L. Frank BaumHal RoachViolet MacMillanMildred Harris
The Magic Cloak
Medium: film
Year: 1914
Director: J. Farrell MacDonald
Writer: L. Frank Baum
Keywords: Wizard of Oz, fantasy, silent, The Oz Film Manufacturing Company
Country: USA
Actor: Mildred Harris, Violet MacMillan, Fred Woodward, Vivian Reed, Pierre Couderc, Juanita Hansen, Frank Moore, Bernadine Zuber, Andy Anderson, Leontine Dranet, Hal Roach, Richard Rosson, Raymond Russell, Jessie May Walsh, Mai Wells
Format: 38 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0004286/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 28 April 2010
It's the incomplete one out of the three surviving 1914 Oz films from L. Frank Baum's production company. What happened is that the distributors abandoned it after getting burned on The Patchwork Girl of Oz and so it ended up being turned into a pair of two-reelers called The Magic Cloak and The Witch Queen. The version we have today has been reassembled from those two films, but this means we're missing a reel since the original had been a five-reeler. On top of that, there are multiple versions knocking around. The version on the 2009 Ultimate Collector's Edition of The Wizard of Oz runs five and a half minutes longer than the one that was released four years earlier and has extra scenes like a sailor making a Magic Cloak necktie and Nickodemus getting help from the witches we met in His Majesty The Scarecrow of Oz.
The sad thing is that you'd never guess any of that. It's as if they had an entirely unrelated story for each reel and shoved them together to make a film. 1. Fluff and Bud become the rulers of Noland and blowing the government's entire budget on toys. 2. Nickodemus leads a bunch of panto animals to beat some robbers. 3. Queen Zixi of Ix decides to steal the Magic Cloak. 4. The Rolly Rogues invade because they love soup. Admittedly it's Fluff and Bud who get robbed by Zixi and then have to sort out the Rin have to sort out those last two, but if that missing fifth reel was yet another storyline then the movie might yet be better for its absence.
Taking the first storyline first, Fluff and Bud are played by attractive young women. I don't get it. Did they borrow their local pantomime's principal boy, along with the animal costumes? I realise that this is normal for Baum's 1914 films, but that's like saying "hot for Antarctica". Fluff gets given a wish-giving Magic Cloak by transparent fairies acting on the advice of the Man in the Moon, while Bud gets crowned king of Noland because he's the 47th person to walk through their gate. Yes, it's mad. What's more, this lunacy is the most watchable thing about it.
The second story is a showcase for Fred Woodward and his animal costumes. This time he's playing Nickodemus (note the 'k'), although as a donkey rather than a Pharisee in John's gospel. This is oddly enough the storyline for continuity geeks, since it's the one that makes this an Oz film if you didn't notice the intertitle at the beginning saying these were "fairies of Oz". Nickodemus meets the Lonesome Zoop, the friendly Crow, the lazy Lion (sic) and the AT-AT Walker and leads them to rescue a brat who's been kidnapped by bandits. The Lonesome Zoop is a bit creepy, actually. Its initial reaction to Nickodemus appears to involve some kind of mating ritual and slightly disturbing thrusting of the buttocks, but shortly afterwards we learn that "if the lion and the zoop hadn't hated each other, Nick would have been a goner". Baum's using more vernacular than usual this time, by the way.
Queen Zixi's story is the one that seems most likely to have suffered from the missing reel. She pops up out of nowhere, wastes our time for about ten minutes and then drops out of the plot again. Unusually in an Oz movie her story's also predictable, since the fairies gave us simple rules about how to use the Magic Cloak at the start of the film and Zixi's clearly breaking them.
The Rolly Rogues are my favourite part of the film, because they're freaky. In the book they're ball-shaped people, so that's what they are here too. They're like a race of Tweedledums and Tweedledees, or perhaps ambulatory Christmas puddings. As one gets quite often in these films, their faces are also so goofy that they become oddly disturbing. I've never seen anything like Rolly Rogues on the move. They're like aliens or something.
The whole film's production design is as good as ever, come to think of it, with Noland resembling a cross between the pre-revolutionary French royal court and the realm of The Celestial Toymaker. There's also briefly some stop-motion animation and a scene with bears in it. They were cute. The main thing I was disappointed by was a sloppy bit of mirror work with a different actress playing the reflection, which is one of those tricks that costs almost nothing and can blow away an audience if you get it right. Baum was clearly trying to make special effects extravaganzas with these films, but unfortunately that's something that depends on careful work from the actors rather than mere camera tricks.
I don't know. When I write it all out like that, it sounds better and more entertaining than it seemed in the film. The disjointed story made it a bit boring. It feels random, even though I was entertained by the Rolly Rogues and other outstandingly bonkers moments of madness. As usual with Baum, I like the names, e.g. the Vinegar River and if you think about it, Noland itself. I suspect it might play better on a rewatch or if you've read the book, once you've internalised the story and can concentrate on enjoying the film's realisation of its fantasy. If you haven't, though, it's only a marginal recommendation.