Babes in Toyland (1934)

Comedy team Laurel and Hardy put themselves right in the middle of a fairytale setting inspired by the popular operetta Babes in Toyland. Mixed with the whimsy and magical world the humorous duo are the headliners with their antics as our imaginations are sent into the land where Mother Goose, Little Bo Peep, The Three Little Pigs, Old King Cole, and countless other classic fairytale characters come together and live in a silly harmony. It would be a bit of a variance from the usual fair of Laurel and Hardy which they were normally put in, but their antics cross over well as they play two bumbling characters cleverly named after the character Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

Babes in Toyland is a musical comedy starring Laurel and Hardy where they try to save Little Bo Peep and the village of Toyland from the mischievous ways a greedy, evil collector. Stannie Dum (Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Hardy) are two lovable, yet clumsy lads of Mother Peep, better now as the little old lady that lived in a shoe. When the slimy, old Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon) comes to collect the mortgage things start to go bad. After failed attempts to raise the funds, Little Bo Peep(Charlotte Henry) takes up the old Silas’ offer to marry him if he were to forgive the debt. Stannie and Ollie fool Barnaby, angering the old miser, taking it out on Tom-Tom, Bo-Peep’s love interest, and then the whole town of Toyland. It is Stannie and Ollie that become the heroes as their large toy soldiers, from their work in the toy factory, are set in action to stop Barnaby and his large army of half-man beasts, called Bogeymen. But even in the end, as victors Ollie is the butt of the final joke.

The picture is a whimsical journey into a world of wonderful toys and fairytale characters, specifically created for children and the young at heart. The operetta was inspired by the success of the fantastic story shared in the novel The Wizard of Oz, and in viewing this picture I was reminded of a similar feeling to the Oz story, despite being produced nearly five years prior to the popular Judy Garland classic fantasy film which was also to be produced by MGM.

Regardless of Babes in Toyland being a black and white picture, as color feature filmmaking would start to be produced the fallowing year in 1935, you still get a sense that this film is very colorful beyond the various shades of grey. The film was directed by a pair of Hal Roach directors, Gus Meins and Charley Rogers, both of whom were known for their works in Roach’s shorts, including the popular Our Gang series. For much of the picture the art direction is marvelous for such an undertaking, with sets and costumes. The few glaring exceptions are the Three Little Pigs, which are nothing more than little people in costumes and rubber masks, and the Bogeymen, who are men in cheep zip-up fur outfits and expressionless, ugly beastlike masks. Beyond the masked characters the costumes are bright and wonderful inspirations of any childhood storybook.

Inspired by the operetta in which it takes its title, Babes in Toyland is heavily altered from the original work to make room for the stars of the film, Laurel and Hardy. Keeping in the main story of Bo-Peep, Tom-Tom, and Silas Barnaby, the writing does an adequate job of making room for Laurel and Hardy to be blundering heroes of the story. Carrying on in usual style, the two mix their brand of humor with that of the storybook village they are placed in, with the seamless buffer that Laurel and Hardy usually play a little-like yet grow children in the first place. This would be considered one of the best works of Laurel and Hardy in the realm of feature length films, with a fine mix of their own humor and the fabled magic that comes with the setting they are put in.

There would be a large ensemble of characters that would contribute to the picture. The most notable at the time would have been Charlotte Henry, who played the damsel in distress, Bo-Peep. She was best known as the title character from another large casted fanciful picture, Alice in Wonderland, which released in 1933. Alice in Wonderland had a huge cast of well known actors, but was a dud in the theaters due to the cast being well covered in makeup and masks, making it difficult for audiences to make out who was who.  With that lack of success and here being overshadowed by much bigger stars, Henry would not go far in the movies. A performer that would stand out for his performance was the character actor that played the villainous Silas Barnaby, a novice to the screen Henry Brandon. Producer Hal Roach hired Brandon based off seeing him as an old man on stage, but was shocked to find that he was in fact only of young age of 21. Brandon would go on to be a popular character actor, best known for his work playing Indians in westerns.

Producer Hal Roach would go to good extents to make this feature a profitable one. To aid the film he would use copyrighted material from his good friend Walt Disney, an up and down cartoon producer that had made jumps in quality and popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s. From Disney he would use an image that strongly looked like Disney’s biggest star, Mickey Mouse, dressing up a small monkey for the role. Also used was the hugely popular song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” made popular from the 1933 Academy Award winning Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs. The song sold many copies in recorded and sheet music form for Disney, becoming synonymous to the Three Little Pigs story that Roach wanted in his movie for the three characters.

Babes in Toyland was a popular hit in theaters, being rereleased many times in the future. The feature would be edited down by six minutes and released under and new title, March of the Wooden Soldiers. Some believe that this was a deceive move for MGM trying to convince audiences into seeing the picture again believing it to be an entirely new film. Over time it would become a popular hit movie on television usually playing during the holidays, commonly on both Thanksgiving and Christmas, starting in the early days of the medium. It is thought that this film might be more played on in the history of television during the holidays than other classics, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, or even the hugely popular Wizard of Oz.

In time the film would be artificially colorized when the act was a popular among some companies with rights to black and white films, but I find that it changes the original intent of the picture. I think if they could have made it in color, they would have, but since it was not an option (most likely for financial reasons) it was blank and white, and shot with that intention. The film has an essence of the Wizard of Oz, but it is not. In my humble opinion, colorizing does not make the film any better, nor does it take away from it. It is what it is, and I appreciate the colorful creativity of the feature on its own, seeing the beautiful colors recorded in the black and white images on the screen.

As you can see, Babes in Toyland was a success and a cult classic of Laurel and Hardy fans, as well as those growing up watching airings of the film around the holidays. A version of the story would be produced in time by Walt Disney in 1961, in Technicolor in its more true form without the Laurel and Hardy creations. Here we not only see how Laurel and Hardy were the stars above the story itself, but how the story compliments the actors styles. It makes for a fun feature that, though hokey and cheesy at times, makes for good fun and humor.

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