Wednesday 29 March 2023

The Secret of Magic Island (1956)

Director: Jean Tourane
Writers: Louise de Vilmorin, Jean Tourane and Richard Lavigne
Star: Robert Lamoureux

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Sometimes tracking down the weirdest movies of all time takes some effort, which is why I’m watching this 1956 French-Italian co-production in a VHS rip that’s been dubbed into Swedish and fan subbed into English. I have to applaud the dedication needed for the former, even though there’s no dialogue and it’s always easier to dub a narration than the words of a dozen characters. I thank Dr. Death at Cinemageddon for the latter, even though my streaming device wouldn’t pick them up on my TV so I had to read them on my laptop while the film was playing. Such are the lengths to which I must go to in order to report on this cinematic insanity for your edification and pleasure! And talking of insanity, there’s plenty of it because this picture is entirely acted by animals. And no, I don’t mean animals playing animals interacting with humans; you’re not going to see Lassie in a book like this. All these characters could have been played by regular human actors, just as we might expect. But they aren’t. They’re played by animals. Because.

And we get to see a whole heck of a lot of them during the first half of the movie, because nothing happens beyond regular sort of folk going about their business in a regular sort of town, merely one sized to appropriate levels for the cast. It’s a damn good model and it’s easily the best thing about the movie. So we follow the postman as he delivers the mail, just as a human might do it, except that Gustaf is a duck. His cantankerous wife is a duck too, which is probably a good thing. The barber is a fox named, I kid you not, Foxy. The tavern has a dog for a bartender, who pours wine better than some human bartenders I know. It’s not merely the model town that’s immediately impressive; it’s the props as well because this is a well equipped model. There’s a pool table in the bar. The fireplace has a fire in it. The goose drives around town in an actual moving vehicle. And, amazing as it might seem, we fall into this logic because it’s never commented on. Within the framework of this story, it isn’t worthy of mention.

The English title is pretty meaningless, because there is no island, magic or otherwise, and thus it has no secret. The original French title makes a little more sense, because Une fée... pas comme les autres can be translated as A Fairy Tale... But Not Like the Others. I should add that most of the fairy tales I grew up reading featured animals for characters too, so it’s entirely like the others, merely in a live action movie instead of text. However, this sort of thing wasn’t unprecedented. Silent era legend Hal Roach produced a series called Dippy Doo Dads, which were thirteen short comedies from 1923 to 1924, featured animals dressed up as people and doing everything that we do. The leads were usually trained monkeys, playing cops or firemen or shoeshine boys, driving miniature vehicles through puddles to splash the ducks, that sort of thing. In Lovey Dovey, a monkey rides a goat to pursue another monkey, who tries to escape with the titular heroine on a hot air balloon. But those were one reel shorts; this is an hour long feature and it feels ambitious.

It also occasionally feels icky, just as the Dippy Doo Dads films occasionally feel icky, because Hal Roach was operating long before an organisation like American Humane came along to supervise animal action in movies; their work began in Hollywood in 1939 after 20th Century Fox forced a horse to run off a seventy foot cliff in Jesse James. Of course, Jean Tourane was operating in France, where American Humane have no jurisdiction. I would hope that there’s some sort of equivalent nowadays, but my google fu let me down when I tried to find out what it is. If there is an equivalent, it clearly wasn’t in place in the fifties and sixties to supervise Tourane. I should point out that he specialised in this sort of thing, starting with short films featuring a duck called Saturnin, then moving into feature length with this film, over to television for The Adventures of Saturnin and back again for the 1969 feature Saturnin and Vaca-Vaca. By the way, that show was re-edited in the nineties into an American secret agent show, The Adventures of Dynamo Duck.

And so we work through this film, our spirits rising at the marvellous model work and dropping again in scenes where we wonder how Tourane got all these animals to do all the things they do here. In other words, half the time we’re wanting to see the Behind the Scenes footage and the other half the time we’re absolutely not wanting to do that. Possibly the best example of the former is a train, which really runs along a long track by a lake, whose moving parts seem to be borrowed from musical instruments and which is driven by a cat in goggles. It’s stable enough that the fox can read to the lamb and the rabbits can play chess. Sure, Per, a duckling poet easily distracted by nature, is only able to catch it when the cat stops because August the snail scout is on the rail, but we can’t help but wonder how many of these passengers have been glued into their seats or secured there by hidden wires. How does a dog lift spectacles to his face? Is that Tourane’s hidden hand lifting them or are they secured to his paw? Inquiring minds want to know.

It’s once Per is safely on the train that the actual plot decides to show up. We’ve been distracted thus far by all the cutesy animals, a majority of which seem to be babies—kittens rather than cats, ducklings rather than ducks, chicks rather than birds—and we’ll keep on being distracted for a while yet. There’s an inventor called Franz, who has conjured up an alarm clock using water: it dumps the bucket on an unsuspecting puppy to wake him up. There’s a carpenter called Lindqvist, who’s constructing an ironing board to give to a seamstress called Lucidor, who he loves with all his heart, even though she’s a cat. There’s a music class of birds who are surely not wired to their perches but can’t seem to move their legs. On an even more dangerous note, Foxy the barber actually shampoos the head of a chicken, which looks acutely painful. How many chickens did they get through shooting that scene? And it didn’t stop there. One sits under a dryer, which sure looks like it’s putting out heat and leaving the head of the chicken charred.

And, amidst all this, we keep getting hints that a carnival is coming to town, prompting Mr. Julius, the rabbit in charge of news, to put posters up all over town. That’s where we’re going, even if we’re focused on rabbits playing billiards. The carnival shows up in force and it looks amazing, if we discount the rabbit smoking a cigarette and the frogs riding mopeds around a wall of death, but it’s all being orchestrated by the supervillain of the story, Black Troll, who’s been watching the town all along with the aid of massive remote viewing equipment of the sort we tend to see in James Bond movies and is now masquerading as a baker in a magic caravan. As we learned at the beginning of the film, he’s upset because a forgetful fairy rejected his proposal of marriage, and his grand plot for revenge involves destroying the town. Oh, and just in case we aren’t invested in that angle, because it shows up so late and has so little substance, Black Troll also hates love. The bastard. He’s got his eye on Per the duckling poet and his object of lust, Barbara.

Black Troll’s quest for vengeance takes up much of the second half of the film and it’s given all the accoutrements it needs, from an abundance of fireworks at the carnival onwards. After the dastardly monkey turns Barbara to stone, Per and Maestro Ericson, local music professor cat, take off in a balloon to save her—there’s a whole quest here, outlined by an owl astronomer—but it’s promptly destroyed by a rocket, one of Black Troll’s “super demonic thingamajigs”, leaving them to parachute to safety. There’s a castle and an owl monster with a vehicle that’s half mole and half fish. There’s a forest, though it’s soon blown up by Black Troll with about as many explosions as the average Michael Bay movie. There’s the realm of a spider, who has a lamb confined behind a huge web that innocent Per must free as part of his quest. There’s even a ridiculous slapstick resolution that hearkens back to the karmic endings of Doc Savage novels. The good guys aren’t supposed to kill people, so the bad guys have to do it to themselves.

In short, there’s a lot here and I can’t say that it isn’t entertaining. It’s certainly a wild curiosity. You may not remotely care what happens next from the standpoint of plot progression but you will absolutely care about what happens next from the standpoint of wanting to see what Jean Tourane’s going to conjure up next and what fantastic miniature sets he’s going to build for it to happen in. The scale really helps when it comes to explosions too, because they’re huge but not inappropriately so and the escape through the forest reminds of the grandeur of Apocalypse Now. I remember talking with professional effects guys who talked up how easy so many things are but how hard it is to do small fire and small water. I have no idea what budget Tourane had but he put it to strong use here. However you’re imagining this looks, based on my descriptions here, it looks better, aided by the Eastmancolor that feels rich and often makes scenes with minimal colour look like they’re taken from a tinted silent film.

My better half doesn’t ever want to watch this again. While animal cruelty isn’t obviously visible on the screen, it must seem clear to anyone watching that it had to happen. This is 1956. Nothing is CGI. Everything is done with physical effects work, which means that Tourane had to figure out a way for rabbits to play billiards and frogs to ride motorbikes and birds to sing in unison in a music room. Without obvious use of wires, I’m assuming this was done by gluing live animals to the objects they’re supposed to be using. It wouldn’t shock me if the generally calm behaviour from all these animals, even while there’s a fireworks show exploding above them, was due to some sort of sedative use. Like I said earlier, I really want to know how this was done but then I really don’t want to know anything. Of course, given that this was made fifteen years before I was born, I have to assume that all these unlikely stars are long dead. Tourane is too and has been for thirty-six years. He’s not getting anything out of me watching this VHS rip.

As to the wider question, that I’m asking so often during this book, of why someone thought it would be a bright idea to make such a movie, I guess it was a thing at the time. Hal Roach was doing it in the twenties. Jean Tourane was doing it in the fifties and sixties. It wouldn’t surprise me if a bunch of other people were doing it in other places at other times. Nowadays, we can make movies like Clifford the Big Red Dog using CGI. We don’t need to glue puppies to bedframes. American Humane monitors 70% of productions in the U.S., both in film and television, that involve animals, in part because the Screen Actors Guild require it if they’re involved. The American Humane website says that’s two thousand productions annually, with a hundred thousand animal actors protected every year. It’s fair to say that times have changed and for the better. Nobody uses tilt shutes and running Ws any more. Filmmakers are not even allowed to glue baby birds to branches. And I hope that’s the case in France as well.

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