Yesterday our friends at Oh Have You Seen This (we're using "friends" here in the Facebook sense) posted a video we couldn't get out of our heads. It's a clip from a movie called "The Secret Of Magic Island," and it seems to star nothing but domesticated animals. The featured cast -- a dog and a handful of geese, ducks and chickens -- aren't simply performing in stylized animalish ways, like your Beethovens or Shaggy Dogs. No -- they're enacting a complex, very human scene: a visit to the fancy photographer's.
Two questions surfaced in the office: how did the filmmakers get the animals to do this? And also, what in the hell is this? We decided to Google for answers.
In the movies, the Internet is a reliable, accurate resource on any matter of subjects, real or invented. Bella Swan was able to brush up on vampires, werewolves, and even the exceptional circumstance of carrying a half-vampire, half-human baby, simply by typing the critical words into the nav bar. Similarly, Christine Brown, the loan officer in "Drag Me To Hell," finds out about the gypsy curse that's begun to plague her, after a straightforward Google search. The Internet is apparently built specially to provide fact-checked information on legendary beasts. But in the matter of 60-year-old French movies starring farm animals, as it turns out, things aren't so easy.
A number of Google searches turned up only a meager IMDB page (director: Jean Tourane, a prolific French filmer of small animals), and an equally tantalizing new clip, this time the full version of an English-language trailer. "The most exciting, wondrously wonderful children's motion picture ever made!" goes the announcer for the trailer, who then promises "a storybook land of enchantment" with "the strangest cast of characters in history: live animals who act and think just like people!" After this comes a visual of our old friend, Photographer Dog, trotting past the screen, followed by an impressively cohesive choral performance by a group of songbirds seated on bleachers like a children's choir.
The desperation was mounting.
Finally, a link buried pages deep offered something like a lead. In a 2008 post by Texas-based movie blogger Devin Faraci, detailing how badly he wants to see "Magic Island," Faraci mentions Zack Carlson, an employee at the niche Austin-based theater chain, the Alamo Drafthouse. Faraci believed Carlson owned a French-language version of the movie. Carlson, I presumed, might know more than Google.
I called the main Drafthouse location in Austin and worked through a series of bemused phone-takers who gave me the goods. I emailed Carlson, and an hour later, the phone rang. "Hello?" Carlson said, like anyone would. Only, his voice was elated and hushed, like he was a spy about to unburden crucial information.
Carlson then told me everything he could think of about "The Secret Of Magic Island," which he's been obsessed with since 1999.
It seems the movie was released in the U.S. in 1964, seven years after its European debut. Carlson believes the man who brought it to the States was a producer named K. Gordon Murray, a colorful character known for dubbing foreign fairy tale movies, usually from Mexico, and selling them to American theaters as kid's matinees. Carlson referred to Murray as a "flim-flammer" who ran a "kiddie circuit." Oddities even in their time, Murray's dubs are now required watching among movie nerds. It was while watching a VHS copy of one of Murray's best-known dubs, a Mexican version of "Little Red Riding Hood," that Carlson saw his first copy of a trailer for "The Secret of Magic Island." It was one-sided love at first sight.
According to Carlson, the movie he'd fallen for is part of a select group referred to by serious collectors as the "holy grail." Not only is it potentially impossible to find in English, it's damn strange. Certainly we make animals do odd things in the name of movies these days, but a large part of "Magic Island"s press was built on the fantasy that the animals actually wanted to do those things. "It's a wondrous story of these 'little folks' who really think they are people!" the poster proclaims. In the long story of anthropomorphizing, it's a wonderfully clumsy plot point.
In the years since, Carlson has searched for a copy of the English-language version of the movie with no luck. No one he knows has knowledge of an extant copy, or has seen it played. Carlson's Dutch-language version, which he bought off a bootlegging site, is a "pretty good transfer." "But I still don't know what the animals are supposed to be saying," he said. "It's frustrating." He bought an English-language press book and a poster for the movie online. The press book he found on Ebay, where he says it had been languishing without bids from anyone until he came along.
Over the course of his hunt, he enlisted the aid of the Alamo Drafthouse, where he still works. The theater tracked down three 35 millimeter trailers -- copies of the one I'd watched online. "I play the trailer every chance I get at the Drafthouse," Carlson told me. "I host a film series, so anything we play that has anything that could even tangentially relate to that trailer, I'll play it."
The trailer Carlson has, which is also the one I'd seen, is obviously less rare than the full English version of the film. But the world does have one fewer. Carlson told me he played one of his three copies so often it finally fell apart.