Thursday, December 5, 2013

Max Liebman's Babes in Toyland

Back in the early days of television, there were few pre-recorded programs. So, when Oldsmobile sponsored Max Liebman's television adaptation of Babes in Toyland in 1954, it was actually performed live. Luckily for future generations, a kinescope recording was made. (A 1950 television adaptation of Toyland is now lost to time because of no recording being made or preserved.) Featuring quite a lot of Victor Herbert's music and Bil Baird's marionettes, the performance delighted audiences so much that the production was re-mounted in 1955.

The story begins with a little girl (Ellen Barrie) lost in a department store (an establishing shot of the store uses the song "Hail to Christmas") and asking the Santa Claus (Dave Garroway) there for help. Although he's tired, he calls the little girl's mother and reads her a story while waiting for the girl's mother to arrive. Of course, the book selected is Babes in Toyland. (A novelization of the operetta had been published in 1904. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a copy in time for these blogs.)

The Toyland scenes opens with a lengthy musical sequence ("Toyland" and instrumentals of "Don't Cry, Bo Peep," "I Can't Do The Sum," "Floretta" and other pieces) celebrating the engagement of Tom Tucker (Dennis Day) and Jane Piper (Jo Sullivan in 1954, Barbara Cook in 1955). Silas Barnaby (Jack E. Leonard) disapproves and tries to convince Jane to marry him instead. When she refuses, he fires Tom from his job at the toy factory. Jane doesn't mind, saying that even as paupers, they'll still love each other.

Shortly, Jane helps her younger siblings Ann (Karin Wolfe) and Peter (Edward Brian in 1954, Dickie Belton in 1955) with their homework, resulting in a performance of "I Can't Do The Sum." Tom arrives and promises Jane a "Castle in Spain."

We are then introduced to Grumio (Wally Cox), the lead toymaker at the factory. His friends are the toys (portrayed by the marionettes), who come to life and dance to music. Grumio even sings "Never Mind, Bo Peep" to a toy version of the character (a dancer identified as Bo Peep appeared earlier). Barnaby arrives and yells at Grumio, then asks to see the new toy soldiers, who dance to "Military Ball" with some other toys.

Then is the engagement party of Tom and Jane, which features the song "Barney O'Flynn." Then a pair of clowns perform music and tricks.

Ann and Peter receive an invitation to a party on Ice Cream Mountain. This takes them into the Spider Forest, where the two children fear for their lives as a tree and other creatures (especially a giant spider, played by two people in one costume) frighten them.

Tom, Jane and Grumio come to find the children. Noting how late it is, Tom performs "Go to Sleep." Barnaby arrives and captures Tom, tying him up and is about to feed him to a buzz saw to cut him in half when Grumio activates the Toy Soldiers who march out (to "March of the Toys" of course) and stop Barnaby's plot, Jane freeing Tom just in time, and the soldiers putting the villain in the stocks. Then, there is a reprise of "Toyland."

Santa finishes by telling the little girl "how they lived happily ever after": Tommy Tucker organized an orchestra and Jane's a lead vocalist, Little Bo Peep found her sheep and doing very well in the sweater business, Grumio became a school teacher and got a television program, and Barnaby "is a very, very unhappy man, and that makes him very happy."

The little girl's mother arrives and thanks Santa, who then wishes peace to the audience.
The final view of Toyland
To modern standards, this entertainment may seem very weak in plot, but in 1954, audiences enjoyed the humor and music being broadcast into their homes more than trying to follow the story. Unlike today, they couldn't start a video and there were few stations. It appears that the production was broadcast in color, but kinescope recordings are always black and white. Considering few homes had color televisions, most audiences in 1954 likely saw it in black and white anyway.

The 1955 restaging runs at a brisker pace, cutting some dialogue and getting the run time down from 78 minutes to 75, and that includes an additional Christmas carol and a good-bye from Oldsmobile. The kinescope recording of that one is sharper, though it has other issues as well. It also does more close ups, as well as changing some of the cast. Otherwise, it is the same adaptation.
Barbara Cook plays Jane in 1955
Wally Cox as Grumio in 1955
The recording of the 1954 version was released on DVD by a budget company, offering a very soft print. However, both have since been released on DVD by Video Artists International. Probably not the greatest version of Toyland to check out, but if you're really interested, by all means, I'd recommend picking it up.

And Oz connections? Jack E. Leonard (Barnaby) would later voice the Sign Post in Journey Back to Oz and Bil Baird eventually adapted The Wizard of Oz with his puppets. (It's also worth noting that his puppets are the ones in the famous "Lonely Goatherd" scene from The Sound of Music.)

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Also, I understand Wally Cox was a fan of the Oz books.