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Larry Semon made 'The Bakery' during the phase of his career when he
was trying to be Chaplinesque. We see him here in the titular bakery as
the general dogsbody, just as Chaplin was employed in various
workplaces in several of his Essanay and Keystone comedies (notably
'Dough and Dynamite', also set in a bakery). And here, as in several of
Semon's other comedies from this period, Oliver Hardy is cast as a
villain very much in the mould of the characters played by Eric
Campbell in Chaplin's comedies for Mutual. In 'The Bakery', Hardy is
even wearing bushy eyebrows and a moustache that make him resemble
Campbell in 'The Adventurer'.
For once, Semon makes a distinctive entrance. We first see his character only from below the waist, the upper half of his body concealed beneath the stack of parcels he's carrying. Only after he stumbles through a trap door do we see his face: one of the most naturally comic faces in all of silent films. Too bad that Semon's comedic inventiveness never caught up with his appearance.
Some of Chaplin's short comedies got a great deal of comic mileage out of one unusual prop; notably the escalator in 'The Floorwalker'. In 'The Bakery', Semon gets impressive mileage out of a rotating pillar of shelves, each shelf containing a different cake. Semon spins the pillar so that its protruding sign spins round and hits Hardy in the back of the head. Then Hardy chases Semon round the pillar, prompting Semon to take the natural (and very Chaplin-like) lurk of riding the pillar while it revolves, so that he can relax while Hardy pursues him.
There's even a Chaplinesque plot line here, with a shortage in the bakery's books. I expected Hardy, as the villain, to be the culprit here ... and was surprised when things went otherwise. Elsewhere, there's a Prohibition gag involving a bottle labelled 'Home Brew'. (Which makes as much sense as a bag of cocaine marked 'Cocaine'.) I'll give a good-sport award to actress Eva Thatcher for a sequence in which a mouse climbs into her clothing; too bad the routine isn't funny.
The real mystery of this Semon short is the brief but virtuoso performance by a trained monkey. This monkey looks exactly like Josephine, the monkey who gave such remarkable performances in Harold Lloyd's 'The Kid Brother' and Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman'. But those movies were six and seven years after 'The Bakery' ... is it possible that Josephine's movie career lasted for so long? I'm absolutely certain that this is the same monkey; I wish I could verify it.
'The Bakery' is well above Larry Semon's average, largely due to the fact that for most of its length he's emulating Chaplin's brand of comedy. Unfortunately, by the end of this short movie, Larry Semon has reverted to his true nature, and we get one of those wildly implausible Semon gag sequences: this one involving a ladder that manages to tip its occupants into ladies' bathrooms and other inconvenient places, in a manner that's too implausible to be funny. There's too much cakery fakery in 'The Bakery', but at least it's concentrated into the last 300 feet or so of this short movie. I'll rate 'The Bakery' 6 out of 10, much higher than I'd usually rate a Semon film.
"The Bakery," I am led to believe, is a fairly typical film of the
once-popular comedian Larry Semon, and I am beginning to get the
impression that one has to be in a very particular frame of mind to
enjoy a Larry Semon film. You can expect a plot (or even a sequence of
events, really), you can't expect to get an impression of the character
of anyone you see, and you can't expect anything subtle or
sophisticated. Larry Semon was brilliant in a very narrow field --
creating and executing wacky sight gags.
So "The Bakery" exclusively makes use of that talent, and it's full of wacky sight gags, and pretty much nothing else. They are united only by the fact that most of them are generally connected to the setting of a bakery. Those sight gags are certainly well done, though -- many of them involve huge set-piece stunts, elaborate props such as the spinning pie display here, or seemingly impossible tasks such as training a monkey methodically to unravel a scarf on camera.
Of course, Semon was notorious for racist humor, and we don't get through the film without a joke based solely around the fact that white people have been covered in soot. The pre-Stan Laurel Oliver Hardy, often Semon's second banana, is hidden somewhere this film beneath a huge moustache, playing a shifty bakery employee who steals money. He plays the slapstick well, and mixes his villain persona with some of the put-on chivalrous gestures that were his specialty. Semon himself, when not mid-stunt, projects the impression of the classic whiteface clown.
An audience who meets this on its own terms and is prepared to enjoy some big, crazy, creative stunts will get a lot of smiles from this -- as long as they don't look for any of those extra elements that sometimes make other comedies good.
It's hard to believe that back in the early 1920s, Larry Semon was one
of the top movie comics--as he is practically unheard of today. In
fact, I think the only reason I found this short on DVD was because
like many of Semon's films, his co-star was Oliver Hardy and this film
was part of Passport Video's "The Laurel OR Hardy Collection"--films
featuring one or the other before they were permanently teamed in 1927.
While I have never been a huge Larry Semon fan, I have seen a few dozen of his films and appreciate that he CAN be exceptionally funny and his stunts amazing to watch. Unfortunately, this is not the norm, as most of Semon's films are rather mediocre for the genre. However, I was very, very happy to see that this was not a typical Semon film but one where all the action and plotting worked perfectly--producing one of the funnier comedy shorts of the 1920s I have seen. While it lacks the sophistication and polish of the best of Keaton and Lloyd, for laughs it's hard to beat this film. I particularly loved the scene where he tried to get the mouse off the customer--you'd have to see it to believe it. Plus, in this film the stunt-work is very high energy and amazing--particularly the huge falls through the trapdoor from one floor to another. I don't know how they did this dangerous work without someone being killed!! Funny, high-paced, and coming together like a true work of art, this is Larry Semon at his absolute finest.
Larry Semon is, sadly, likely the most historically overlooked of all the
Critics panned his films later in his career, due to his refusal to change from tried-and-true slapstick formulas, and he was soon forgotten in the public eye after he died too young of tuberculosis.
Also, whomever may get a chance to actually see one of his flicks, be warned they are often not "PC" in today's world, containing racial stereotypes, etc.
"The Bakery" is pure fun from the start, with pies, lard, soot, food, flour, and whatever else happens to be handy flying thruout! This silly romp is very worth seeing, if you can find it (a very hard thing to do).
A hilarious slapstick comedy from Larry Semon's best period, with a sight gag every few seconds, stunt work that still amazes, and several scenes that show magnificent comic timing. Also, it's interesting to see Oliver Hardy (several years before teaming with Stan Laurel) playing the villain, as he did in many Semon comedies.
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