This Day in Jewish History, 1928

Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian, Dazzles Hollywood, Then May Have Died

Some suspected the debt-laden actor-director faked illness and death in order to evade creditors, but he never was seen in public again.

Courtesy of Claudia Sassen

On October 8, 1928, Larry Semon, briefly a superstar actor, producer and director during Hollywood’s silent era, died, at the age of 39. Semon was a shooting star, whose fall was nearly as quick as his ascent.

Lawrence Semon was probably born on February 9, 1889, in West Point, Mississippi, where his father, Zerubavel Semon, a traveling magician, was then appearing. Zerubavel, who went by Professor Zera or Zera the Great, was also the son of a magician, Emanuel Seaman, a Jew who had emigrated from Amsterdam to the United States in 1824. Larry’s mother, the former Irene Rea, served as Zera’s onstage assistant.

Zera however was less than great at managing his money, and before he died, in 1901, at age 54, he supposedly entreated his son, not to enter the family magic business.

Finish school first, son

At his insistence, Larry finished high school, around 1907, in Savannah, Georgia, where he lived with an aunt after the deaths of his parents.

Semon took art courses in New York, and then settled briefly in Philadelphia, where he worked as a cartoonist for The North American newspaper. In 1909, he married Augusta Rosenbaum, to the dismay of her distinguished German-Jewish family. Within a few years, he seems to have relocated to New York, where Semon worked as a cartoonist for the New York Sun and the New York Morning Telegraph, among other papers.

He also began appearing in a vaudeville act, in which he told stories about sports stars while drawing pictures of them.

By 1915, Semon had segued into writing and directing short films for the Vitagraph movie company. When the company moved to Hollywood, the following year, he went too.

There, Semon produced and directed shorts with their leading star, Hughie Mack. When Mack accepted an offer from a rival studio, Semon took his place in front of the camera, too.

Overall, he directed and starred in well over one hundred films, most of them one-reeler shorts.

Not much common sense

Semon was a great physical comedian, and his concepts for visual stunts were often brilliant. On the other hand, they were also often costly and dangerous, without necessarily contributing to the plot.

Suspecting correctly that her husband was cheating on her, Augusta, accompanied by daughter Virginia, traveled to California in 1919 to confront him. He gave her a divorce and a lump sum of $100,000 (worth about $1.1 million in today's terms).

The press in America went into a tizzy in 1920 when Semon signed a contract with Vitagraph guaranteeing him $3.6 million over three years. But that sum was supposed to cover production costs as well as the filmmaker’s salary. Frustrated with Semon’s tendency to overspend, the studio had effectively made him responsible for a movie’s budget – and for any deficits he incurred. That was a mistake.

In 1925, after he and Vitagraph had parted ways, Semon directed and played in a silent version of Frank L. Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” featuring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. (Semon also worked with Stan Laurel, before he and Hardy became a team.)

That film was a critical and commercial disaster, at least for the studio: Semon married the leading lady, Dorothy Dwan. But by now, Semon was in debt big-time. In March 1928, he filed for bankruptcy, and returned to the road to perform live in vaudeville and raise some cash.

After several months, he suffered some sort of breakdown, and checked himself into a “rest farm” in Victorville, California.

When Semon’s death was announced on October 8, 1928, there was immediate speculation that he might not be entirely deceased, that this was a ploy to escape from creditors.

For one thing, the press had carried regular and detailed reports on his condition and his anticipated death. As Claudia Sassen, whose biography "Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen," is due out later this year from Mcfarland & Co., told Haaretz, in an email: “His diseases seemed to pile up, as if to make sure he was really going to be dead. He had a nervous breakdown, didn’t respond to therapies, stomach trouble, plus a broken heart owing to his financial losses, plus double-sided lobar pneumonia.”

Dead or alive, Larry Semon never did appear again in public.