Saturday, July 21, 2012
SONS OF THE DESERT WEEK REVIEW REPLAY: BABES IN TOYLAND (aka MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS) (1934)
In honor of the 18th annual Sons of the Desert (the International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society) convention happening this week, I’m reprinting some of my Laurel & Hardy reviews. You can learn more about the organization by clicking here. And you can read this review of a Laurel & Hardy classic below:
RATING: *** & ¾ out of ****
PLOT: The peace and tranquility of the citizens of Toyland (where all the famous nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters live along with Santa Claus and all his helpers) is threatened by its one bad apple: sinister Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon), a creepy landlord who holds the mortgages on most of the homes in the land, including the shoe-shaped home belonging to the old woman (who lived in a shoe). He also rules the frightening “Bogeyland” and the monstrous “Bogeymen” that inhabit it, a place where criminals are banished as punishment for major crimes. Barnaby is sweet on the old woman’s daughter Little Bo Peep. When Mother Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) can’t meet the mortgage payment on the shoe, Barnaby offers to forget the whole matter if she’ll consent to offering Bo Peep’s hand in marriage to Barnaby. Neither Mother nor Bo Peep, who is in love with Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Felix Knight) are willing to submit to Barnaby’s demand and so he threatens to evict everyone out of the shoe. Enter two of the shoe’s tenants, Stannie Dumm (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy), who vow to get a loan from their boss the toymaker (William Burress) to prevent such a travesty. That doesn’t go over too well as the “boys” get in a heap of trouble with the toymaker after Santa does a spot check at the toy factory. St. Nick wants to see how things are coming along and learns that Stannie got his wooden soldiers order all mixed up – instead of 600 soldiers at one foot high, 100 soldiers each six feet high have been created! A series of triumphs and reversals follow for Stannie, Ollie, Bo Peep and Tom Tom and when it becomes apparent that Barnaby can no longer “trick” his way to achieving his evil desires, he enlists the aid of the ferocious half-men, half-monster Bogeymen to rout Toyland. Can our heroes find a way to defeat these abominable creatures, and what will become of Bo Peep, Tom Tom and the wooden soldiers?
REVIEW: Testament to the role this film has played in my life: I’ve seen it so many times I didn't even need to re-watch it to review it! Without question, this film, based on the Victor Herbert operetta is one of the most unique films ever made – as both a comedy film by major stars and as a holiday classic it stands pretty much alone. Only the all-star “Alice in Wonderland” which also stars Charlotte Henry in the title role (along with Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Jack Oakie, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles and others) comes close but ultimately it's no cigar – while that earlier film shares “Babe’s” weird and spooky oddness it lacks the charm and humor of the Laurel & Hardy opus which despite several terror-filled sequences is filled with hope and optimism. And “Alice” certainly doesn’t evoke any warm-fuzzy holiday feelings... it is most decidedly not a holiday classic.
Where can I even begin? This is one of those films that has to be seen – mere words cannot convey the wonders this film undolds. I suppose I’ll get the intentional and unintentional scares out of the way first:
Silas Barnaby, as performed with relish and flourish by Henry Brandon (real name: Kleinbach) is a dastardly villain of the highest order. He has a huge “creepy” and “spooky” factor, not unlike many of the fiends Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price essayed over their illustrious careers. It is a performance for the ages. Brandon treads that line between funny and purely evil that not many actors since have accomplished (Heath Ledger’s interpretation of Batman’s nemesis “The Joker” is the most recent example I can think of but there have been few and far between). Most amazing of all, Brandon did it at the tender age of 22. That is an amazing accomplishment not just because he’s playing a character much older but also because of all he was able to bring to the character – if you didn’t know Brandon’s real age you’d swear that he had already witnessed decades of villainy to inspire his portrayal. Brandon played many other notable roles through the years (including a part in the Martin & Lewis horror-comedy “Scared Stiff”) and even acted up until the year before his death in 1990 but when all is said and done it is not a stretch to claim that history will put Barnaby at the top of his most memorable roles. Brandon returned to the character three years later and that turn was just as memorable as the original. In the short “Our Gang Follies of 1938” (filmed and released in 1937) Brandon is the Opera House impresario who signs famed Little Rascal Alfalfa to a crooked contract whose deception is worthy of those the devil dealt in “The Devil & Tom Walker,” “The Devil & Daniel Webster,” “Damn Yankees,” “Bedazzled” and so many other tales. The unbreakable contract requires Alfalfa to sing “The Barber of Seville” at his opera house… forever! The character is never called “Barnaby” by name in the short, but in the script he is identified as such.
Barnaby has a manservant, naturally, and as the illogic in old movies usually goes, the villains always pick ineffective manservants like hunchbacks and mutes (sometimes they’re both at the same time). Here, the manservant is a diminutive dwarf played by John George. He is oddly creepy in his own right (which may be the context more than anything – the costumes in this film are creepy as is the lighting and Barnaby’s villainy and lair, and since George appears in those scenes, his character takes on those attributes as well… except when Barnaby laces into him, resulting in some audience sympathy toward the character). He is also somewhat reminiscent of Angelo Rossitto, another dwarf actor with a lengthy career who often appeared in the same manservant capacity, most notably alongside Bela Lugosi in various films including the East Side Kids horror-comedy, “Spooks Run Wild.” Rossitto also appears in "Babes," as one of the little pigs as well as one of the sandmen fairies during the lullaby scene (more on both below).
Barnaby’s minions, “The Bogeymen” are horrific monster-men designed to give children (and maybe a few adults) nightmares. Less frightening once you get past a certain age and spot the rubber faces and the pillow pads within their shaggy suits, they are also fairly unique considering the year the movie came out. The most natural comparisons would be movie werewolves and ape men but most of those types of films (such as “Werewolf of London” and “The Wolf Man” and “The Ape Man”) came out after “Babes.” Prior to “Babes,” the most notable example was “The Island of Lost Souls” a year earlier and perhaps some of Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent monster films. Like Barnaby, the Bogeymen (or at least A BogeyMAN) would return in an “Our Gang” short. Well, at least the costume and mask (without an actor inside) would, as Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Porky are scared witless by a Bogeyman that flings out of a hidden panel during an unplanned (and unrealized by the kids) journey through a spooky carnival funhouse in the last Hal Roach-produced “Our Gang” short , “Hide & Shriek” (1938). Not to be outdone, Barnaby is also evoked in an early scene that has "detektive" Alfalfa showing off his expertise at disguises - answering the door dressed as Barnaby complete with hat, cape and cane!
Barnaby and the Bogey Men are the obviously scary elements, but the whole production has an (appropriately) surreal and otherworldly sensibility that sometimes borders on the eerie, with even some of the favorite children’s characters rendered in slightly “off” costumes and masks that are downright spooky at times. These include the Three Little Pigs, played by dwarves (including the aforementioned cult film favorite Angelo Rossitto) and children (including Payne B. Johnson who is still with us as of this writing – I had the pleasure of meeting him at the 2006 Sons of the Desert convention in Atlanta, GA) in garish costumes. The masks make the faces of the pigs seem a little scary – they look old and wrinkled and not capable of showing much emotion (especially since you can’t really see their eyes), which heightens the bizarre feeling (a pig jumping up and down and clapping its hands in victory with an emotionless face is an odd thing indeed. There is also man in a cat suit (Pete Gordon, who played the Chinese cook in Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedy classic “The Live Ghost”) with a fiddle, naturally, who comes off slightly scary – mostly unintentionally although there is one cheat scare when Ollie is explaining to Stan about the Bogeyman’s horrible claws… just as the “cat” puts its paw on Stan’s shoulder!
One scene that was edited out of many television prints through the years had Tom Tom, having been banished to Bogeyland after being falsely accused of pignapping (Barnaby framed him of of course) comforting Bo Peep, who had traveled into Bogeyland after her true love. Tom Tom sings Bo Peep to sleep with a lullaby while fairies (played by dwarves again… perhaps the producers of the still-a-few-years-away “Wizard of Oz” took notice of these diminutive thesps with big talents) dance overhead in spectral, see-through form. The ghostly figures make the scene more eerie than magical for me.
Oddest of all however has to be... Mickey Mouse. You heard that right, Mickey Mouse. PLAYED BY A MONKEY! I always personally loved the monkey-in-a-mouse suit character, but I know others who were totally frightened by it. It is weird to say the least (I still wonder how the heck the monkey was able to breathe in that costume). The character is a mix of the plucky and resourceful Mickey from the 1930s black & white cartoons combined with the offbeat, bouncy movements of a typical monkey (the character gets a major moment of its own during the climactic battle with the Bogeymen, piloting a toy zeppelin and dropping explosives onto the monsters from overhead). The Hal Roach Studios (producers of the film) had a long-standing relationship with the Disney studio and their “stars” occasionally crossed over (Laurel & Hardy are prominent in the classic “Mickey’s Polo Team” and in the same year as “Babes” Mickey and Stan & Ollie co-starred again in the all-star MGM feature, “Hollywood Party”). This friendly co-existence between Disney and Roach also extended to Disney granting Roach the rights to use the smash hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in “Babes” (the award-winning animated “Three Little Pigs” Disney short having debuted the year before).
I have always found this film absolutely delightful. As a child I don’t remember being scared by the spookier elements; it’s only as I grew older that I realized how frightening some elements in this film are. But I am still delighted by it, for two reasons. First, Laurel & Hardy are simply sublime as usual in this film. Their comedy is warm, funny and at times magically surreal and the screen characters audiences had become used to remain intact in the middle of this high fantasy. Perhaps since I had seen so many other features and shorts by the duo as a child I knew that they “always came back” for another adventure, so I was certain that they would help defeat the marauding monsters (despite fearful moments of real terror and concern – such as when the Bogeymen snatch Toyland’s children from their beds). I also grew up in a time where Hollywood saw the value in the darker side of the fairy tale. Overcoming fears and learning important lessons through scary allegories were hallmarks of children’s stories. Disney knew this well – during Hollywood’s golden age his “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves” and “Pinocchio” didn’t pull any punches in the “scares” department. This approach lasted at least through the early 1970s with Gene Wilder’s masterful portrayal of the alternately whimsical/frightening title character of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Somewhere along the line, the “gatekeepers” decided that scares had to be skirted in children’s fantasies, leaving whole generations with much more homogenized stories lacking true heart and humanity.
“Babes in Toyland” has a slippery history. Hal Roach originally bought the rights to do a film version of the Herbert operetta "Babes" then realized it had very little plot, at least not one that would easily accommodate a feature film (it was fine for the stage where it worked perfectly as a lovely revue of childhood memories of the toy chest set to song). So Roach conceived a story with Stan and Ollie as “Simple Simon and the Pie Man.” The villain was a spider who turned into a man and put “hate” into the wooden soldiers so they could ravage the town and eliminate “love and happiness.” It sounds a lot like the Beatles’ classic animated feature “Yellow Submarine” which would be released 32 years later… but as envisioned by Roach, the studio would have been hard-pressed to convey the abstract elements of his idea and there hardly seems room for typical Stan and Ollie antics within. Thankfully Laurel, the creative architect of most of the team’s films (he wrote gags and stories and often directed many scenes – mostly uncredited) won out over Roach and collaborated with his own writers and gagmen to deliver the film we know and love today. As odd as it may sound, to me Laurel’s version anticipates Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (condensed from a combined ten plus hours to “Babe’s” compact 78 minutes) with the unlikely heroes (Stan & Ollie/Frodo & Samwise) routing the mephistophelean villain (Barnaby/Saruman) and his minions (The Bogeymen/The Orcs). But maybe that’s just me...
The other side of this film’s checkered past has to do with its release history. (it’s so confusing in fact that I’m not even fully certain if the following is entirely accurate). The film was sold off by Roach to an independent distributor named Robert Lippert. It was reissued to theaters several times over the years under various names such as “March of the Toys,” “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (its most commonly known moniker) and the non-sequitur non de plum, “Revenge is Sweet.” It made the rounds of schools where it was shown to students on 16mm projectors. Ultimately it wound up on TV, where it became a staple broadcast around the holidays (run on or near Thanksgiving or Christmas and sometimes both). When the growing popularity of VCR’s made videotapes as attractive to buy as they were to rent, several companies released the film under the mistaken notion that the film was in the public domain. The truth was that the Tribune Broadcasting Company (owners of WGN in Chicago and WPIX in New York City) had an ownership stake. At some point they lost the rights and the Samuel Goldwyn Company snatched them up, colorizing the film for home video release and then a national syndication deal (which Tribune signed on for). This colorized version is broadcast on TV to this day. Meanwhile, the DVD age ushered in more home video releases by companies assuming the film was in the public domain (these included a newly colorized version from Legend Films that was an improvement over the original color job but still looks like kids using their Crayolas over old film frames to this reviewer). When MGM bought out Goldwyn’s assets, they ended up owning a film they had released and distributed in the first place. A couple years back they gave the world a wonderful Christmas present in the form of a DVD of the film in its pristine, original black & white form… complete with all scenes intact and the original “Babes in Toyland” title cards!
The film as it stands is an amazing, unique achievement. The comedy of Stan & Ollie is in high gear and one can’t help but laugh and smile from ear to ear when they are onscreen. The horrific aspects are appropriate for a classic approach to fairy tales, the benevolent Toyland characters are warmly drawn and the rescue of Toyland by Stan, Ollie and the Wooden Soldiers is rousing indeed. While some of the songs sung by the romantic leads have a tendency to slow the film down in spots (the one thing that keeps me from giving it a full four star review), they don’t overpower it. The overall plot, while taking a few meandering detours still has a beginning, middle and end and adheres to the old adage from Chekhov wherein he states that if a gun is shown in the first act, it better go off in the third. The gun here is the wooden soldiers, and the resonance is the fact that the hero’s seeming mistake (Stan’s botching of the wooden soldiers order) is the very thing that ends up saving the day. Kind of like Frodo taking that ring...
BEST DIALOGUE AND GAGS (normally I separate these categories but in this film, as in most Laurel & Hardy sound films the verbal and visual gags are often intertwined)
Stan explains to Ollie that he borrowed money from their piggy bank to replace a “pee wee” – a little wooden peg that when hit with a stick returns like a boomerang. Unless you are Ollie, who pompously insists that anything Stan can do he can do… but he can’t! To add insult to injury, Ollie also learns he can’t do Stan’s finger tricks either.
Ollie and Stan have chased Barnaby down a well. “You better come up, dead or alive,” says Stan, alluding to the King’s edict that Barnaby is a wanted fugitive (when the King announces the award for bringing back Barnaby "Dead or Alive," Stan asks "Can't you make up your mind how you want him?"). “Now how can he come up dead when he’s alive,” protests Ollie. “Let’s drop a rock on him,” counters Stan. “Then he’ll come up dead when he’s alive!”
Stan and Ollie have a plan: Stan will show up at Barnaby’s door with a big box – a Christmas present! Inside is Ollie, who plans to sneak out once inside to find and destroy the shoe’s mortgage. Barnaby asks, “Christmas present… in the middle of July?” “We always like to do our Christmas shopping early,” retorts Stan. Their plan backfires when Stan says goodnight to Ollie and Ollie pops his head out of the crate, leading to them being put on trial.
When Ollie gets "dunked" in the lake as punishment for the attempted robbery of the mortgage, he hands Stan his watch for safe keeping. Distressed by the dunking Bo Peep consents to become Barnaby's wife... which means that the charges are withdrawn and Stan doesn't have to get dunked! Ollie doesn't like this and pushes Stan into the lake... and a soaked Stan emerges pulling Ollie's waterlogged watch out of his pocket!
When Bo Peep gives in to Barnaby’s marriage proposal, Ollie explains that Stan is so upset he’s not even going to the wedding. “Upset,” exclaims Stan. “I’m housebroken!” When Mother Peep determines to speak to Barnaby to try to change his mind, Stan says "Her talking to him is just a matter of pouring one ear into another and coming out the other side... can't be done!"
The boys realize that they can pass Stan off as Bo Peep as long as he keeps his face covered by the veil. Their ruse is a success, but Stan is surprised when he can’t leave with Ollie. Ollie explains that now that Stan’s married, he has to stay with Barnaby. “But I don’t love him,” Stan wails!
During Tom Tom’s trial for pignapping, Stan and Ollie sit on the sidelines. The evidence (a plate of sausage links) is placed near where they sit. Stan asks Ollie what it is and Ollie explains that the sausage used to be Elmer the pig (allegedly at least). Stan takes a bite and says it doesn’t take like pig – it tastes like pork to him! This inspires Ollie to take a bite and brings Tom Tom’s innocence to the forefront as Ollie exclaims, “why that’s neither pig nor pork… it’s beef!”
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: My favorite Our Gang/Little Rascals kid, Scotty Beckett has a small part. He made several movies apart from the Gang shorts, but his only other recurring part was as Winky in the “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” TV series. He worked until 1957 then tragically died eleven years later due to a drug overdose.
Ellen Corby will forever be known as the grandmother on “The Waltons” but her roles are numerous. They include bit parts in two Laurel & Hardy classics (“Sons of the Desert” and “Babes in Toyland,” aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”), playing a maid in Abbott & Costello’s “The Noose Hangs High” appearing in Jerry Lewis’ “Visit to a Small Planet” and three major horror-comedy roles: playing one of the Gravesend clan in “The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters,” Mother Lurch in the classic “Addams Family” TV series, and Luther Hegg’s childhood schoolteacher in “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken.” In addition to her acting roles, apparently Corby was also a script supervisor at the Roach Studios on numerous Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly, etc., shorts and was also married at the time to Hal Roach cinematographer Francis Corby.
Ironically, Billy Bletcher started out in silent movies, but his career would be made via his deep baritone voice. He appeared in many vintage comedy shorts alongside Laurel & Hardy, the Little Rascals (including “Hide & Shriek”), W.C. Fields and others; classic animated shorts from Disney and Warner Brothers, did a couple voices in “The Wizard of Oz,” and appeared in Red Skelton’s horror-comedy “Whistling in the Dark.” His voice was often utilized to portray villains (he was the voice of The Big Bad Wolf) as well as ghosts and other spooky characters (he lent his talents to the classic Mickey/Donald/Goofy horror-cartoon, “Lonesome Ghosts”).
FURTHER READING: There are many great books on Laurel & Hardy out there but I will single out three that particularly highlight “Babes.” The coffee table book "Laurel & Hardy" by John McCabe and Richard W. Bann has some great production and promotional stills from “Babes.” Randy Skretvedt’s essential, impeccably researched “Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies” goes into deep detail about the behind-the-scenes trials and triumphs of this film, from Roach’s ill-conceived plot to young Henry Brandon getting into bar brawls when off-camera. Scott MacGillivray’s equally essential “Laurel & Hardy: from the Forties Forward” presents the story of the film’s second (and third and fourth and fifth, etc.) life as theatrical reissue, television staple and home video release. Last but not least, there are a lot of reviews of the film out on the internet but instead of those I’ll share these links - one is from Mark Evanier's site with his thoughts as well as those of Randy Skretvedt and Jim Hanley (primarily having to do with Roach's original story, the colorized versions and scenes that may have been deleted) which you can read when you click here; the other is a link to a Village Voice article that is more of a remembrance of the impact this film had on so many kids growing up with it on TV in the New York area – click here to read it.
Laurel & Hardy Compiled by Al Kilgore, Filmography by Richard W Bann
BUY THE FILM: There are lots of versions out there – some unauthorized, some colorized, some butcherized (as in edited). But I really can only endorse the official MGM DVD release in glorious black & white:
WATCH THE FILM: As of this writing, Hulu has posted the entire film on their site by special arrangement with MGM. You can enjoy the Hulu presentation right here on the Scared Silly site when you click here.
In the meantime, enjoy the original trailer for “Babes in Toyland” (note that it uses Henry Brandon’s real name and also exaggerates the running time, claiming the film contains 12 minutes more than it actually does)... and have a Happy Thanksgiving!