Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Oz Road Trip, Day 3

So… um… call me?

The Magic Cloak of Oz is not, in fact, set in Oz at all. It’s an adaptation of Baum’s own favorite among his books, Queen Zixi of Ix. The Oz books being the commercial success that they were, however, someone in the Oz Film Manufacturing Company must have decided that repackaging Ix as Oz was a smart move. It didn’t help, unfortunately.

Filmed in 1914, using the same locations and many of the same cast members as The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz was originally scheduled for release at the end of September 1914. So badly was Patchwork Girl received, however, that Paramount declined to distribute any other Oz films. Magic Cloak wasn’t released until 1917, when a British film distributor picked it up. It may have been at this point that it was cut down from one five-reeler to two two-reel films, released in the UK as The Magic Cloak and The Witch Queen respectively. All the original title cards are missing as well. Unfortunately these two prints constitute all we have had of the original version, and though they were cobbled back together for the 1996 video release, obviously a lot of footage was missing. 

What survived holds together pretty well, plot-wise. The Fairies of the forest of Burzee, dancing in the moonlight, decide to weave a magic cloak that will grant one wish to its owner and to any subsequent owner, assuming the new owner hasn’t stolen it. Being transparent camera effects, however, the Fairies haven’t an idea in their pretty little heads what to do with the cloak, so they ask the Man in the Moon. He (scarily played by someone made up as the Joker peering through a cutout Moon, in what might be a tip of the cinematic hat to Méliès) tells them to give the cloak to the unhappiest person they can find.

The scene shifts to Noland, introducing us to the Ferryman of the Vinegar River, who lives there with his two children Fluff (a girl) and Bud (a boy, played not very convincingly by Violet MacMillan). The best pal and playmate of the tots is—wait for it—Nickodemus, a panto mule! Fred Woodward, who played a panto mule in every single Oz film made by Baum’s company, must have known where a few bodies were buried.

Underlining the fact that this isn’t Oz, we get two quick deaths in succession: the King of Noland snuffs it without an heir and the Ferryman drowns. Fluff and Bud are taken in by their witchy Aunt Rivette, who decides to relocate with them to the capital city of Nole. They load all their earthly goods on the back of Nickodemus and set off. Nasty Aunt Rivette ain’t wearing that putty nose and pointy hat for nothing; by the time they reach Nole, Fluff is weeping and declaring herself the Unhappiest Girl in the World. Enter Fairy with Magic Cloak.

Meanwhile, there is a fearsome band of robbers in the forest, who have captured a little girl (played by an actual child) named Mary. Meanwhile also, Queen Zixi of Ix has lived over six hundred years and still looks young and beautiful to everyone else, but she has one of those Dorian Gray things going and can’t look in a mirror without seeing an ancient crone. Oh, if only she had a magic cloak that granted wishes! And of course she gets to hear of one, and in magical disguise sneaks over the border to Noland. Meanwhile, too, some freakish globular creatures called Rolly Rogues are mustering an army to attack Noland in hopes of confiscating the Nolanders’ soup. And did I even need to mention that Nickodemus the panto mule runs away to the forest and meets something like eight or nine other panto animals? Including a lion (though not the Cowardly one) played by Hal Roach. Anyone watching this intent on gaining clues to Roach’s later talent as a director will discover that he knew how to mime washing his face like a cat, but that’s about all.

You’ll have to watch The Magic Cloak of Oz to see how all these disparate plot elements join up, and good luck to you, if you watch any of the versions available as of this writing.  What survives of the original film is in fairly good condition, save for a few bleached-out scenes, but the loss of an entire reel does affect the film’s coherency. The 1917 title cards don’t help either, many of them being too dark to read and several of them containing confusing errors.

If, by some chance, Queen Zixi of Ix was your favorite book as a child, you will probably concede that Baum did better by his original source here than he did with his Oz books. Very little information exists on the production, however. Noted French actor and acrobat Pierre Couderc is in the film somewhere, possibly in a panto costume, but which one? I’d guess that the Oz Film Manufacturing Company bought a rail car full of old costumes at a good price between making The Patchwork Girl of Oz and Magic Cloak, to judge from the abundance of panto beasts: an elephant, a bull, a tiger, a crow, a… kangaroo? A lamb? Possibly a chicken?

Other costumes are varied enough to invite a guessing game about their original use. Diaphanous gowns in abundance for the fairies, long wigs and peculiar striped waistcoats for the court of Noland (a production of Iolanthe?), what looks like a platoon of Roman soldiers passing through at one point (Ben Hur?), peasants in vaguely Dutch costume (Hans Brinker?), and a banquet at which a couple of Babylonians seem to have wandered in from a silent Biblical epic. Or maybe they’re cave men. The accepted convention of the day was that robbers all wore loudly patterned kerchiefs under feathered hats with the brims turned up (Fra Diavolo?), and the robbers in Magic Cloak wear theirs proudly.

Until recently we were unlikely to see a restoration of The Magic Cloak of Oz, unless the missing reel and the original title cards had survived in some private collector’s vault somewhere. Well, surprise! Something of the sort must have happened, because Warner Home Video has announced an immense 4-disc 70th-anniversary release of the 1939 Wizard of Oz which will contain, amongst its extras, what is being heralded as the complete original version of The Magic Cloak of Oz, complete with missing footage. In fact, all the silent Oz films will be included in the Warner release.

I have postponed buying the 1939 Wizard of Oz for years, suspecting—correctly—that no sooner would one pricey deluxe version with extras come out than another, even more pricey version with even more extras would be released. With the 70th- anniversary edition, though, I’m finally going to lay out my hard-earned bucks, if for no other reason than the chance to get better versions of the silent films. You may opt otherwise; the price is steep, especially if you already own a copy of the 1939 film. Your call.

Next week: His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz!

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