“The Perfect Clown”
Directed by Fred Newmeyer. Cast: Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy, Kate Price, Fatty Alexander, Dorothy Dwan, Spencer Bell, Tiny Sandford, Otis Harlan, Joan Meredith. Released December 15, 1925. Source: Grapvine Video VHS.
Larry Semon enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1920s, on par with Harold Lloyd and greater than Buster Keaton. Aesthetically, he is not considered to be at their level, but when exploring his films, Semon comes off as a very unique, clever comedian with some truly outrageous ideas. Semon is also said to have fared better in the short comedy field, and that his features, including a notoriously quirky version of “The Wizard of Oz,” are artistic failures that destroyed his career, causing a breakdown and an early death (in 1928).
“The Perfect Clown” is one of Larry Semon’s notorious feature films, and it contradicts some of the legend surrounding his career. First, it does not come off as a random series of gags that offer no structure and cave in to endless repetition. In fact, “The Perfect Clown” spaces its gags nicely, Semon apparently realizing his approach to a 52-minute feature is different than a two-reel comedy.
Larry is assigned by his boss to bring $10,000 in cash to the bank and have it deposited. However, it is late, and the bank is closed, so Larry must keep the money overnight and protect it. From this point, Semon does offer a series of gags and gag situations, most of which are funny, along with a few misfires. But overall, the film maintains a structure that works effectively. Gags build upon each other, the narrative progresses, and while Semon might not be the actor Lloyd or Chaplin were, nor the technical craftsman Keaton was, he succeeds admirably at his own level.
Some scare comedy is tossed in rather clumsily when Larry and his partner, African American comedian Spencer Bell, find themselves in a graveyard at night. But the scenes where the two are accosted by escaped convicts and forced to exchange clothes with them, causing them to try subtly avoiding police while hiding their prison outfits under overcoats, is quite funny. Wild gags abound, such as Larry falling off a building in his convict uniform and landing among a group of marching policemen, and being rolled up in a rug which is brought to the top of the steps and unraveled, causing Larry to tumble down the stairs. The concluding chase scene is typically frantic with director Newmeyer nicely keeping the action in the frame. Newmeyer had helmed some of Harold Lloyd’s best work.
The film concludes amusingly when Larry finally makes it back to the firm after a night of constant outrageousness, only to discover that when he left work the day before he had taken the wrong bag and the money was safely at the office the whole time. Larry was protecting an empty bag! Semon’s wife Dorothy Dwan is again an attractive presence, it is always fun to see Oliver Hardy in an early role before his teaming with Stan Laurel, and Spencer Bell is given a lot more to do in this film than wallow in a stereotyped role.
“The Perfect Clown” is by no means a perfect film. It doesn’t rank alongside the best work of Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd. But on its own terms, it is an amusing silent comedy that has suffered too long from a bad reputation. In an era where a movie like Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy” is sometimes referred to as a “classic,” a movie like “The Perfect Clown” should be allowed the same status.