Monday, December 9, 2013

Disney's Babes in Toyland

Surprisingly, Disney must have been developing their own Babes in Toyland as The Shirley Temple Show aired their version as Disney released their film on December 14, 1961. This was Walt Disney's first live action musical feature. He had planned to make an adaptation of the Oz books in a film called The Rainbow Road to Oz, but that fell through somehow, and eventually, he turned to Toyland. The film was a box office and critical disappointment, though thanks to television and home video, it's become a classic for many families.

This new film, the second theatrical film adaptation, of course tampered with the plot of the operetta quite a lot and also rearranged all of the music it used and used almost none of the original lyrics. In addition, George Bruns wrote new music to fit the picture and expand bits of Herbert's melodies into new songs. (They surprisingly got two songs out of the "Military Ball" instrumental.)

The film opens on a stage and the audience is greeted by Sylvester J. Goose, who is the wisecracking goose Mother Goose (Mary McCarty) carries with her. The stage opens to find a grand celebration of the engagement of Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello). Many of the people of Mother Goose Village are introduced in this opening number: "Mother Goose Village" (based on the opening "Country Ball Dance") and "Lemonade," the latter based on "Military Ball."

Then we shift to Barnaby (Ray Bolger) in his crooked house, who explains his plans to the audience and then his henchmen, Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and the silent and goofy Rodrigo (Gene Sheldon): Mary will (unknown to her) inherit "scads of money" when she gets married. Barnaby wants that money, so he schemes to have Mary marry him by having Tom thrown in the sea. To make sure Mary will marry him for financial security, he tells them to steal Bo Peep's sheep. After promising them a rich reward, the three perform the song "We Won't Be Happy 'Till We Get It."

Gonzorgo and Rodrigo spy on Tom seeing Mary home, during which they sing "Just A Whisper Away" (adapted from a very slowed down version of "Hail to Christmas"). Afterward, they knock out Tom and tie him in a sack. On their way to the sea, they spot a gypsy camp. Gonzorgo realizes that they could make even more money by selling Tom to the gypsies and telling Barnaby that they killed Tom.
The next day, Mary is trying on her wedding dress when Barnaby arrives, followed shortly by Gonzorgo and Rodrigo who sing the wholly original song "Slowly, Slowly, He Sank Into The Sea," explaining that Tom left Mary because he was too poor to support her, and that he went to sea and sank. (The humor of the scene is highlighted by Gonzorgo and Rodrigo dripping so much water that they create a very deep puddle around them.) Barnaby offers Mary his hand by singing of a "Castle in Spain" and dancing. Mary refuses, saying that they can get by from the income from their sheep.

Unfortunately, this is when Bo Peep (Ann Jillian) arrives and says she's lost her sheep, performing "Never Mind, Bo-Peep." However, their resolve to help Bo Peep is weakened when a boy says he saw the sheep's tracks leading to the Forest of No Return. Mary stays up late, wondering how she and the children she cares for will get by, singing a rewritten version of "I Can't Do The Sum." (The scene is highlighted by multiple versions of Mary leaping out and singing along.) Deciding that she needs to do this for the good of the children, she decides to accept Barnaby's proposal.

Bo Peep and the other children see Mary leaving and decide to go find the sheep by heading off to the Forest of No Return. Meanwhile, Barnaby hires a band of gypsies to perform, celebrating the engagement. A fortune teller named Floretta comes out and sings her song "Floretta," predicting to Mary that Tom is actually alive and that they will marry, and that Barnaby is a villain and will meet a bad end. At the end of the song, Floretta disrobes and reveals that she is really Tom in disguise.

Reunited with Tom, Mary goes home to find a note from the children. In the forest, the children have been captured by walking and singing trees who perform "Forest of No Return" (based on underscoring for the Spider Forest). Tom and Mary hear the children's cries and find them. Realizing how late it is, they decide to sleep in the forest, Tom and Mary singing "Go to Sleep" with the children. Unbeknownst to them, Barnaby, Gonzorgo and Rodrigo have followed and witness the trees wake up Mary and Tom and the children and saying that they must be taken to Toyland, which the children happily agree to, the song "Toyland" being rearranged and rewritten into a march number.

Arriving in Toyland, Tom, Mary and the children go to the Toy Factory, where they spot assistant Grumio (Tommy Kirk) wanting to show the head Toymaker (Ed Wynn) his new invention: an automated toy-making machine that make any type of toy. He demonstrates with a couple toys before the toymaker takes over and overloads the machine with commands, making it burn out and explode. Tom and Mary and the children help the Toymaker continue to make toys by hand, singing a "Workshop Song," based on "In The Toymaker's Shop." The Toymaker is hopeful that he'll meet his deadline.

As the children go to sleep and Tom and Mary finish their work, they sing the song "Just A Toy" (also based on melodies from "Military Ball") and then Grumio comes in to show his new invention: a "poof gun" that shoots a formula that can shrink anything to toy size, warning that two doses will obliterate anything. This seems a good idea until Tom points out that they don't have a source for all the things to shrink into toys. The Toymaker throws the gun out the window, where an eager Barnaby catches it.

Barnaby sneaks into the factory and uses the gun on the Toymaker, forcing him to perform the wedding ceremony between him and Mary. When Gonzorgo and Rodrigo realize that Barnaby is really so wicked, they decide they want no part of his plot any longer. In return, he shrinks both of them and then uses the gun on Tom, holding him hostage to force Mary to marry him.

As the Toymaker stalls the ceremony as much as possible, Tom escapes and brings the toys to life with "The March of the Toys." The toys march out and attack Barnaby. He's about to shoot Tom with the gun again, but Mary breaks the gun, shrinking Barnaby to toy size. Tom and Barnaby fight, Tom knocking Barnaby from a great height into a gift box. After this victory, Grumio enters again with a restoring "poof gun" that he uses to restore Tom, the Toymaker, Gonzorgo and Rodrigo. The film ends with Tom and Mary back in Mother Goose village, leaving the chapel as newlyweds, driving off in a sleigh as the chorus sings "Tom and Mary" (adapted from "Hail to Christmas").

This was the first version of Babes in Toyland that I'd been exposed to. I'd first seen my father's "story and songs" album adaptation, and then he later got the video tape and we watched it several times during my childhood. As such, I'm a little sentimental about it.

The plot takes several elements from the original operetta, but rearranges them into an almost unrecognizable new story. Barnaby's desire to marry Mary is mixed with his desire for a hero or heroine's rightful inheritance rather to good effect, though how Mary is unaware of her inheritance is a mystery. Like the operetta, it is claimed that an innocent drowned at sea, when they in fact are alive and the male returns dressed in gypsy drag, pretending to be a fortune teller. The Spider Forest becomes the Forest of No Return, though what became of Bo Peep's sheep is left unanswered. (Perhaps Gonzorgo and Rodrigo only made it look like they'd gone to the forest.) We also have no idea why the toys suddenly come to life.

As such, the film feels rather uneven with Toyland first being mentioned over halfway into the running time. In Toyland, all the characters gleefully forget about their homes and suddenly, with Grumio's inventions, we get into science fiction. Also, the cast of characters in the Disney film feels a little too large. Tom and Mary's romance and the arrival in Toyland eventually wipe out the subplot of Bo Peep's missing sheep. The bigger issue is that the beginning of the film feels as if this is all as neatly plotted as Barnaby's scheme. Once we go into the Forest of No Return, however, that cohesiveness begins to fall apart. Yes, Toyland's fun, but all the other plots have almost disappeared. It's almost as if Barnaby goes from the villain to suddenly trying to keep the film together.

The film is often negatively compared to the Laurel and Hardy film, in which the plot didn't feel quite so uneven, with Stannie's pee-wee playing and messing up an order for toy soldiers actually paying off in the end of the film.

This is not to say that the film is a stinker, being considered "a sugary piece of candy" or "the icing without the cake." While the film is certainly quite flawed, it is not without merit. Despite the rearranging of the music, it's still a delightful musical, designed to update Herbert's melodies for a new generation. All of the cast are superb in their roles, particularly Annette, Ed Wynn, Tommy Kirk and Ray Bolger, who plays a villain with great relish.

Disney made the film available on VHS for a long time, and eventually released it to DVD. It recently became the first "classic" live action Disney film to be released on Blu-Ray and is available on digital video services as well.

As for Oz connections, I already mentioned The Rainbow Road to Oz, and some believe Walt pursued Toyland after shelving Oz, though the three year gap might have been a bit too much for an instant jump. Ray Bolger, of course, played the Scarecrow in MGM's The Wizard of Oz, and Ed Wynn had been offered the role of the Wizard in that film. And it's worth noting that Annette, who had delighted in wearing a long hairpiece in the testing for Oz, got to wear another one in her role as Mary.


Anonymous said...

The Forest of No Return resembles the talking Oz apple trees a bit (and even more the later trees in the Kroffts' H.R. PUFNSTUF).

Anonymous said...

The trees were suggested by the original operetta: they provide some narration in the Spider Forest and sing the chorus of "Go To Sleep." Perhaps their attitude (and the look of the Forest) were inspired by Oz.

ericshanower said...

Hate that goose.

ericshanower said...

Tommy Sands, however . . .

Jared said...

Dat ass.