Larry Semon was perhaps, if not the greatest, the most plainly and obviously clownlike of the so-called "silent clowns," with his face bright white with pancake makeup and his particular brand of circuslike gag. "The Perfect Clown" plays on that association with its title, but it strangely makes Semon into a much less clownlike figure than I'd ever seen him before.
The conventional wisdom is that Semon, a specialist is plot less, elaborate twenty-minute gag symphonies around one subject or another in the comedy-short field, couldn't adapt to the different demands of the feature films, and all his efforts there were pretty dismal. Seeing this, the first of his features I've watched, pleasantly surprised me, though. Though in the fifty-minute feature he need only fill out the length of two and a half shorts, he does change style to meet the new form.
He spaces his material out, allowing gags to develop like he never usually does. He even has a unifying plot with comedy deriving more from situations than from enormous stunts. Larry is a broke fellow who must carry ten-thousand dollars to the bank for his boss when an equal sum has just been stolen. It leads to some of the usually mix-ups, and Larry, more than ever seems to have developed a somewhat definable character to go with his antics: not too smart but a trickster nonetheless (pulling off his lateness to work as arguing for hours outside over his boss' honor; sliding his rent-colling landlady a note under the door that says "Not in").
The line is digressive, of course, with a focus more on amusing routines (hiding from the landlady or running from the cops) than on particular outlandish gags, but it does all seem to be moving in a particular direction. It actually wouldn't have hurt to have had more of these despite the good the comes from the change in direction, as they were Larry's forte. It's a bit odd to see him being so un-Larry Semon-like, even wearing normal street clothes and no makeup for most of the film.
Another less pleasant hallmark of Semon's -- seemingly-obsessive racism -- seems happily to have been toned down a little too. There is a black character called "Snowball" who is shown as being too lovestruck to look at the road and avoid crashing his car, but after that the race-based jokes die down and he becomes Larry's companion on about equal footing. It's not good, but it's better than Semon's usual virulently racist sequences.
It's nice to see Larry's frequent support Oliver Hardy here too, funny in a featured role as the landlady's son who is very tough towards Larry until he hears how much money he's carrying.
Towards the end much becomes less funny to me, though, as there is a long "scare comedy" sequence with Larry and Snowball hiding in a graveyard and being nervous about the police. I never really found scare comedy that funny, and it seems to bog things down here.
This is a fun feature and an interesting step for Larry Semon in that it hardly feels like a Larry Semon film. It would be interesting to see how and if Semon could blend this new style, which feels influenced by some of his contemporaries, with his trademark cartooniness.
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