Sports cartoon for the New York Evening Telegram (15 May 1910).

Larry Semon was an early 20th-century American film comedian and director. He was one of the most popular stars of the 1910s and 1920s and worked together with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy before they became a duo. Nowadays Semon has faded away in obscurity, though remains a household name among fans of movies from the silent era. Lesser known is that Semon originally started his career as a newspaper cartoonist. He created several short-lived comic strips before his more succesful Hollywood career. At the height of his fame he also created a celebrity comic based on himself: 'Larry' (1924). This makes him the only classic Hollywood comedian to actually draw a comic strip with himself in the starring role. 

Early life and career
Lawrence Semon was born in 1889 in West Point, Mississippi, as the son of magician/ventriloquist Zera the Great and his female assistant. His parents were poor and often had to invest in their own equipment and building their own stages. They couldn't even afford enough money to pay for hotel accomodation: most of the time they had to sleep on benches. Just like Buster Keaton, Semon already performed on stage with his parents when he was just a little boy. He became a skilled pantomime actor and had a wonderful soprano voice. Unfortunately he injured his neck during an American football game at age 12 and lost his singing ability. Precisely because the Semons barely made a living, they wanted their children to study hard. Semon went to high school in Savannah, Georgia, and his father encouraged him to learn drawing. He was quite a fine artist himself. Once he drew several successive images on the pages of his son's Latin grammar book. If one flipped the pages, it provided a rudimentary animated cartoon of two boxers fighting. In 1901 the old man passed away. On his death bed he asked his 12-year old son to give up stage performances and become a newspaper cartoonist instead.

Sports cartoon from 15 May 1910.

Comic career
Raised by his aunt throughout his teenage years, Semon followed his father's advice and studied art in New York City. In 1908 he drew his first comic strip for The Philadelphia Record, called 'Billiken', while between 1909-1910 he became a jack-of-all-trades and engraver in the art department of The Philadelphia North American. In the Sunday supplement of their children's section he designed a series of caricatured, cut-out paper toys. Some were his own creations, but he also made cut-outs of comic characters by other cartoonists like Margaret G. Hays and Grace Drayton's 'Kaptin Kiddo' and Grif's 'It's Only Ethelinda'. On 18 July 1909 Semon furthermore drew 'Mysteries of Magic, Past and Present, Exposed' for the same Sunday pages. The series explained magical tricks, usually by visualizing them step by step in illustrated narratives. Many illusionists had a tendency to keep their tricks a secret to avoid other people stealing them, often going so far to take them to their graves. In a later interview Semon explained that he didn't really want to expose magicians as frauds, only preserve many of the tricks for future generations. The series ended in late March 1910.

Yet he didn't entirely give up the stage yet, since he needed the money. In the late 1900s he joined the Balbazoo Club, an amateur theatrical organisation of the Young Men's Hebrew Association. One of his colleagues there was Ed Wynn, nowadays most famous as Uncle Albert who laughs himself to the ceiling in 'Mary Poppins' (1964). In 1910 Semon moved to New York City, where he asked the way to the nearest newspaper office, which happened to be the headquarters of The Evening Telegram, the evening edition of the New York Telegram. He bought a copy of the paper and read it in his hotel room. Semon noticed that their sports section lacked some good cartoons and thus he went to the newspaper office proposing to make cartoons about this subject. The sports editor instantly asked the young applicant for a sample of his work. Since Semon didn't have any he simply asked if he could have a few minutes to draw a cartoon? His wish was granted and after whipping out a cartoon he was hired. Looking back Semon estimated he was hired within half an hour, probably the quickest time anyone was ever given a job at a newspaper!

'Mr. Wood B. Sport' (19 December 1910).

Debuting on 30 March 1910, Semon mostly made sports cartoons, including 'Mr. Wood B. Sport', a comic strip which ran between December 1910 and January 1911. The title character was clearly a self-caricature: a man who tried out certain sports but mostly hurts himself and others in the process. After a while he was transferred to make political cartoons instead. Soon Semon's cartoons and comics appeared in The New York Herald, New York Morning Telegraph, New York Telegram, the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) and the New York Sun. His 'The Fads of Miss Fashion' debuted on 19 September 1910 in The Evening Telegram, while in the New York Evening Sun he wrote serious sports reports and a column, 'Ho Fans!' which starred a humorous character named Mr. Everybody, again modelled after himself. Semon also drew portraits of popular sports personalities for this sports section, which were later used as images on baseball cards. Between May 1911 and March 1912 Semon created a great many short-lived daily or weekday features, some of which only rar two or three times. They include 'Mrs. Just A. Wife' ( 6 May - 25 August 1911), 'As It Was Printed And As It Was' (6 May - 17 August 1911), 'The Hotair Family' (27 May - 14 June 1911), 'Yes, It Happens Every Day' (16 July - 17 September 1911), 'How Do They Do It' (26 July - 11 September 1911), 'It Was Ever Thus' (14 August - 13 October 1911), 'Damon and Pythias' (14 November 1911 - 14 February 1912), 'The Green-Eyed Monster' (20-27 March 1912) and 'It All Depends On The Mood You're In' (20 March - 2 April 1912). 'Damon and Pythias' was historically notable as the paper's first consistent daily strip. Between 24 December 1912 and 29 March 1913 he furthermore created 'Marcus the Boarding House Goat' which appeared in the New York World. In 1913 he performed some of his sports cartoons on stage as part of a vaudeville act, without much success. He also created a few advertising comics, among others for Tuxedo tobacco.

Film career
While Semon experienced a blitz career in cartooning, it still wasn't profitable enough to give up his stage career. In fact he eventually abandoned cartooning by 1915 to be employed as a writer, director and film producer for the Vitagraph Studios. He mostly collaborated with their star comedian Hughie Mack and often played extras if a scene required one. By the time Mack left Vitagraph, Semon was his logical successor. From the late 1910s until the mid-1920s he starred in dozens of slapstick movies, making him one of the most recognizable and popular film comedians of his era, alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and The Keystone Cops. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy often played side characters in his pictures before they eventually became a duo themselves. As was common at the time, Semon's name was regularly changed for overseas audiences. In France he was named "Zigoto", in Italy "Ridolini" and Spain even came up with two different pseudonyms. During the interbellum Spanish audiences recognized Semon as "Jaimito", while during World War II his shorts were re-released under the name "Tomasin".

Although Semon had abandoned his cartooning career in favor of his more lucrative film career he still had a knack for cartoony gags. To visualize them he often used animated sequences. The artist sometimes made some minor drawings to promote his pictures in newspaper advertisements. Many sources claim that Semon directed a 1915 film based on George McManus' 'Bringing Up Father', but there is no evidence that this movie was ever made around that time, let alone by him.

Caricature of baseball player and team owner Connie Mack (ca. 1915).

Semon spent a lot of time trying to make convincing special effects. Rather than use map paintings as backgrounds, he insisted on real scenery, even if this meant people would have to build it from scratch. After too many complaints from executive producers, Semon eventually became director and producer of all his own films. The plus side was that it gave him more creative control. The downside was that all this stress now landed on his own shoulders. By the mid-1920s his movies cost and lost more money than they earned, including his 1925 adaptation of 'The Wizard of Oz', which is nowadays eclipsed by the far superior 1939 version. To pay off his debts the comedian rushed out more pictures, which started to suffer in quality as a result. Another problem was that Semon's pictures were always more focused on gags than plot. This worked fine with his shorter movies, but as he started directing more feature-length pictures it made them more tedious and boring. By 1928 Semon ended up bankrupt. He tried to revive his vaudeville career, but by that point the genre had already overstayed its welcome. Already in ill health because of TBC, the stress became too much for him. He suffered a nervous breakdown that same year and died at age 39.

In 1924 Semon created a celebrity comic based on himself, 'Larry', which appeared on a daily basis through the Bell Syndicate. In 1927 'Larry' ran in the Long Island Press for three months. Cartoonist Gus Arriola collected episodes, which is why copies of 'Larry' are still available in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, to whom Arriola donated his collection of newspaper comics cut-outs.

Advertising comic strip for Tuxedo tobacco (1915).

At the height of his career Larry Semon was one of the most famous and popular Hollywood stars in the world. In the British comic magazines Kinema Comic and Film Fun he was one of several film comedians to have an unauthorized celebrity comic based on himself. Among the artists who drew 'Larry Semon' comics were Harry Parlett, Bill Radford and George William Wakefield. Even after his death Semon remained popular in Italy. His old silent pictures were re-released with local dub actors removing the dialogue card intermezzos and just dubbing voices over the characters' dialogues. Like many classic comedians from the black-and-white era, Semon experienced a revival in the 1950s, when his old pictures were frequently broadcast on television. In 1960 it even led to him being honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nevertheless Semon never achieved the same fame or popularity with later generations as some of his contemporaries. Critics and film historians felt his pictures were formulaic, lacking strong narratives or even memorable scenes. He was unfavorably compared with cinematic geniuses like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and didn't enjoy the same cult status as Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Only in the 21st century interest and re-evaluation of his work has resurfaced.

Books about Larry Semon
For those interested in Semon's life and career Claudia Sassen's 'Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen: A Biography and Filmography' (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015) is highly recommended.

Ink Slinger profile on the Stripper's Guide

Series and books by Larry Semon you can order today:


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