DVD Review Of Babes In Toyland
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/24/06
The scariest dreams are tattered and not seamless. They are not like slick Hollywood special effects laden films, but like those lower budget masterpieces; Carnival Of Souls or the original Night Of The Living Dead. Thus the most scary villains to ever appear onscreen in film may well be the semi-simian Bogeymen in the Hal Roach Studio’s 1934 filmic adaptation of Glen MacDonough’s and Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes In Toyland, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in what may not be their best film, in terms of pure screen comedy, but is easily their most memorable one. However, the film is not much like the original operetta, for only a few of the original songs remain. Of course, no one in this movie is killed, mutilated, raped, nor has anything worse than a clonk on the head or a dart in the ass happen to them, but this only reinforces the dream logic of the film. Thus, grown men in bad ape-like suits and phony masks are even creepier than paranormal ghouls, because they should not scare, but amuse. Yet….they scare, especially a child.
How many times has a film shown someone knocked out with one punch, or a handy vase cracked over a skull, or some similarly unbelievable thing that occurs, with no logical reasoning behind it? Thus, a dissonance between the inner reality, or diegesis, of the film, and the real reality of the viewer is felt, if not cogitated upon, especially when nothing else fosters the suspension of disbelief within the movie. This does not occur in Babes In Toyland because there is no disbelief to suspend. The film, from its first frame, when Mother Goose (Virginia Karns) sings and flips pages of an oversized book she’s stepped out of, to the last frame, is wholly make believe. Thus, the Bogeymen, who come off as fifth rate Morlocks (see the 1960 version of H.G. Wells The Time Machine), are even scarier, especially to a four of five year old child- which was the age I first saw this film in its usual Thanksgiving showing, in between King Kong and Godzilla marathons.
One can easily see the cheap rubber masks that the Bogeymen are wearing, and even the seams and zippers in their cheap furry costumes, which are more like body pajamas. Even the wacky grass skirts they wear lend an air of frightening androgynous bizarreness, if there can be such a thing. No, this film is not special effects laden; yet therein lies its charm and timelessness. I will not argue that this is, by any stretch of the imagination, great filmic art, but it is great fun. I recently bought a DVD copy of the film from GoodTimes DVD, because I wanted to see how the film, which I watched regularly for years, would now appeal to me, analytically. Last year I had seen it for the first time in a few years, when WGN reran it on Thanksgiving, and was going to review it. But, before I did, I also watched NBC’s early December broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life, after avoiding that film, due to its saccharine reputation, for years, and reviewed it instead. I was wrong about It’s A Wonderful Life, as it is a great piece of cinema. My review and defense of it has proven to be one of the most popular essays I’ve ever written on Cosmoetica. Babes In Toyland is not in a cinematic league with the Jimmy Stewart classic, but it’s an even greater treat for children. Ask yourself just how well most recent kids films will appeal to youngsters in seven decades? Yet, films like this, and the later, more polished, The Wizard Of Oz, whose endebtedness to this film is manifest, still appeal, and will appeal, in that later time precisely because they are not reliant on the ‘gee wiz’ special effects factor.
Babes In Toyland, while it may not be technically a better film than The Wizard Of Oz, is the better and more effective film, and its moments of strangeness and scariness far surpass the Judy Garland vehicle. The tale follows the abortive love tale of the Peter Panian Tom Tom the Piper’s son (Felix Knight) and Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), the oldest daughter of Mother Peep (Florence Roberts), who lives in a shoe, and who rents a room to Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Old Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon; although credited as Harry Kleinbach), sort of an Ebenezer Scrooge on LSD, and with a bent for pedophilia, holds Mother Peep’s overdue mortgage and wants to foreclose and toss her out, unless Bo Peep agrees to marry him. She refuses, and Barnaby threatens Mother Peep with eviction.
Ollie says he’ll get the money from the Toymaker (William Burress), his employer- who is almost as misanthropic as Barnaby. But, the duo get fired from their jobs after Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier) stops by- in mid-July, we learn, to check in on his order of six hundred one foot toy soldiers, which Stannie mistook for a hundred six foot toy soldiers. Unable to pay Barnaby, for Mother Peep, the pair try to steal the mortgage (apparently in Toyland legal documents are not filed with the state) but get caught when Stannie screws up. He and Ollie are sentenced to dunking in the water hole and banishment to Bogeyland for attempted burglary. Ollie gets dunked, and almost drowns when his weight is too great for the seat he’s pinned to, and it breaks, keeping him underwater. Bo Peep relents, and consents to marry Barnaby, who withdraws his charges, meaning Stannie need not get dunked. Ollie, angered over this, tosses him into the water, forgetting that he gave Stannie his watch to hold, so it wouldn’t get wet. This film is filled with many tiny details like this that slide in with no fanfare, and simply are funny, even though many can be seen coming a mile away, as the best slapstick always is.
At the wedding, Stannie, in a veil, marries Barnaby instead of Bo Peep, and Ollie rips up the mortgage. How this sequence can be seen in light of current political conundra like gay marriage (not to mention the first scene of the boys sleeping in the same bed, as a wafted feather blows back and forth between them), is interesting, in the least. For revenge, Barnaby kidnaps one of the three pigs, and frames Tom Tom as the kidnapper and, presumably, murderer, for a string of sausage is found in his home. Tom Tom is banished to Bogeyland, across a moat filled with real, yes real, alligators. But, when Stannie munches on the sausage, it turns out to be beef. They free the pig, and the residents of Toyland seek to lynch Barnaby, who escapes down his well, which is a secret entry to Bogeyland, where Barnaby turns out to be the Master of the legendary Bogeymen. Bo Peep, meanwhile, has gone across the moat to Bogeyland to rescue Tom Tom and the pair fall asleep, as wraithic dwarves sprinkle sleeping dust on them. Barnaby tries to kidnap her, but he and Tom Tom tussle. Tom Tom bests him, but Barnaby summons his monsters. They chase after Bo Peep, Tom Tom, and Stannie and Ollie- who went down the well after Barnaby, yet all make it back up the well to Toyland.
The final four minutes are the climax of the film, and where it gets its alternate title, March Of The Wooden Soldiers, which was the 1948 re-release’s title. As the Bogeymen ravage Toyland- there’s one truly nightmarish scene where a Bogeyman crawls through a bedroom window in Mother Peep’s shoe, to get Mother Peep’s screaming small children (a seminal juvenile fear), Stannie and Ollie fight back with darts that, after Stannie wacks them with a stick, amazingly only seem to hit Bogeymen, not Toylanders. The exception is when a dart pierces a small zeppelin that the third rate Mickey Mouse mouse clone, from the tale The Cat And The Fiddle, is flying, to toss bombs at the Bogeymen. But, Barnaby seems triumphal until the duo unleash the toy soldiers. They rout the Bogeymen, and Barnaby is crushed in a house made of children’s blocks. When the letters fall they spell R-A-T. As a final blow, Stannie shoots a cannon full of darts at the Bogeymen, but it turns around and zings Ollie as he writhes to the film’s fadeout.
Of course, none of this makes logical sense- such as why the toy soldiers can suddenly slash at the Bogeymen and not the good Toylanders whereas before they were just automata, or why the Bogeymen and Barnaby never conquered Toyland earlier, or at night, when access via Barnaby’s well would have made it easy pickin’s; yet this is precisely why the film delights and scares, like a real nightmare, and far more so than hackneyed slasher or zombie flicks. The very chaotic nature of all the characters lends a certain horror to even the silliest and most banal events. When things are ‘not right’ even the ordinary becomes frightening- think of the odd twin girls, or the fellating Dogman in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Anarchy and illogic are always far scarier than the most disciplined evil.
But it’s not just the anarchy of Babes In Toyland that leaves decades long nightmarish images in the mind of a child. Really look at some of the deeper goings on- such as the precariously perched Rockabye Baby in the crib up in the tree, Barnaby’s evil bidding dwarf, the doubly sharpened wooden peewees that somehow behave like boomerangs when whacked by Stannie’s stick, the unmovable expressions of the masks the Three Little Pigs wear- which seem like the masks of Drama and Comedy, and the psychotic glee of the Mickey Mouse knockoff puppet, who acts more like the brick tossing Ignatz Mouse to the man in a bad cat suit’s Cat with the Fiddle’s Krazy Kat. Many critics cite Tom and Jerry as the inspiration for this antagonistic duo, but they were, in fact, the derivations that had yet to appear in cartoons. The obvious inspiration was really the then wildly popular Krazy Kat newspaper cartoon. The fact that the mouse puppet is so badly operated also adds to its inhuman creepiness. Also, there is something very fascistic about Toyland, where a fat Old King Cole (Alan Hale, Sr., father of Gilligan’s Island’s The Skipper, in an uncredited role) takes to torturing subjects accused of crimes without a writ of habeas corpus, nor a trial by jury (Ollie’s dunking/Iraq War detainees’ waterboarding?), and the enforcers of all this are sadistic black hooded and bare armed executioners. The horror is even added to by the annoyingly saccharine songs sung by the cartoonish lead characters, as well as the very stagey sets used in the film. Absolutely no attempt at reality is made.
None of the later versions of this film- not a cartoon version, a 1961 Walt Disney Technicolor remake (in name only), nor a more recent Drew Barrymore vehicle, come close to the humor nor creepiness this film showcases. And, it should be noted, this DVD is the colorized version of the movie, and runs a brisk 78 minutes, which really adds to the nightmarish tinge. Usually, black and white is more dream-like medium, but the bright colors tend to ‘realize’ the nightmarish aspects of the tale even more, and this version never goes too far in saturating the skin color. Stan Laurel’s hair color, as example, is his natural auburn, not the glaring orange other colorized versions have it. It is also rumored that the comedy team always wanted this feature filmed in color, but the costs were too prohibitive for that technology when it was filmed. This is a film crying out for a film commentary to expound upon such aspects of the film and its making, but, alack, there is none. There is a grand three minute trailer for the film, with its original title of Babes In Toyland, as well as a three minute 1950 television interview with Oliver Hardy, and an odd minute or so long silent home film of Stan Laurel with an Academy Award in his den. How this snippet was obtained for the DVD would be an interesting anecdote in itself.
The film was written by Frank Butler and Nick Grinde, and directed by Gus
Charley Rogers, who should be credited with the nightmarish quality the film exudes, even if some of this is because of their incompetence- such as technical problems, like the shaky opening zoom in to Mother Goose, poorly integrated matte paintings of mountains that blur onto Toyland in the opening vista shot. Yet, in a sense, even these unintentional grotesqueries work well in the film’s illogical context. Many parts of the sets used in this film were later reused in countless Hal Roach Our Gang comedies, especially the tunnels of Bogeyland. The acting, save for Laurel and Hardy and Brandon’s pitch perfect scenery chewing Barnaby, is not good, yet, again, this works, for it makes many of the minor characters seem all the more robotic and unreal, therefore scarier and dream-like oddities that have been recycled from the unconscious.
I forget whether this was the first Christmas themed film I ever saw, but it’s the earliest one that stuck, and like many of the later Christmastime chestnuts that I love (It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, White Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, The Gathering, and The Homecoming- the initial The Waltons tv movie) I cannot be totally objective about it. That said, Babes In Toyland does everything a film or any work of art should do- it entertains, moves, and affects you in deeper ways than are immediately understood, even if none of this was intended. Art is not about intention, for if that were the case I guarantee you that this film would be a long forgotten period confection, not the holiday classic it is. There are Laurel and Hardy snobs (yes, they do exist!) that loathe this film, and with good reason, compared to some of their more classic Vaudevillian classics. Yet, they too are skewed, not unlike all the characters in Toyland, for they refuse to merely accept what is presented, and instead judge this terrific little film against what they feel a Laurel and Hardy film should be. Therefore it always falls short. But, if one merely sits back and lets the movie run free of presentiment or expectation it will not fail to entertain- on a first or hundred and first viewing, at the age of four, forty, nor eighty-four. Go ahead, prove me wrong!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice blog.]
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