Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Laurel and Hardy in Toyland

The first film version of Babes in Toyland appeared in 1934. It was one of several films to showcase the famous comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This was just before studios would try out Technicolor, so the film was made in black and white, though it is available today in a colorized version. (And also a 3D version.) But sound film had definitely made its debut by now, so the film was a musical, though Laurel and Hardy did not sing any songs.

And now, being an Oz fan and as I'm sure many Oz fans are reading, let's get the Oz connections out of the way. (There may be even more.) The film was released by MGM, who would—of course—release their own version of The Wizard of Oz five years later. The producer was Hal Roach, who played the Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum's silent film version of The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Oliver Hardy played a farmhand who briefly disguises himself as a tin woodman in the 1925 silent comedy version of The Wizard of Oz. Finally, Charlotte Henry, who plays the heroine here, had been considered to play Dorothy in a never-realized version of Oz by Samuel Goldwyn.

Mother Goose
After Mother Goose (Virginia Karns) steps out of a giant book and sings "Toyland," we see Toyland, a merry land surrounded by a wall and gates, just across a crocodile-infested river from the dreaded Boogeyland, where the Boogeymen live. Of course, there is a toy factory in Toyland, who make toys for Santa Claus to deliver on Christmas Eve. Children play merrily when they are not in school, and even some of the houses appear to be dollhouses. And (on special permission from Walt Disney), Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs appear. (Mickey is portrayed by a costumed monkey, the character almost unrecognizable; two children and a little person play the Pigs.)

Bo Peep
Much of the story concerns the home of Mother Peep (Florence Roberts) who lives in a shoe, and in addition to having so many children and her daughter Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), also boards Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, who work for the Toymaker. When Silas Barnaby (played by the fabulous Henry Brandon under his real name Heinrich von Kleinbach) threatens to foreclose on the unpaid mortgage unless Bo Peep marries him. When Mother Peep tells Ollie and Stannie of this, Ollie says he will give her all of his money and borrow the rest from the Toymaker. Only thing is, Stannie borrowed all of Ollie's money to buy pee-wees, so they must ask for the entire sum, Ollie claiming that he and the Toymaker were like "like that" (crossing his fingers).

At the toy factory, Ollie is suddenly hesitant to ask the Toymaker (William Burress) about the money, especially after Stannie knocks paint on him. Suddenly, Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier) arrives to check on an order for 600 1-foot high toy soldiers. Stannie reveals that he got the order mixed up and that he produced 100 6-foot high toy soldiers. Activating one, it causes chaos in the factory and Stannie and Ollie are fired.

Bo Peep and Barnaby
Meanwhile, Bo Peep, rejecting Barnaby again, loses her sheep and is comforted by Tom-Tom Piper (played by the dashing Felix Knight) in the song "Never Mind, Bo Peep." As the townsfolk search for the sheep, Tom-Tom romances Bo Peep and they fall in love.

Ollie and Stannie
Being unable to pay Barnaby, Ollie and Stannie scheme to help Mother Peep by getting the paperwork for the mortgage. Hiding Ollie in a box, Stannie delivers it to Barnaby with a "Do Not Open Until Christmas" stamp on it. As Stannie leaves, he says "Good night, Ollie," spoiling the entire plan. Barnaby has King Cole (Kewpie Morgan) sentence the two to a ducking and then banishment to Boogeyland. After Ollie is dunked, Bo Peep agrees to marry Barnaby on condition that the charges are dropped. Barnaby claims to befriend Stannie, and when Ollie is mad that he had to go through the indignity of dunking, he pushes Stannie into the water. Stannie takes this calmly and then reveals that he still holds the watch that he was protecting for Ollie, now ruined by water damage.

Barnaby's Wedding
On Barnaby's wedding day, he marries Bo Peep, given away by Ollie, who, before Bo Peep's veil is removed and the bride kissed, demands the mortgage form. It being torn up, the veil is removed, revealing that Barnaby actually married Stannie. We may assume that as the intended bride wasn't there, this was an easy annulment. Tom-Tom celebrates this victory for Bo Peep by singing her "Castle in Spain."

As he can no longer threaten Bo Peep with the mortgage, Barnaby plans to get revenge by doing away with Tom-Tom, pignapping one of the Little Pigs and placing sausage in Tom-Tom's home to pin the crime on him. Tom-Tom is sent to Boogeyland, and Bo Peep follows after him. Ollie and Stannie discover that the sausages are actually made of beef and find the missing pig in Barnaby's cellar. Since the crime is made clear, everyone begins searching for Barnaby.

A Boogeyman
Finding shelter in Boogeyland, Tom-Tom sings "Go To Sleep" to Bo Peep as the Sand Man arrives. (He is accompanied by little men.) Barnaby arrives and summons the Boogeymen, masked hairy men with sharp claws. Ollie and Stannie found Barnaby's secret passage to Boogeyland (it was in his well) and lead Bo Peep and Tom-Tom back to Toyland as Barnaby takes lead of the Boogeymen.

The Soldiers march
As the Boogeymen invade Toyland, Stannie and Ollie use a cannon and toy darts to fight them. While it helps a little, they realize a more effective plan would be to activate the 6-foot high toy soldiers, who march out to "March of the Toys," driving the Boogeymen out of Toyland and finally defeating Barnaby (burying him under blocks that spell "RAT"). As the Boogeymen fall into the river outside of Toyland, Ollie tells Stannie to send them a parting shot of darts from the cannon. It flips around and shoots Ollie, Stannie having to remove the darts one by one.
Behind the scenes

As noted, the plot bears little resemblance to the original operetta. Gone are Alan and Jane. Mary does appear, but only as a minor character. (She is seen gardening.) However, like the operetta, the Toymaker is not a cheerful, kindly man, and Barnaby does force the girl he wanted to marry by condemning the man she does love. And, of course, a young couple manages to finally win out over Barnaby. Aside from the above mentioned musical numbers, "I Can't Do The Sum" is played as an instrumental over Stannie and Ollie's scenes to suggest their silly nature. Many other pieces of music by Herbert serve as underscoring.

Despite the plot not being like the operetta, the film is very good on its own merits. Laurel and Hardy's humor has aged very well. The romantic plot is a little corny, but considering that this is an old-time fantasy world, we can forgive that. Perhaps the fully costumed creatures (Mickey Mouse, the Little Pigs, Hey Diddle Diddle and the Boogeymen) show some limitation, but otherwise the film is still quite enjoyable.

Because the film was such a big hit in 1934, it became a popular re-release for MGM, being released under the titles Laurel and Hardy in Toyland, Revenge is Sweet, and most famously as March of the Wooden Soldiers, which many home video releases use on the case, despite using the original "Babes in Toyland" cut. (This latter re-release cut the "Go To Sleep" sequence, some of the more intense altercations between Bo Peep, Barnaby and Tom-Tom, and a little music.) It is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray, 3D Blu-Ray, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and Vudu. Personally, I'd recommend watching the black and white original as I've yet to see a convincing colorization.
A number of pieces about this film spell "Boogeyland" and "Boogeymen" as "Bogeyland" and "Bogeymen." As the film itself uses the double "O" sound (versus the alternative, which is a British slang word for nasal mucous), I've used it in this article.


ericshanower said...

At least one of the pigs was a child actor, not a little person. The guy's name escapes me now, but he was in a production of Pirates of Penzance, singing "Modern Major General," and choreographed that and a production of Oklahoma at Trenton State College in the mid-1990s. David Maxine designed both those productions and talked with the guy about Babes in Toyland.

If one doesn't know the score of Babes in Toyland well, one can miss that all the underscoring of the L&H Babes is by Herbert. One example I remember is "Birth of a Butterfly" underscoring a lot of the Bo-Peep scenes. The menacing music used in the Barnaby scenes is from the Spider Forest at the end of Act 1.

Jared said...

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to hear Herbert's entire score, but after processing some sheet music into MIDI, I was able to recognize the "Country Dance" music that is played when the people of Toyland celebrate Tom and Bo Peep's engagement.

One of the little pigs was played by a "little person," Angelo Rossitto. He seems to have played Elmer, the kidnapped pig. But looking at IMDb, it seems the other two were played by children no older than four or five! They are credited as Zebedy Colt and Payne B. Johnson! ... Well, I think this justifies an edit.

Another fun bit of trivia, Bo Peep tells Bo Peep that she wouldn't marry him if he was young, which he couldn't be. In actuality, Henry Brandon was only two years older than Charlotte Henry, and Felix Knight (Tom) was actually older than all of them!

ericshanower said...

It was Edward Earle. Wikipedia says Zebedy Colt was a stage name of Edward Earle Marsh. Strangely, IMDB lists a different Edward Earle as playing a pig. There is some mixed up info somewhere, likely on IMDB. David has no reason not to have believed the Edward Earle he worked with saying that he played a pig in Babes in Toyland among other film roles he mentioned back in the '90s.


ericshanower said...

Oops! A correction to my last comment. Wikipedia lists a different Edward Earle as playing a townsman.

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