The most perceptive comment about silent-film comedian Larry Semon was made by Buster Keaton, as follows: Semon packed his movies with gags even if they weren't relevant to the plot or characters; consequently, audiences tended to laugh more during a Semon comedy than during other comedians' films, but afterwards the audience couldn't recall what they'd laughed at.
Here we have 'The Gown Shop', very much in Semon's usual style but with fewer laughs than usual. Semon plays his default character, a grotesque hard-working incompetent. (I'm going to be using the word 'grotesque' a lot in this particular review.) This time round, he blunders into a boutique. After causing some damage he can't pay for, Larry is put to work as a general dogsbody. Mayhem ensues.
Semon remains of interest for modern film fans less for his own merits than because both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (separately, never together) did significant stints playing supporting roles in Semon's films before teaming for Hal Roach. Here we have Hardy as the gruff manager of the boutique. He barely resembles his famous "Ollie" character. In 'The Gown Shop', he's brawny rather than fat. He appears to be wearing some sort of hairpiece with slight sideburns. He also has heavy eyebrows and a moustache that's almost large enough to be a handlebar.
As the villain of this piece, Hardy romances the boutique's head saleslady, played by Kathleen Myers. She's supposed to be pretty, but Myers is seen here with a grotesque hairstyle that makes her look like Little Orphan Annie. If that's her real hair, Myers should have sued someone. I'm hoping it's a wig, though it looks far less natural than the hairpiece Hardy is wearing.
Talking of wigs: the boutique needs a (female) model for the fashion show, so Larry is pressed into service. Semon is one comedian who should NEVER have attempted female impersonation. He had a very peculiar face that was comical but also distressing. When he wore exaggerated (male) outfits, he often looked quite funny. Here, disguised as a woman, Semon isn't remotely convincing but he isn't funny either. In this same film, a genuine female role is portrayed by male actor Frank Hayes, better known from Keystone comedies. Hayes is a far more convincing woman than Semon, and that's not saying much.
For his female fling, Semon dons a hairpiece that's meant to be a lady's wig, but it looks like the petrified haircut worn by Paul Wegener as the Golem. In his Golem wig and a long frock, Semon flounces about as a fashion model. I laughed very slightly when he caught his frock in a mangle.
I stopped laughing when black actor Spencer Bell did his minstrel-show turn here as the shufflin' dusky porter. Although Semon gave steady employment to black actors, he invariably cast them in demeaning stereotypical roles that were ridiculous even by 1920s standards.
SPOILER NOW: Eventually, Meyers spurns Hardy and goes off with Semon, though it's hard to know what she sees in him. Perhaps she was blinded by that Orphan Annie wig. This is a very wiggy movie, what with Semon as a transvestite Golem, Meyers as Orphan Annie, and Oliver Hardy wearing by far the most realistic hairpiece (and giving the best performance) in this movie. I usually get a couple of good laughs out of a Larry Semon film, but not this time. My rating: 3 out of 10, almost entirely for Hardy's splendid portrayal of the villain.
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