a silent cartoon and period newsreel with musical support from the ensemble.
The kingdom of Oz is in trouble.
Princess Dorothea, the rightful heir to the throne, must claim the crown before her eighteenth birthday but is missing. In Kansas, Dorothy is an orphan who lives on a farm with her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em and is unrequitedly loved by two bumbling farmhands. As Dorothy’s eighteenth birthday approaches, Uncle Henry promises to show her the papers that were left beside her when she was found in a basket on the doorstep. Ambassador Wikked arrives from Oz and he and his villains try to prevent Dorothy from claiming her birthright as the princess.
A tornado comes and whips the house containing Dorothy, Henry and the farmhands away, depositing them in Oz. Prime Minister Kruel tries to have the farmhands arrested but they are aided by The Wizard, a court charlatan who helps disguise them as a scarecrow, a tin woodsman and a lion and then pretends that he has brought them to life. The three bumbling idiots try to prevent Dorothy from being fooled into marrying Prime Minister Kruel.
This version was made by Larry Semon, a popular slapstick comedian of the silent era who appeared in some 120 films between 1915 and 1928. Larry Semon was extremely prolific (making an average of 10 films a year). Although almost entirely forgotten today, Larry Semon was once considered up alongside more famous silent comedy stars like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in terms of popularity by audiences of the day. Semon directed most of his own films and was known for elaborate slapstick routines and stuntwork, which often escalated the budgets of his films.
Larry Semon unfortunately never found a means of adapting his comedy routines to the growing sophistications of his audiences and was regarded as passe by the arrival of the sound era. Semon put a good deal of his own money into Wizard of Oz but the film was a massive financial flop – although ironically it is the only of his films that Larry Semon is remembered for today, solely for the novelty value that it presents in comparison to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz. (The one other novelty that Wizard of Oz 1925 has is as an early performance from Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy fame who plays the role of one of the farmhand who becomes the Tin Woodsman.
Larry Semon employed both Laurel and Hardy on many of his early films, although never together. Ironically the financial collapse of Wizard of Oz was indirectly responsible for creating Laurel and Hardy – it put an end to Hardy’s employment as part of the Semon stock company whereupon he was taken on by Hal Roach Studios and paired up with Stan Laurel).
This signature BIFF event features members of the Rock River Philharmonic under the direction of Maestro Robert Tomaro.
Since its inception, the signature event of The Beloit International Film Festival has been the Saturday evening BMO Harris Bank Silent Film Showcase.
Sold-out audiences have frequently included film festival executives from around the country on hand to see how BIFF creates the program so they might duplicate it at their festivals. This annual celebration of early 20th century film is highlighted by a performance of an original or newly conceived musical score performed by The Rock River Philharmonic.