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THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ (1914)

“Here is a gift from the Fairies. It will grant you one wish – but no more....”






  Director:
 
J. Farrell MacDonald

  Starring: 
Mildred Harris, Violet MacMillan, Fred Woodward, Juanita Hansen, Mai Wells, Jessie May Welsh, Raymond Russell, Vivian Reed, Pierre Couderc

  Screenplay: 
L. Frank Baum, based upon his novel

Synopsis:  By the Vinegar River, a ferryman lives with his daughter, Margaret (Mildred Harris), called ‘Fluff’ because of her golden hair, his son, Timothy (Violet MacMillan), known as ‘Bud’, and the family’s mule, Nickodemus (Fred Woodward). As the children play with Nick, a traveller asks the ferryman for a passage across the river. Meanwhile, in the Forest of Burzee, the Fairies gather to weave a magic cloak, which will grant one wish to whoever wears it. However, having woven the cloak, the Fairies are uncertain who to give it to. They consult the Man in the Moon, who advises them simply to give it to the unhappiest person they can find. The Fairy Queen, Lulea (Jessie May Welsh), gives the cloak to her Emissary (Bernadine Zuber) and sends her to the world of people. Near the Vinegar River, Rivette (Mai Wells), the children’s aunt, suddenly has a shocking vision. She rushes to the river, to find that it is only too true: the ferryman has been drowned. Packing the bereaved children’s possessions onto Nickodemus, Rivette, Fluff and Bud set out for the Kingdom of Noland. Noland, too, is an unhappy place: the king lies dying, and has no heir. As the court physician breaks the news of the king’s death, the ministers consult their constitution. They learn that they must wait by the East Gate of Nole next sunrise, where the 47th person to pass through will be named ruler, whoever and whatever they may be. Rivette, Fluff and Bud draw near to Noland, and Fluff falls behind, weeping over her father’s death, her aunt’s harsh treatment and having to give up her cottage home. The Emissary finds her and gives her the cloak, warning her that it will grant one wish only and that, should it be stolen rather than given away, it will lose its power. Rivette returns, scolding Fluff angrily, and instantly tries to take the cloak from her; but the Emissary warns Rivette that she will be punished if she does so. Left alone, Fluff fervently wishes her one wish: that she might be happy once again. Inside the City of Nole, the people gather by the East Gate to learn who their ruler will be. As people – and bears – pass through, tension builds, until Jikki (Raymond Russell), the Royal Chancellor, declares that Noland has a new king: Bud....

Comments:  Even as he bowed to pressure and necessity and began turning out Oz novels on a regular basis, Frank Baum retained his fondness for his non-Oz stories. A particular personal favourite was “Queen Zixi Of Ix; or, The Story Of The Magic Cloak”, a tale that drew heavily upon the European fairytale tradition, and which Baum often declared to be amongst the best books he ever wrote. The tale takes place in two regions near to Oz, Ix and Noland, and concerns the various consequences, comic and otherwise, of the elevation to ruler of Noland of a peasant boy named Bud; and, simultaneously, the attempts of the internally ancient but externally beautiful Queen Zixi to obtain the Magic Cloak, so that rather than see her real age when she looks in a mirror, as a curse has condemned her to do, she will be as beautiful in her own eyes as in everyone else’s.

Having adapted an Oz novel for the first release of The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, Baum chose a non-Oz tale for the second. Produced simultaneously with The Patchwork Girl Of Oz and using an almost identical cast and crew, The Magic Cloak was ready for release in September of 1914 when, in reaction to the poor critical response and low box-office returns garnered by the first film, Paramount declined to distribute the second. It was not until 1917 that The Magic Cloak was finally released to American cinemas, by which time The Oz Film Manufacturing Company (and its short-lived successor, Dramatic Feature Films, run by Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn Baum) was long since defunct. It was a British company, Alliance Film Productions, which finally acquired the distribution rights to The Magic Cloak; the film was exhibited in its entirety in Britain, then cut down into two short films, The Magic Cloak and The Witch Queen, for re-release the following year. This turn of events set up yet another of silent cinema’s bad news/good news scenarios: the full print of The Magic Cloak, which ran around an hour, no longer exists. However, the two “short films” were eventually found in a British archive and later cobbled back together into a semblance of the original film, albeit one that had at least a reel of footage missing; and it was this truncated version that was subsequently released as The Magic Cloak Of Oz.

This sad history explains the two major flaws of The Magic Cloak Of Oz: first, that its two parallel storylines, the experiences of Bud and Fluff following the former’s inauguration, and Queen Zixi’s plotting to secure the cloak, barely touch; and second, that the narrative as a whole ends up being overwhelmed by its subplot, the adventures of Nickodemus the mule. (If this exploration of the silent cinema of Oz has taught us anything, it is that L. Frank Baum really had a thing for mules.) The film as a whole still reflects something of the classic fairytale feel of Baum’s novel, particularly considering the bleakness of the story’s opening, with two deaths in the first few minutes, and the cruel treatment of the children by their aunt. European fairytales, of course, were never afraid to tell unpleasant truths; in fact, this was a part of their function. However, the twin points to the plots, with Bud coming to terms with his responsibilities and Queen Zixi learning contentment with her lot, are almost entirely lost. Nevertheless, what story there is left moves along briskly enough, and is mercifully free of those frustratingly repetitive digressions that mar The Patchwork Girl Of Oz. Once again, though, it does help to have a tolerance for pantomime animals, and preferably a positive affection for them.

The Magic Cloak Of Oz opens with a sequence heavily influenced by Georges Méliès, with the Fairies, present only in superimposition, dancing in the moonlight, and an animated Man In The Moon smiling down at them benignly. The Fairies weave the Magic Cloak on their loom, but are then at a loss to know quite what to do with it. The Man In The Moon advises them to seek out the unhappiest person they can find. The Fairy Queen, Lulea, summons her Emissary, who takes on substance so that she can travel and interact in the world of people; and she sets out on her mission.

  

It is during this sequence that the film’s first and only mention of Oz occurs – we are told that it is “the Fairies of Oz” who are weaving the Magic Cloak. It is difficult to know whether this is a concession by Baum, or simply a slip; or, indeed, whether Frank Baum was responsible for the intertitles that accompany these surviving prints, which contain several mistakes, including confusion over the difference between Noland (the country) and Nole (the capital city). The worst and most damaging mistake, however, is the misnaming of the king’s chancellor. Called “Jikki” in the novel, a title card here refers to him as, of all things, Zixi!

Given that our first glimpse of Margaret, aka Fluff, has her admiring her own flowing golden curls in a mirror, it may come as a surprise to those familiar with The Patchwork Girl Of Oz to learn that Fluff is not played by Violet MacMillan. Miss MacMillan is back, however, and she is once again playing a boy; and I am very pleased to be able to report that for The Magic Cloak she shed both her curls and her mannerisms. Sporting a short bob and wearing a pair of patched and ragged pants, and with hands in pockets when not roughhousing with Nickodemus, Bud is an altogether more believable proposition than was Ojo, at least in the pantomime tradition of boys. The two children lead a happy and comfortable existence with their father the ferryman, in their cottage on the banks of the river; but as we know, that is all about to change....

  

Meanwhile, in Noland, the king dies without leaving an heir, throwing his ministers into confusion. They consult the Book of Law, and learn of the peculiar circumstances under which their new ruler must be chosen. At sunrise the following day, the ministers and the King’s Guard assemble at the East Gate of Nole and wait to discover who their ruler will be. There is some dispute over who or what might qualify: Jikki wants to count two performing bears that are led through the gate (real bears, too!), but is scornfully shouted down by the other ministers. And so they wait, counting off visitors #44 and #45....

Following the death of the ferryman, Rivette reluctantly accepts guardianship of his two children. Deciding that with two more mouths to feed she would be better off seeking work in Noland, Rivette gives up her laundress’ business and the ferryman’s cottage and, piling their possessions onto poor Nickodemus, sets out with Bud and Fluff in tow. Rivette’s harsh treatment of them distresses both children, particularly Fluff, and as the three draw near to Noland, she falls behind to have a good cry. It is then that the Emissary finds her, deciding – chiefly on the strength of Fluff’s own declaration that she is, “The most unhappy girl in all the great wide world” – that she is the proper recipient for the Magic Cloak. Fluff is being instructed in its correct use when Rivette angrily stomps back, takes one look, and tries to tear the Cloak from Fluff’s shoulders. The Emissary intervenes, warning Rivette of dire consequences should she persist. Rivette strikes at the Emissary with the switch that she has been using on Bud and Fluff, only to have her adversary vanish before her eyes. This gives Rivette pause, and she leaves Fluff in possession of her prize. Fluff’s wish is simple and to the point: “Oh, I just wish I could be happy once more!”

  

Rivette, Bud and Fluff travel on towards the East Gate of Nole, Bud riding Nickodemus, and Fluff dancing. As they pass through the gate, Rivette is seized by the arm and pulled to one side. Next through is Bud, mounted on his loyal mule. Instantly, there is a cry of, “47!”, as the boy is acclaimed as the new King of Noland. Bud and his family are whisked away to the palace in the Royal Couch and provided with rich new clothes – and, in Bud’s case, a crown. He and Fluff strut around, admiring themselves and each other. (And some of Violet MacMillan’s mannerisms re-emerge here, but it’s brief and, considering Bud’s circumstances, forgivable.) Bud holds court, but cuts it short to go toy shopping with Fluff; and before long, we are told, “Bud and Fluff spent all the money the treasurer had, on toys.”

And that is nearly all we see of the administration of King Bud, as The Magic Cloak Of Oz picks up its major storyline; a storyline having nothing to do with Queen Zixi, or with the Magic Cloak. In other words, it’s time for some panto-animals! We cut to poor Nickodemus, who has decided that he doesn’t like Noland and wants to go home; understandable, since his owners have abandoned him in the street with the worldly goods of three people strapped onto his back. Nick sets off back through the woods, only to encounter a band of robbers, who decide that they want those worldly goods for themselves. Nick puts up a good fight – like all of Baum’s mules, Nick is rather addicted to kicking; but unlike his predecessors, Hank and Mewel, he tends to use his kicks for niceness instead of evil – but is finally overwhelmed. Tying Nick to a tree, the robbers begin to examine their prizes.

  

Here, however, Nick finds an unexpected ally, in the shape of a small girl, Mary, stolen from her parents by the robbers. Mary unties Nick and climbs onto his back, but before they can make good their escape, the robbers see them. Mary is snatched back, but Nick – thanks to a few nicely judged kicks – gets away. He is not long in meeting up with the other inhabitants of the forest, first of all – the lonesome Zoop! (And not only is the Zoop back from The Patchwork Girl Of Oz, but so is some of the footage: nothing less than Mewel scratching his butt! In fact this whole sequence might be lifted from the earlier film, as it is oddly disconnected from its context.) The disturbing butt obsession of these tales continues as the Zoop once again makes contact with a new acquaintance by backing up beside Nick, extending its tail, and wiggling its backside. Nick scratches against a tree, the Zoop wiggles....

And then we cut to Nick alone in the forest, being crept up upon by, not a cowardly, but a lazy lion. So we're told, although the lion's penchant for fighting would suggest otherwise. First, however, we get some rather charming shots of the lion washing itself, just like any other cat. The lion sneaks up on the oblivious Nick, who thoughtlessly waves it away without really looking to see who it is beside him. Once he does....the chase is on!---

  

---only for Nick to run straight back into the Lonesome Zoop, who he was trying to evade in the first place. Caught between the lion and the Zoop, Nick looks doomed....except that the mutual hatred of the lion and the Zoop distract them from their pursuit of Nick. The two begin to fight, and Nick sensibly takes the opportunity to escape. His next encounter is with “the friendly crow”, to whom he tells his troubles. Nick then proposes rounding up all of the forest’s animals and giving the robbers what for, a suggestion that the crow heartily endorses.

And so they come together: Nick, and the crow, and the lion, and the Zoop (“If you must fight, come on and help whip the old robbers!”), and an elephant, and a tiger, and a cow, and a tall, lopsided thing I can only imagine is meant to be a kangaroo, and something on its hind legs that looks rather like a malnourished sheep – or a tall and skinny Yoda – and....and....and....YES!!!! The Woozy!!!!

It is a statement of plain fact to say that the robbers don’t know what hit them. The Big Brawl that follows is easily the film’s highlight, if only for its sheer absurdity. (Possibly, someone should have told them that kangaroos don’t literally hop.) The animals kick and stomp and bite, and the bruised and battered robbers flee for their lives in a panic. Even the young Mary gets into the act, and delivers an impressive display of fisticuffs when one of the robbers tries to spirit her away. (In fact, you have to feel sorry for the actor holding the girl playing Mary, because she wasn’t too careful about where she landed her blows, and obviously he wasn’t able actually to defend himself!)

(Okay, maybe that Yoda thing is meant to be a rabbit.)

The robbers dispersed, Mary climbs onto Nick’s back, and her rescuers escort her back to her parents’ cottage. As the forest dwellers wave goodbye, Nick delivers Mary to her delighted mother and father. They overwhelm Nick with their thanks and invite him to stay with them. He does so for a time, but then begins to miss Bud and Fluff and decides to return to Nole.

And then it’s time to visit with Queen Zixi of Ix. Remember her? The one the novel this was based on was named for? Zixi is eternally beautiful in spite of her six hundred and eighty-three years; and indeed, the only fly in her ointment is that, having offended a “higher power” (unspecified), she is condemned to carry a mirror that reveals to her eyes alone her true age. By this time, word of the Magic Cloak has reached far and wide. (In the novel, the Cloak has a long series of owners.) A minstrel visiting Ix sings of it, and Zixi conceives the idea of stealing the Cloak, and wishing to see herself beautiful. She therefore disguises herself as a maid, and – somehow – secures a position waiting upon Fluff. When Bud sees the “maid”, he stares at her in a suspicious way; possibly in the uncut print, he and Zixi had had a previous encounter. Zixi takes the first opportunity to steal the Cloak and flees the palace. Once safe outside of the city, she retransforms herself into Zixi and dons the Cloak to make her wish. As she does so, the Emissary manifests beside her.

And of course, it doesn’t work. The Emissary breaks the bad news, then vanishes as Zixi weeps.

  

We are then introduced to the Rolly-Rogues, “rough, round rascals ranging in the rugged rocks”, who have an uncontrollable passion for soup. (In the novel these were the Roly-Rogues, more evidence that Baum didn’t write these titles.) On a particularly cloudless day, the Rolly-Rogues get their first glimpse of Noland down at the foot of their mountain, and decide to invade in search of new varieties of soup. This they do by tucking in their heads, arms and legs, and rolling down the mountain. Before long, the startled people of Nole are fleeing before their rotund attackers. Bud’s ministers suggest using the Magic Cloak to wish the Rolly-Rogues away, and the awful truth is, somewhat belatedly, discovered. Bud and Fluff set out to find the Cloak; instead they find the minstrel who brought its existence to Zixi’s attention. She directs them to Ix, where the children throw themselves at Zixi’s feet and beg for the Cloak’s return – only to have Zixi confess that she threw it away in a fit of disgust.

Back in Noland, the people of Nole are being overcome by the bulbous invaders with rather embarrassing ease. Fortunately, this tale’s real hero, Nickodemus, has found his way back to the city. A Rolly-Rogue threatens him with a pair of knives – I can only imagine he was planning to use Nick for soup – and Nick responds in time-honoured Baum-mule fashion. Meanwhile, the Cloak is found by an elderly cottager, who stuffs it into her sewing-bag.

I got a bad feeling about this.

Zixi, now all friendly and cooperative for some reason, leads Bud and Fluff to where she threw the Cloak away. Not finding it, the three search further, and come across Dame Dingle, the cottager, sitting in the sun and – ulp! – cutting up her prize for rags. As Fluff weeps on Bud’s shoulder, Zixi rails at the quaking cottager, “A whole nation is in danger because you cut up the Magic Cloak!” – conveniently forgetting one or two other incidents in the Cloak’s recent history. Dame Dingle retreats inside, and Bud, Fluff and the minister accompanying them turn back to Nole. Zixi, however, spreads out the remnants of the Cloak and uses her magic to reassemble it – and we are treated to a brief but welcome insert of stop motion.

Meanwhile, the people of Noland are being treated with heartless cruelty by the Rolly-Rogues, who force them to....make soup. The dastards! Luckily, Nickodemus is again on the case. He sends for his animal buddies, and together they set about driving the Rolly-Rogues from Noland. More comical scrapping follows as the Rogues are rounded up – so to speak – and then the Cloak is used to make them roll back up their mountain.

  

As the Nolanders celebrate their victory, the Fairy Queen and her Emissary appear in Bud’s throne-room, demanding the return of the Cloak on the grounds that, “You mortals do not use it wisely.” This is a little unkind to the characters of this cut-down version (for one thing, Zixi isn’t mortal!). Of course, in the novel, and possibly in the uncut film, the Cloak goes from hand to hand and is put to all sorts of absurd uses. There as here, Bud begs for one more wish; his saving of his one wish when everyone else is squandering theirs is a major plot-point in the book. The Fairy Queen grants this, and Bud wishes fervently to be, “Just the very best king Noland has ever had!”

While a fair judgement is impossible, The Magic Cloak in its existing form is certainly a more enjoyable exercise than The Patchwork Girl Of Oz in its existing form. Certainly, it hardly has a chance to wear out its welcome; although it is inarguable that the plot digression here, Nick’s adventures in the forest, is far more entertaining than the endless chase scenes of Patchwork Girl; and while there is plenty of capering here as well, all of it has a purpose. Both lead story threads are given brutally short shrift, however – although I suppose that if this film was re-cut chiefly to create short entertainments for children, you can understand why “plot” was eliminated in favour of “panto-animals”.

  

Unlike its predecessors, The Magic Cloak Of Oz does not boast a clutch of famous-in-the-future names in its supporting roles, instead lending itself to a game of spot the familiar face. Most of the cast members of The Patchwork Girl Of Oz are here again, although speaking broadly, other than Violet MacMillan those who had prominent roles in the previous film have only bit parts here, and vice-versa. Juanita Hansen, who earlier had the tiniest of parts, is elevated to playing Queen Zixi. Miss Hansen is probably now less famous as an actress than for her personal problems, and for her subsequent career as an anti-drugs campaigner. Jessie May Welsh, Ozma in the earlier film, is the Fairy Queen here; someone must have thought she looked “regal”. Raymond Russell, thankfully sans his Torgo-legs, is Jikki, while Leontine Dranet and Richard Rosson appear briefly as the young Mary’s parents. The real star of the show, of course, is Fred Woodward as Nickodemus. Woodward played just about all of the panto-animals in the preceding film, but cannot possibly have done so here. A few of the other suit-players and their roles have been identified – Hal Roach is back, playing the lazy lion! – but frustratingly, no-one seems certain of Pierre Coudrec’s contribution. My guess is that he is either the crow or the kangaroo, as those two roles are the most energetic of the supporting animals.

I cannot help but wonder if Frank Baum, finally doing voluntarily what previously he had only done reluctantly and under pressure, unknowingly did himself and his partners a grave disservice. Had The Oz Film Manufacturing Company led with The Magic Cloak instead of with The Patchwork Girl Of Oz, how differently might things have worked out for the struggling fledgling studio? Of course, you understand why they chose the reverse order, particular with Baum’s latest Oz novel still fresh in the public mind; but that The Magic Cloak was denied a proper release on the basis of the first film’s failure was a cruel blow. Another complication, another financial pressure, was the fact that the company’s third film became available for release within another month. This time, however, the Alliance Film Corporation agreed to distribute the film right away, and locally as well as in England. His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz was released to American cinemas during October of 1914....

 
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----posted 10/04/2009