25 Days Of Christmas: Television Specials and Holiday Films
Throughout the month of December, TV Editor Kate Kulzick and Film Editor Ricky D will review classic Christmas adaptions, posting a total of 13 each, one a day, until the 25th of December.
The catch: They will swap roles as Rick will take on reviews of classic television Christmas specials and Kate will take on Christmas movies. Today is day 2.
Day 2: Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
Written by Frank Butler and Nick Grinde
Directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers
What’s it about?
This Laurel and Hardy musical, originally titled Babes in Toyland but later retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers, follows the misadventures of several of the residents of Toyland. Mother Peep, the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe, is about to be evicted by the evil Silas Barnaby, who is scheming to coerce the beautiful Bo-Peep into marrying him, though she’s rejected his advances in favor of Tom-Tom Piper, her fiancé. Amongst all of this are Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee (Laurel and Hardy), who live with the Peeps and set out to help however they can.
This is a fairly straight-forward musical for its time. There are a few memorable songs, such as “Toyland”, sung by Florence Roberts as Mother Goose to open the film, and some entertaining musical cues (particularly for the Three Little Pigs), but for the most part, the music isn’t the strength of the piece. That comes, not surprisingly, from Laurel and Hardy, who are a lot of fun playing their standard roles. While some may find their style outdated or off-putting, Hardy’s near continual breaking of the fourth wall welcomes the audience into the story and makes for a far more interactive viewing experience than one might expect.
Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry are engaging as the leads, Tom-Tom and Little Bo-Peep, but the dramatic highlight of the film is Henry Brandon as the deliciously evil Silas Barnaby. He brings gleeful malevolence to the film and is singlehandedly responsible for giving this otherwise saccharine film its darkness and edge. Though little time is spent establishing Tom-Tom and Bo-Peep as individual characters, the sense of stakes provided by Brandon’s performance function well to get the audience on their side, rooting for them to succeed. Babes in Toyland is most certainly a kid’s film, but older audiences will see layers of meaning and threat from Barnaby that younger viewers will (hopefully) miss.
The film has some pacing problems- at only 73 minutes, it still feels a bit stretched. It feels like a sequence of vignettes, with little narrative structure holding the piece together. The various setpieces work to differing degrees, with the most successful being Stannie and Ollie’s mistake-laden day of work at the Toymakers’, the chase through Bogeyland, and the final clash between the wooden soldiers and the evil Bogeymen, set to the wonderful instrumental “March of the Toys”. The rest of the musical numbers may hold more sway for fans of the Victor Herbert operetta of the same name from which the bones of the plot and most of the music is lifted, but without the immediate threat of Barnaby, Tom-Tom and Bo-Peep’s scenes and songs together fall flat. Babes in Toyland is light fare, but it’s a good one to ease into the holiday season with, particularly for those fans of Laurel and Hardy or silly comedy in general.
How Christmassy is it?
For one described as a Christmas film, there is decidedly little in the film that fits that setting or theme. Santa pops by and the toy soldiers he’s ordered take on a large role, and there’s a particularly significant Christmas present, but that’s about it. The film takes place in July. Perhaps the most Christmassy element is Barnaby, who feels very much like a more lascivious Scrooge and is costumed as such, complete with top hat. On the Christmas movie scale from 1 (Brazil) to 5 (A Christmas Story), this ranks at a 2.
You May Like It If…
You’re a Laurel and Hardy fan or you have young kids. The breadth of Toyland is fun, with Little Jack Horner, Little Miss Muffet, and Mistress Mary Quite Contrary making appearances. It may also serve as a welcome palate cleanser after one too many overly Christmassy kids films.
Little Bo-Peep isn’t the most independent character out there, but it’s nice to see her be the one running off to rescue Tom-Tom towards the end of the film.
It’s not the best Christmas movie ever, but it’s a nice, entertaining bit of fluff, and a fun addition to the canon for those tired of watching the same 10 movies every year.