Saturday, December 15, 2018

Stubs - Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers) (1934) Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlotte Henry, Felix Knight, Henry Kleinbach, Florence Roberts, Virginia Karns. Directed by Gus Meins, Charles Rogers. Screenplay by Frank Butler, Nick Grinde (and uncredited: Stan Laurel). Based on the operetta Babes in Toyland, music by Victor Herbert, book and lyrics by Glen MacDonough (New York, 13 Oct 1903). Produced by Hal Roach. Run Time: 79 minutes. USA Sepia (Black and White) Christmas, Comedy, Musical

There are few comedic acts in film was well loved as Laurel and Hardy. Please see our review of The Music Box (1932) for more information about the duo. Two years after that Academy Award-winning short, the pair, still under contract to Hal Roach and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would make Babes in Toyland, only their eighth feature film appearance.

Unlike The Music Box, this film did not have its roots with a silent film the duo had made but owed its origins to a Victor Herbert operetta, Babes in Toyland. Herbert, an Irish-born German-raised American composer and musician was best known for writing operettas including The Serenade (1897) and The Fortune Teller (1898). Those he composed after the turn of the 20th century were more successful, including Babes in Toyland (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906), Naughty Marietta (1910), Sweethearts (1913) and Eileen (1917). He would later turn to writing musicals for Broadway.

The original production of Babes in Toyland opened at the Chicago Grand Opera house in June 1903 and toured the East Coast before opening in New York. The show ran at the Majestic Theatre for 192 performances from October 13, 1903, to March 19, 1904. It would have three revivals, one at the Majestic during January 1905; at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre from late December 1929 to January 1930 and one more at the Imperial Theatre from December 1930 to January 1931.

Hal Roach wrote his adaptation in late 1933, but the final script is credited to Frank Butler and Nick Grinde, though Laurel is known to have contributed as well. The idea all along was to star Laurel and Hardy in the film, though some of the supporting cast would change. Testing began in January for actors and shooting “stop-motion and miniature materials”, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Originally, Roach had Ramon Novarro in mind for the male romantic lead, Tom-Tom Piper. Donald Novis and Earl Oxford were considered before Felix Knight as selected.  For the female romantic lead, Patricia Ellis was the first choice. Then Doris Paxton was tested and then Anita Louise for “Little Miss Muffet” before the role was turned into Bo-Peep and given to Charlotte Henry, best known on this blog for Alice in Wonderland (1933).

Charles Rogers, who would become a co-director on the film, was originally tested for the role of Gumio, the toymaker’s apprentice, but that role was cut from the film before production began. Rogers, who had worked with Laurel and Hardy

Production got underway in early August 1934 with a budget of $500,000 but Laurel suffered a serious leg injury and production was halted on August 16th. That delay led to a change in the cast. Margaret Seddon, who had been hired for the role of the Widow Bo-Peep, was no longer available and the role went to Florence Roberts. When production picked up it continued until late October.

The village of Toyland is inhabited by a roster of nursery rhyme characters: Mother Goose (Virginia Karns); The Cat and the Fiddle (Pete Gordon); Little Miss Muffet (Alice Dahl); Little Jack Horner (Sumner Getchell); Simple Simon (Charley Rogers); Mary Quite Contrary (Marie Wilson); Little Boy Blue (Johnny Downs); the Three Little Pigs, Elmer (Angelo Rossito), Willie (Zebedy Colt) and Jiggs (Payne B. Johnson); and Mickey Mouse (a monkey in a costume).  Toyland is ruled by Old King Cole (Kewpie Morgan) and the Queen of Hearts (Alice Moore). The only industry in town seems to be the Toymaker (William Burress) who appears to be a subcontractor for Santa Claus.

Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) and Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel).

There are other residents, the Bo-Peeps, who live in a shoe, yes, the Mother Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) is also the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. While she has several children, her eldest is Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry). In addition to her children, the Widow Peep has two boarders, Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy).

Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry)
The biggest problem for the Beeps isn’t that Bo loses her small flock of sheep on a regular basis, but that Mother Peep has a mortgage with evil old Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon) that she can’t afford to pay. Silas offers her a deal, the hand of Bo for the mortgage. But the widow refuses much to her daughter’s relief. Ollie intercedes and tells the widow that he’ll help her out. Not only will he contribute all of his money, but he’s going to get the rest from their boss, the Toymaker.

Stannie and Ollie work for the Toymaker  (William Burress) who appears to be a subcontractor for Santa Claus.

But they arrive late to work and lose their jobs when it is discovered that they made a big mistake on the order from Santa. Instead of 600 one-foot tall wooden soldiers, Stannie took it down as 100 six-foot tall soldiers. They are fired on the spot and only make things worse when the wooden soldier they’re controlling wreaks havoc in the shop, even knocking Santa back on his butt.

Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight) proposes to Bo-Beep.

Meanwhile, Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight), singing one of the six songs in the film, "Never Mind Bo-Peep" helps her as well as make his feeling known. He announces to the villagers who have gathered that they are going to be wed.

When Stannie and Ollie return home just as Silas is there to collect his payment. The Widow Peep, however, is smug about it until she finds out that they don’t have the money. Silas tells the widow that he will start the process of getting her evicted.

But the boys are not through trying to help. That night, Stannie delivers a large box that is supposed to be a Christmas present for Silas. The plan is for Ollie to get out of the box and search the house for the Peep mortgage. It is late at night, but Stannie explains to Silas that it is their way of apologizing. Even though it is only July, Silas accepts the present. But the boys blow the cover when Stannie, as he is leaving, says goodnight to Ollie and he responds.

Toyland is ruled by Old King Cole (Kewpie Morgan).

The next day, Old King Cole proclaims that the would-be thieves are to be dunked in the pond and then banished to Bogeyland. (Justice in Toyland makes no sense as there are no trials just punishment, which is never anything short of total banishment.) Ollie is the first one to be punished, but the pulley breaks under his weight. Bo-Peep puts an end to things when she agrees to marry Silas, who then asks the King to call off the punishment.

Stannie and Ollie are punished as thieves. 
Later, Bo-Peep and her mother are waiting with dread for the wedding ceremony to begin. Ollie has been selected to give Bo-Peep away, even though he doesn’t want to. Mother Peep goes to plead with Silas but to no avail. Ollie arrives with the bride, who is covered up with a heavy veil. The wedding goes on, but before Silas can kiss his bride, Ollie demands the deed. Only after Ollie rips it up, Barnaby lifts the veil to find that he’s married Stannie rather than Bo.

Silas vows revenge and later that night tries to kidnap one of the Three Little Pigs. He is rebuffed by Willie and Jiggs but does manage to grab Elmer and stuff him in a bag. He takes him back to his house and has evidence planted in Tom-Tom’s that point to his guilt, including linked hot dogs as if to suggest he has also eaten him.

Old King Cole, based on this, sentences Tom-Tom to banishment in Bogeyland and has two of the king’s guards deposit him there. Ollie and Stannie start to eat the hot dogs and discover they are not made of pork, but beef. Stannie then discovers Elmer in Silas’ cellar and takes him to the King, who reverses his order and offers a reward for Silas’ capture.

Stannie and Ollie got to Bogeyland to save Tom-Tom and Bo-Peep.

While Ollie and Stannie take chase, Bo-Peep rushes to Bogeyland to retrieve Tom-Tom. Silas jumps down a well and while Ollie and Stannie think they have him trapped, he escapes through a secret passage to Bogeyland. There he finds Tom-Tom and Bo-Peep and calls the Bogeymen to capture them.

Ollie and Stannie finally follow after Silas from the bottom of the well and find the path to Bogeyland. While they manage to rescue Bo-Peep and Tom-Tom, they don’t escape Silas’ wrath. He leads the bogeyman to attack Toyland.

Mickey Mouse (a monkey) gets into a blimp.

Back in Toyland, Stannie and Ollie are treated as returning heroes and Ollie is bragging to the King about ridding the village of Silas and the bogeyman just as the attack starts. The village is overrun before Mickey takes to the air in a toy blimp and drops miniature torpedoes on the bogeyman.

Stannie and Ollie fight back with darts before unleashing the 100 toy soldiers stored in a warehouse. The wooden soldiers are relentless in their pursuit of the bogeymen and manage to drive them out of Toyland. Silas is trapped under an avalanche of spelling blocks that spell out RAT.

100 Wooden Soldiers pursue the bogeymen who have invaded Toyland.

Stannie attempts to shoot a parting volley of darts at the fleeing monsters, but the cannon tips over and covers Ollie's backside with darts.

The film was released on November 28, 1934. Despite good reviews, Hal Roach would later admit the film lost money on its first release. It was re-released several times over the years, with the title changed to Laurel and Hardy in Toyland, Revenge Is Sweet (for a 1948 European reissue title), and March of the Wooden Soldiers.

On TV, the film, now called March of the Wooden Soldiers, would become a perennial during the 1960s and 70s between Thanksgiving and Christmas and still does appear on TV to this day.

In a rather twisted history, this is one of the few films released by MGM that now resides (at least partially) in the MGM library. Hal Roach sold the film to Federal Films, which in turn leased the rights to Lippert Pictures. In the early 1960s, Prime TV took over the distribution of the film, eventually passing it on to WPIX which became part of Tribune Broadcasting. In the 1980s Tribune leased the film to The Samuel Goldwyn Company, the legacy company of that famed film producer.

In 1991, the film was restored and colorized by The Samuel Goldwyn Company for TV and home video release. Non-Goldwyn produced films became part of Orion Pictures, which MGM purchased as part of the assets of the bankrupt company.

It should not come as a surprise that there was a remake of the film. In 1961, Walt Disney Productions made their own version for TV, starring Ray Bolger, Tommy Sands, and Annette Funicello.

While Laurel and Hardy may be the stars of this film, this doesn’t really feel like a Laurel and Hardy movie. In fact, it feels like a real mess. Laurel and Hardy are good and funny as they usually are. I’m impressed that their blend of dialogue and physical slapstick humor are still funny to this day but the rest of the film seems like a premise with songs looking for a story.

The whole idea of a Toyland populated with nursery rhyme characters from Mother Goose seems a bit like a mixed metaphor, which I’m sure isn’t the right term, but it feels like a jumble of ideas. While that mixing originates with the original operetta, the film goes a step further and maybe a step too far emptying out Mother Goose to populate the village. If this were Storybook Land, that would make more sense, but there is also a mixing in of Santa that sort of confuses the concept further.

And then there are the songs, which are sung in that opera-style that you see in the films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. I find this sort of singing to be my equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard. Here the singing is done by the likes of Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry. Henry whom I found to be a disappointment in her starring role in Alice in Wonderland, is slightly better here, but not spectacular by any stretch. She is cute and has talent, but not the kind that appeals to me.

There is a melodramatic feel to the film, emphasized by the Snidley Whiplash-like villain, Silas Barnaby, played by Henry Brandon. A German-born actor, Brandon was only 22 and in his first credited role in Babes in Toyland. He would on to appear in over 100 films in a career that would last until 1989. Given the stereotypical limitations of the role, Brandon is fairly good and plays older than he really is. I would hope that with time and better roles, his acting would improve.

The rest of the cast seems to be caught in their own narrow range of acting choices. There is not much you can do with Tom-Tom or Old King Cole without risking audience expectations. I seriously hope and doubt that this is anyone’s best film role unless this is their only film.

Babes in Toyland has a surprisingly claustrophobic feel to it. You’re always aware that this is being shot on a soundstage, which ruins some of the potential fantasy quality of the film. The way the film is edited with a lot of medium shots only adds to that feeling. While contemporary reviews called it “packed with laughs and thrills” and “quite the merriest of its kind that Hollywood has turned loose on the nation's screens in a long time”, I must admit to being disappointed.

Not surprisingly, Babes in Toyland has not aged well for what is supposed to be a holiday perennial film. I’d like to say that it appealed to its original audience, but since it didn’t supposedly make money on its first release, perhaps it didn’t work that well back then either. I’m frankly surprised this film is as highly regarded as it is with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I wonder if those rating it have actually seen it or are just assuming that it is better than it really is.

If you’re a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, then you might want to check this out. They are funny and a joy to watch, but they are not enough to save this film from itself. 

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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