Thursday, November 24, 2022

A THANKSGIVING TRADITION CONTINUES!!! BABES IN TOYLAND (aka MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS) (1934)

NOTE: This is a re-post of an entry I originally posted on Thanksgiving, 2010.

SPECIAL NOTES FOR 2022: WPIX Channel 11 in New York has a special treat in store for fans of this film: once again this year, they will be running the film in both the original black and white version (at 9AM EST) as well as the colorized version (at 3PM EST). In addition to the above news, I received an email from Robert Grippo a couple of years back that bears repeating:

"Just read your article on Babes In Toyland from last year! Good piece but just to update you WPIX here in NY actually owns the film as of course would Tribune. PIX got the film years ago when they took over the rights from PRIME TV films.

In the early '90s someone tried to get the film as a package for video release with Fox's Laurel and Hardy Films thinking Babes would be a selling point as Fox's titles were lesser quality films they went to PIX and they decided to also colorize the film. PIX wanted CBS Fox to pay for the colorization and they said no. That's when PIX went to Samuel Goldwyn and they did the deal. That's how it was colorized then released on VHS and later DVD. MGM bought Goldwyn's right to the Goldwyn library and that's how the VIDEO rights wound up at MGM, PIX and Tribune own the film and the rights!"

Robert has a terrific Facebook page of his own, celebrating the storied history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, called The Big Parade History Project - click to check it out! 

So now, without further ado...

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

RATING: *** & ¾ out of ****

AUTHOR’S NOTE #1: I’m running a review of this film today because the film is a Thanksgiving tradition in the New York Tri-State area where I grew up and still live. WPIX Channel 11 has run this film almost every year on Thanksgiving for the past 40 or so years (and is doing so again today) and I can not underestimate the impact this film had on me, truly an annual "event" I looked forward to year after year as a child.

AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: As of this writing I’m still debating whether to include this film among the main Laurel & Hardy horror-comedy entries or whether to place it in the “horror-onable mention” section. The film is not a horror-comedy per se – in fact, it is a children’s fantasy that makes ample use of classic fairy tale characters. Furthermore, a major motif in the film is Santa and his toymakers readying Christmas gifts for the children in the off-season. But its horrific moments and characters are quite palpable and place it in a unique category all its own. More on that in the review...

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.

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

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.

photo MickeyMouse2.jpg

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! ***PLEASE REFER TO MY NOTE ABOVE FOR UPDATES I RECEIVED FROM ROBERT GRIPPO ON THE FILM'S OWNERSHIP, AND THE NEWS THAT WPIX HAS RETURNED THE ORIGINAL, BLACK AND WHITE VERSION TO THE AIRWAVES.***

Cat Fiddle Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

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. Just click on the above titles to access Amazon.com links for each book.

You'll also want to check out the following 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.

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 which you can order from Amazon when you click here.

WATCH THE FILM: Here's 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) ENJOY!... and have a Happy Thanksgiving! 



Monday, October 31, 2022

HOW'S THIS FOR A HALLOWEEN TREAT - THE "SCARED SILLY" BOOK NOW HAS A PUBLISHER!!!

Well, here we are on Halloween, and I don’t have any tricks for you… just the ultimate treat!

* Drumroll please… *

Announcing that “Scared Silly” the BOOK now has a publisher!!!

Yes, it’s true. Split Reel LLC will be publishing the “Scared Silly” book.

How did this happen? Well, I’d been aware of publisher Rob Stone for quite a while. He’s a fellow film historian/author as well as a film preservationist and professional archivist. He penned a wonderful book on the solo films of Laurel & Hardy, appropriately titled, Laurel Or Hardy… and ultimately decided he’d love to publish a variety of books on vintage film comedy!

Rob has guested on various podcasts and virtual events including Patrick Vasey’s Laurel & Hardy Podcast and Ben Model and Steve Massa’s Silent Comedy Watch Party.

It was through Ben and Steve’s show that I learned of Rob’s subsequent publications under the Split Reel imprint, “Pokes & Jabbs: the Before, During, and After of the VIM Films Corporation,” as well as the “Pokes & Jabbs Picture Book.”

In conversation with my friend, Bob Furmanek, co-author of “Abbott & Costello In Hollywood” and the restorationist of many vintage 3-D films as well as Abbott & Costello projects under his 3D Archives initiative, Bob strongly encouraged me to reach out to Rob about “Scared Silly.”

I’m glad I did, as not only was Rob quite enthusiastic over the prospect of publishing “Scared Silly,” but his love of film history and those who research and write about it was beyond evident in the details of what he proposed to me for a publishing deal.

So, how will all this work? Details will be forthcoming as we get closer to publication date so be sure to check here often.

In deciding to move toward completion of the book, I did have to make some concessions. First off, I’ve decided that my focus will lean heavily toward “talkies.” For the simple reason that there are so many silent films that are either incomplete or missing entirely. Exceptions will of course be made for prominent participants in silent scare comedies such as Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Our Gang and the like.

The other main concession I’ve made is to narrow my focus even within the talkies. There are so many “borderline” entries like Hillbillies in a Haunted House and Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow that may have to fall away and be relegated to “horror-onable mention” status at best in favor of me digging into films that feature the most noteworthy of film comedy stars.

You may be wondering what this all means for the Scared Silly blog as well. The purpose of this blog was always to be a companion to the book. Now that the reality of the book’s publication is closer in view, the blog must take a backseat to it. It’s like when you get a free trial of a favorite video streaming service. You can’t possibly watch everything that streaming service has to offer during that free trial. However, if you like what you’ve seen, you may be inspired to make a financial commitment to subscribe and partake of all of it.

It’s the same with Scared Silly. I’ll continue to post some interesting news items or tidbits here or there, and re-post some articles that are favorites among fans, but I’ll be putting a moratorium on posted reviews until the book is published. Thereafter, I may post reviews of silent films or others that didn’t make it into the published book.

One more Halloween treat to remind you about: as mentioned in my previous post, I’m the guest-speaker tonight at Denny Daniels’ Museum of Interesting Things annual Halloween “Scared Silly Secret Speakeasy” event, Monday, October 31st, 2022 at 8PM EST.

You can show up live in person at the museum’s event space on Prince Street in NYC, or you can tune in virtually. Tickets are available when you click here, AND don’t forget I have a limited number of FREE VIP tickets (both in-person and virtual) if you email me at scaredsillybypaulcastiglia@gmail.com by 6PM EST tonight. Hope to see you there!

In the meantime, let’s revisit the trailer for the greatest horror-comedy film of all-time – Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2022

SOME BIG 'SCARED SILLY' BOOK NEWS AHEAD THIS HALLOWEEN... AND A PERSONAL APPEARANCE, TOO!!!

Hello Scared Silly fans! As you know, I'm all about the lighter side of the spooky season (hey, after all I wrote the "Archie's Weird Mysteries" comic book series, contributed a chapter to a book about Vincent Price films about the scare comedies he made with Peter Lorre, did a commentary track for the restored "Haunted House" episode of the Abbott & Costello Show, and have spoken at theatrical screenings of vintage horror-comedy films).

If you're here, you also know that I've been writing a book called, "Scared Silly," a collection of my reviews of vintage films from Hollywood's golden age wherein comedians get mixed up in spooky situations (think Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Ghost Breakers, Arsenic & Old Lace, The Ghost & Mr. Chicken, etc.).

Well, this Halloween right here on my Scared Silly blog I'll be making a big announcement concerning my book, so you won't want to miss that! The post will go live at midnight on Monday (right after Sunday ends) right here at scaredsillybypaulcastiglia.blogspot.com

Additionally, I'm going to be joining my pal Denny Daniel of the Museum of Interesting Things again for his annual Halloween Secret Speakeasy event, also called Scared Silly! It takes place on Monday, Halloween night 2022 starting at 8PM and I'll be attending virtually via Zoom. You have the choice of attending live in person at Denny's Prince Street loft, or virtuallly via Zoom as well.

It will be a fun evening of Denny showing 16mm clips from classic films, both straight-up horror films and horror-comedies, with commentary from me. As always, Denny will also demonstrate some antique inventions and present ephemera related to monsters and movies. It's going to be a super fun time suitable for the whole family!

You can click here for more details and to order tickets, and I'll also have a limited supply of FREE VIP passes available (whether you choose to go in-person or just tune in virtually) if you reach out to me at scaredsillybypaulcastiglia@gmail.com

Hope to see you all on Monday... it promises to be a "Goodnight!"

Thursday, October 20, 2022

THIS SUNDAY, THERE'S TONS OF SILENT LAUGHS, AND SOME UNEXPECTED SCARES, TOO!

Hello Scared Silly fans! Hope you're enjoying the spooky season.

I’ve written about my friends Ben Model and Steve Massa before. They are the co-hosts of the SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY, a brilliant hour and a half streaming show of silent comedy films accompanied live on the piano by Ben, with historical background from Steve.

For the past couple of years, when they were doing weekly shows, Ben and Steve would feature silent scare comedies toward the end of October. Now that they are doing the show once a month, they need to pace their offerings. They've been trying to get Thomas Reeder on the show for a while and since his Century Comedies book "Time is Money" recently came out (you can order it by clicking here), they finally were able to arrange it.

So, technically this Sunday's episode doesn't have the usual outright spooky stuff for Halloween, but it does have the following scares: one Buster Brown short called BUSTER'S BUST-UP where he and Pete the Pup (of Our Gang/Little Rascals fame) confront a fear of heights high atop the girders of a construction site, and a Baby Peggy short called CIRCUS CLOWNS and well, we all are scared of clowns!!! (I kid - with respect to non-scary clowns past and present like the Fleischer Brothers' Koko and the sublime Bill Irwin, and the many others who prove not all clowns are scary)

Oh, and you just might recognize something brought up in the "cabin fever" recommendations segment. :)

The SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY streams live this Sunday, October 23rd, 2022 at 3PM EST on YouTube. After the livestream, the show will be archived for viewing any time. It's available all over the world, so check your local timezones for your area. Click here or below to tune in!

And speaking of classic scare comedies, be sure to come back to the SCARED SILLY blog on Halloween for a very special announcement about the book... yes, it's finally happening! See you then.

In the meantime, here's some comical silent scares from 1908 courtesy of Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón working out of France... ENJOY!

Friday, October 7, 2022

THIS OCTOBER, TAKE IN THE LIGHTER SIDE OF HALLOWEEN WITH CARTOON FUN THAT’S SPOOKY, AND A FAMILY THAT’S CREEPY AND KOOKY!

Hello, Scared Silly fans! It’s that time again where we dig in more than ever into the silly side of horror! I’m sure if you’re reading this you have a go-to horror-comedy film you’re planning to revisit at home. I’m here to let you know that if you’re in California, New York, or New Jersey, there are some fantastic, fun-filled, spooktacular events that will get the whole family laughing.

It all starts in California this Saturday, October 8th at the fabled New Beverly Cinema. Animation historian extraordinaire Jerry Beck will once again bring a special program of “Saturday Morning Cartoons” to the big screen! As Jerry says, “It's Creepy, It's Kooky, It's 35mm Technicolor cartoons on the big screen... our annual Halloween Show!” It’s 105 minutes of animated classics that are sure to scare you silly! The delightful, dastardly fun starts at 10AM PST and you can order tickets when you click here.

Another animation historian, educator, and restorationist we love here at Scared Silly is Tommy Jose Stathes. Tommy if offering east coast folks multiple chances for you to see classic animated cartoons on the kooky, spooky side, also projected on the big screen! Here he is to give you more details:

1. Cartoon Carnival #105: Spooks in Store, Sunday 10/23 at 3pm and 6pm, Happening at Rubulad in Bushwick, Brooklyn!

For Cartoon Carnival #105, we're hosting *two entirely unique* programs of creepy, spooky animated oddities and curiosities in celebration of the Halloween season. This scary selection features many Cartoon Carnival mainstays...from silent era superstars Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown, to later Golden Age favorites such as Betty Boop, Popeye and many others. Each film program contains approximately 90 minutes of cartoons, plus an intermission. Click here to order tickets.

2. Saturday Afternoon Cartoons: A Haunted Halloween, Saturday, 10/29 at 1:40pm at Metrograph, 7 Ludlow Street, Manhattan

This month's Saturday Afternoon Cartoons offers a selection of early cartoon films featuring—you guessed it—creepy and spooky scenarios to get viewers ready for All Hallows' Eve. Enjoy all sorts of animated skeletons, ghosts, ghouls, phantoms, spirits, and other assorted tricks or treats! Spanning the 1920s through the '50s, this assortment showcases classic characters such as Betty Boop, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Farmer Alfalfa, Flip the Frog, and others. 60 min. film program will be followed by a live Q&A session. Click here to order tickets.”

I can personally attest to the fact that Tommy’s shows are often sold-out, packed houses… because I’ve been to a few and been shut out of others! Definitely don’t rest on ordering tickets because space is limited.

Oh, and while you're at it, read more about Tommy and his vital work at his Cartoons on Film and Cartoon Carnival sites, and if you're able, please consider donating to his Cartoon Carnival Pandemic recovery fund here.

As if all that weren’t enough, how about some creepy and kooky fun starring the famed family of New Yorker cartoons, and various live-action and animated TV shows and movies? We’re talking about The Addams Family, of course, of course (wait, that’s somebody else’s theme song)! But humorously, the town of Westfield loves to celebrate its own writer-cartoonist, Charles Addams and his macabre brood. And that’s just what they’ll do at the 5th annual AddamsFest! My friend Ron MacCloskey is a co-founder of the event, and he knows his way around horror, silly or otherwise. So, what are you waiting for? “Snap” to it and order your tickets now by clicking here!

…and speaking of Ron having a way with monsters, he co-wrote and produced one heck of a documentary about one heck of a monster man: BORIS KARLOFF, THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER from Shout Factory! I’ve seen it, and I can tell you it’s a wonderful homage to our favorite Uncle Boris. The best news is, it’s about to be released everywhere for streaming, DVD, and blu-ray on October 18, 2022. If you consider yourself a Boris fan, you don’t want to miss it! Now, here’s a little behind-the-scenes look into how Ron came to chronicle Karloff’s legacy of brilliance. ENJOY!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

SOME BIG SCARED SILLY BOOK NEWS... AND HILARIOUSLY SPOOKY STOOGES ANTICS... AHEAD!!!

You read that right - there will be some very big Scared Silly book news to announce soon! But until it's all been sorted out and the time is right, I can only give you this teaser for now. Thankfully, though, the Stooges are here to keep you preoccupied (and poke-eyed, too)!

At last count, the Stooges were the most prolific of horror-comedy practitioners, having gone to the scared antics well more than any others in a plethora of shorts and features. I direct you to this wonderful Monster Kids Online article from a few years back that tracks all the funnymen's encounters with ghouls that go bump in the fright.

Well, Me-TV, dedicated propagators of Stooge mayhem each weekend, have not one but two spooky-themed episodes on tap for the Halloween season.

It all starts this Saturday, October 1st at 6PM with "Spooky Stooges Part 1," a full hour of classic shorts including, WE WANT OUR MUMMY, SPOOK LOUDER, and SCOTCHED IN SCOTLAND.

Then, on Saturday, October 29th at 6PM "Spooky Stooges Part 2" rolls in with TWO hours of scared silliness including, IDLE ROOMERS, IF A BODY MEETS A BODY, WHO DONE IT?, DOPEY DICKS, SPOOKS, and CREEPS.

What "Moe" could you ask for?! Be sure to mark your calendars and join in on all the Stoogeriffic fun!!!

To help whet your appetite, here is a compilation of snippets of the Stooges getting scared, including some culled from the shorts you'll see on Me-TV. Don't be a knucklehead, say "Soitenley!" to the Stooges this Halloween season!

Monday, July 18, 2022

HABEAS CORPUS (1928)

RATING: 2 & ¾ out of ****

PLOT: A mad professor (Richard Carle) desires to prove his theory on the human brain but needs a specimen to experiment on. On cue, two vagabonds of questionable brain power (Laurel & Hardy) show up at the door requesting some toast. The professor offers more bread than that - $500 worth in fact! All Stan and Ollie need to do is rob a grave to procure a body for said experiments. Hapless at any task that inexplicably yet fortuitously comes their way, the boys are in “grave” danger indeed as they contend with the spooky cemetery, pesky bats, and a batty butler (Charley Rogers) who’s really an undercover detective (and would-be ghost!) in disguise!

REVIEW: Coming a full year and a week after their initial foray into scare comedies (Do Detectives Think), Laurel & Hardy (or more accurately, Laurel) decided to expand upon what had worked so well in that prior film. Habeas Corpus has them returning to the graveyard in full-tilt scaredy cat mode, and reportedly audiences were just as bowled-over by this scenario in extended length as they were when it was merely one scene in the earlier short.

Three years prior to Habeas, Laurel co-wrote and directed the short, Moonlight and Noses starring Clyde Cook and Noah Young. Nearly identical in plot to Habeas, Moonlight set Stan into motion to see how much farther he could take things in the remake. It’s a great example of what I call “Stan in transition” – he’s working not only through scare scenarios and gags, but he’s also developing his “Stanley” character further along. It seems he’d keep these gags in his head because he goes from reworking and refining Do Detectives Think’s gags in Habeas, to later taking bits from Habeas and evolving them further for The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and beyond.

Habeas Corpus wasn’t just influenced by Do Detectives Think. There’s also a rather gruesome real-life historical influence on the film. A hundred years before Habeas’ release, notorious Scottish serial murderers Burke and Hare went on a rampage of grave robbing and killing. The reason: a shortage of scientific and medical research cadavers. Anatomist Robert Knox needed cadavers for his lectures, and much like the professor in Habeas, he was willing to pay for them, no questions asked. Unlike the professor in Habeas, he wasn’t locked up before the bodies were unearthed.

Before diving deeper into the film, I must also mention that Habeas Corpus is the first Laurel & Hardy film that can be called a “sound” film. It is a silent film in that there’s no dialogue other than the written title cards shown on screen, however, producer Hal Roach employed the Victor recording company (before they were acquired by RCA) to have an orchestra do a soundtrack recording just for this short. It also features some great synchronized sound effects. I refer you to the Laurel & Hardy Blogcast link at the end of this review for more information behind the recording from Laurel & Hardy historians-authors Patrick Vasey and Randy Skretvedt, and my own insights on how much Charles Gounoud’s classical piece, The Funeral March of the Marionettes (aka the Alfred Hitchcock Theme) sounds like an inverted, dissonant version of The Dance of the Cuckoos (aka the Laurel & Hardy Theme).

The intro of the boys in this short is great. We get Ollie’s pomposity firsthand… literally, as it’s just a shot of Laurel & Hardy’s hands! Of course, Ollie brushes away Stan’s hand so he can knock first, maintaining his character’s “me before you” mindset which would manifest itself in the pair’s talkies whenever Ollie introduced he and Stan thusly: “I’m Mr. Hardy… and this is my friend, Mr. Laurel.”

A lot of the stock Laurel & Hardy personality traits show up in this short right from the beginning as they talk to the professor. Much of it has to do with facial expressions and body language, especially with Hardy. You get that wonderful Hardy combo of embarrassment, followed by the false awkward acceptance of something odd, and culminating in Ollie’s sideways glance over to Stan indicating, “are you kidding me?!”

As for that professor, we know he’s not all there not only because his various askew facial expressions and dialogue tip it in, but also due to the fact anyone willing to pay L&H $500 to do anything has to be nuts. Some of the professor’s eccentric nuances include putting cigarette ashes in his pocket and pouring water into it, too (the type of thing that would later become more of a Stan “white magic” thing to do), and doing a quirky little salsa dance which the music and sound effects on the synchronized soundtrack really puts over.

On the way to the graveyard, Stan questions the professor’s sanity and Ollie replies that he’s just as sane as the two of them! It’s interesting that Stan is questioning the professor’s sanity at all however Ollie’s response is a very Hardy-like answer as he falsely fancies himself both an authority and intelligent. This bit could very well be the genesis in Stan’s mind of the “hand-twist” motion to indicate someone is a little “cracked” or “eccentric” or “twisted in the head” which of course became a staple for Laurel & Hardy showing up again in various films like Wrong Again, Dirty Work, and The Big Noise.

Speaking of The Big Noise, it takes one of its key sight gags from Habeas Corpus: Stan and Ollie can’t make out the address atop the street sign, so Ollie climbs up to read it, only to find it says, “wet paint”… and now he has a black and white suit! It’s a classic bit as they make their way to the graveyard, and of course, it’s the main passage in the graveyard that provides most of the laughs here, including the following scare comedy bits:

• Ollie offers to stay outside the graveyard to “protect” Stan while he’s in there digging. It’s one of those things that ended up in a lot of other comedians’ films, where there’d be a straight man or a bossy member of a two- or three-man team (like the Three Stooges’ Moe or Bud from Abbott & Costello) keeping themselves out of the action under the guise of “helping” the patsy characters.

• There’s a handclap bit where Stan claps and he hears a clap in return (provided by the phony butler/real detective). This is a riff on a music hall/vaudeville stage staple where a comic would call something out and there’d be a voice parroting it in echo, however by the third time there’d be a different answer from the disembodied, echoing voice, startling the comic. Again, this ultimately turned up a lot with the Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello and others. One note to make is this routine in Habeas comes over best if you’re watching the version with the original synchronized soundtrack.

• Stan & Ollie hilariously tangle with various critters. Ollie is scared by a black cat zooming by, Stan accidentally places a lantern on a turtle's back and believes the light is moving on its own (a variation of the “moving candle” stage bit that later became a big part of Abbott & Costello’s act), and a bat bedevils Stan… a sequence that must have stuck in his mind when he went to work expanding on the mayhem a bat can cause in The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case!

• That old, dusty stand-by, a man under a sheet being mistaken for a ghost is pulled out of the closet, although in 1928 those sheets were a bit more fresh!

There are elements to Stan’s scare takes in this that would continue for most of Laurel & Hardy’s career, though they would become more nuanced with time. In these earlier days, Stan was prone to a more broad approach to scare takes: knees knocking, his jaw-dropped with mouth wide open, going to bite his nails. Ultimately Laurel dialed down some of the more frantic elements a bit (he was heavily influenced by the legendary silent film comedian Harry Langdon for whom “slower and more layered” was stock-in-trade) and became more nuanced as the “Stanley” character became more spacey and childlike in the ensuing years. It’s the later melding of those two styles that enabled Laurel to pull off some brilliant scare takes in ensuing films, including my favorite horror-comedy scare take of all time, when Stan sees the whitewashed Arthur Houseman climb onto the boat deck in The Live Ghost.

Of course, not all the bits here are of the “scared” variety. The film gets in some stock Laurel & Hardy sight gags and slapstick, too. For a brief moment, they do the “mixed-up hats” routine (though curiously it’s very brief here, as opposed to Do Detectives Think), Ollie falls... and sinks!... into the perennially deep puddle he would in countless films (perhaps most notably in Way Out West), and then there’s a whole set-piece where Ollie is trying to boost Stan over the cemetery walls after the gates are locked shut. It’s an extended bit and audiences are split on whether it goes on too long or whether the laughter is sustained (I’m in the latter camp – and it’s always a great experience if you can watch it with an audience).

The wall-scaling bit is bookended by two wonderful character moments. First, there’s Stan’s look of “self-satisfaction” on his face with an added head nod for emphasis – he’s thrilled the cemetery gates are locked and he doesn’t have to go back in! Ollie of course insists Stan goes back in and is determined to boost Stan over the wall as mentioned above. Ultimately realizing the effort is futile, Ollie resorts to his oft-repeated adage that if he wants something done right, he'll have to do it himself. So what happens when he attempts to scale the wall? He ends up running right through it!

Speaking of Ollie the bulldozer, I’m always awed and astounded by displays of his strength. In Habeas we get to see Stan balanced on Ollie’s back and even standing up on it as he tries to get over the cemetery wall. In Wrong Again Ollie bears the weight of not only a piano on his back, but a piano that a horse is standing atop it! And in Blockheads there’s the wonderful scene of Ollie carrying Stan in his arms because he mistakenly thinks Stan has lost a leg while simultaneously bending down to pick up the hat that he’s dropped. What a trooper!

When all is said and done, Habeas Corpus is a hallmark Laurel & Hardy short. If it just had one of the following things going for it, it would be considered so, but it actually has all three of these, in no order of preference: 1.) Laurel expanding on how to do a Laurel & Hardy scare comedy for the length of an entire film, as opposed to just a bit. 2.) Laurel further developing his Stanley character including how he would act when scared. 3.) The first-ever attempt to add sound to a Laurel & Hardy film, via the Victor company’s synchronized music and sound effects recording on disc. Of course, the main reason you should check it out: it’s funny, and therefore you’ll be scared silly!

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: The main supporting players of course are Richard Carle as the professor and Charley Rodgers as the detective-disguised-as-a-butler. Carle had a distinguished career as a stage actor and director, and ended up with copious credits in every genre of film. That includes not only more Laurel & Hardy films, but also films with Wheeler & Woolsey, W.C. Fields, and Abbott & Costello!

Charley Rogers went on to be joined at the hip with Laurel & Hardy, not just acting in dozens and dozens of their films, but more significantly directing several and becoming one of Stan’s trusted stable of co-writers, too. In front of the camera, he also appeared alongside such film comedy stalwarts as Harry Langdon, Shemp Howard, Andy Clyde, and the daffy duo of Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly. One of his most beloved appearances among Laurel & Hardy fans is as Simple Simon the Pie Man in Babes in Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers).

While Chester A. Bachman as one of the policemen seems to have a resume primarily made up of Laurel & Hardy films, it’s Leo Sulkman (the detective on the telephone) who really got around in the world of film comedy, mixing it up with funnymen including the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Ben Turpin, Clyde Cook, Billy Bevan, and more. Most notably for Scared Silly fans, he’s in One Spooky Night, a silent horror-comedy short that as of this writing appears to be a lost film.

HABEAS REDUX: I can’t conclude a review of this short without mentioning its title got a cute little ribbing in a later Laurel & Hardy movie, my favorite of the final group of films they did. The 1940s 20th Century Fox feature, The Big Noise not only contains the above-mentioned reprise of the “wet paint” gag, but also features a delightful bit of verbal nonsense between Stan and Ollie where Ollie insists, “Habeas Corpus is a town in Texas.” It’s followed by a knowing glance to the audience, as if Ollie is asking us, “get it?” Indeed we do!

If you missed my interview on Patrick Vasey’s essential Laurel & Hardy Blogcast where we discussed all things Habeas Corpus, here’s a handy YouTube link of the episode… ENJOY!