March of the Wooden Soldiers
1934 / Black and White / 77 m. / aka Babes in Toyland
Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlotte Henry, Felix Knight, Henry Kleinbach, Florence Roberts, Virginia Karns
Cinematography: Art Lloyd and Francis Corby
Film Editors: William Terhune and Bert Jordan
Music Director: Harry Jackson
Lyrics by: Glen MacDonough
Written by: Frank Butler and Nick Grinde based on the operetta by Victor Herbert
Produced by: Hal Roach
Directed by: Gus Meins and Charles Rogers
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) are two happy-go-lucky Toy Factory employees who lodge with cash-strapped Mother Peep (Florence Roberts) AKA the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Evil Silas Barnaby (Henry Kleinbach) holds the mortgage on the shoe and threatens to evict Mother Peep and company unless her daughter, Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry), marries him. Stannie and Ollie offer to help out financially but a routine visit by Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier) reveals that Stannie has messed up his latest order. When the Toymaker (William Burress) discovers that they have built 100 six-foot high toy soldiers, instead of the 600 one-foot high figures that Santa had actually ordered, he fires Stannie and Ollie.
They may be down but Stannie and Ollie are by no means out and they continue to assist Mother Peep in her efforts to resist Barnaby’s dastardly machinations. Unfortunately, when the duo do eventually succeed in outsmarting Barnaby he concocts a subterfuge that results in Little Bo-Peep’s true love, Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight), being banished to Bogeyland. When this wicked ruse is exposed, Barnaby flees to Bogeyland too where he assembles the monstrous Bogeymen and leads them in an all-out assault on Toyland. Hopelessly outnumbered, Stannie, Ollie, Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs valiantly stage a defence, which looks doomed until our heroes remember the oversized Toy Soldiers.
Did Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy ever appear in a truly awful film? It’s hard to be objective when dealing with characters as likeable as these two but I really don’t think that they did. Okay, some of their later features weren’t always as good as their earlier classics but they managed to bring a degree of personal charm and magic to every film that they made. Any rare complaints about their films are usually centred upon distractions that serve to cut down on Laurel and Hardy’s own screen time: subplots that focus on supporting characters or overlong musical interludes that work to freeze the comedic flow. Remarkably, March of the Wooden Soldiers features musical interludes and it devotes much screen time to a multitude of supporting characters and subplots but it still stands as one of Laurel and Hardy’s best films.
Originally released under the title Babes In Toyland, it seems that different cuts of the film were circulated over the years because successive distributors wanted to target specific age groups. As such, it has been suggested that some distributors chose to delete a couple of the film’s songs while others kept the songs intact but elected to cut the more frightening scenes from the attack of the Bogeymen sequence. I viewed an apparently uncut presentation of the film and it is clear that, in its complete state, March of the Wooden Soldiers possessed everything needed to appeal to and successfully entertain any combination of different age groups. And it still does.
Much of the film’s success might be credited to additional work carried out by Stan Laurel before filming had even begun. It seems that when the producer Hal Roach first came up with the idea of placing Laurel and Hardy in a film version of Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland, Laurel wasn’t overly keen and insisted on re-working elements of the screenplay before agreeing to sign up. The end result is an intriguing amalgam of comedy, fantasy and opera that is presented in a manner that is reminiscent of the British pantomime tradition. And the presence of an array of instantly recognisable characters from European nursery rhymes and fairy tales – and American cartoons – adds to the show’s sense of fun and charm.
Much of the film possesses an intentionally “stagey” feel and this works to successfully convey the more theatrical elements of the original operetta’s presentation while also adding to the film’s pantomime-like atmosphere. Indeed, when the closed gates of Toyland are seen opening at the beginning of the film they are essentially mimicking the function of the stage curtains that are drawn back at the start of a theatrical performance. Toyland itself is duly revealed to be laid out like a giant pantomime stage set but with detailed and realistic three-dimensional structures replacing the pantomime tradition’s more familiar two-dimensional cutouts and painted backdrops.
The film’s pantomime-like atmosphere is further enhanced by the “audience participation” aspects of Laurel and Hardy’s act, which involves the pair breaking the “fourth wall” and playing directly to the camera at several points in the show. The placement of Silas Barnaby within the film’s mise-en-scene also bears the influence of the pantomime tradition: he’s either seen advancing directly towards the camera with malevolent intent or skulking into frame from off camera with his presence being signalled by his very own “he’s behind you” style signature tune. Convincingly played by Henry Kleinbach (who was later known as Henry Brandon and is perhaps best remembered for playing War Chief Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers from 1956), Barnaby is indeed a suitably sinister pantomime villain. He’s also a natural antecedent of the type of nightmare-inducing characters that later appeared in the likes of The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Hughes, UK, 1969).
March of the Wooden Soldiers’ lavish sets and costumes are particularly noteworthy and the bizarre architecture of Toyland, and the otherworldly nature of some of the characters who live there, successfully evoke the sense of strangeness and potential unease that is associated with the best fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Clever costuming brings to life the Cat (with the fiddle), Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs as well as an army of horrific Bogeymen. And some neat special effects allow Laurel and Hardy to convincingly interact with the stop-motion animated Wooden Soldiers. Similarly impressive special effects allow Mother Goose (Virginia Karns) to turn the pages of a giant story book that features moving pictures.
The handful of songs featured in March of the Wooden Soldiers are generally pleasing to the ear and they are sung in an accessible manner, which allows the lyrics to be understood and appreciated by all viewers and not just those who have undertaken classical operatic training. One of the songs even features an extended group sing-along section that is reminiscent of the British music hall tradition. By and large, all of the songs have likeable and instantly memorable melodies and the film’s incidental soundtrack music, which is unobtrusively present in virtually every scene, is suitably emotive while being uniformly excellent.
It’s pretty much business as usual for Laurel and Hardy’s comedic characters here though there are a few subtle changes that soften their usual approach slightly. These changes might have been made in order to accommodate the film’s potentially younger than usual audience. Stan still fouls things up and steers Ollie’s well intentioned if over-ambitious schemes to less than successful conclusions but these setbacks don’t seem quite as serious as they might be in a real world setting. As a consequence of this, Ollie’s familiar seething stares are dropped in favour of less intimidating expressions of exasperation. And while Ollie still has to eat humble pie here, it seems to be a reasonably manageable slice as opposed to the usual plate full or two.
Consequently, Ollie’s verbal and physical attacks on Stan aren’t as harsh or as prolonged as usual. Stan is never once driven to the point of retaliation in this feature. In fact the pair’s characters both come across as being more resolutely self-assured and self-confident individuals when compared to the characters that the duo play in most of their other features. At times Ollie is more like a Danny Aiello-style tough guy who is showing his softer side as opposed to being a big softy who is trying to act tough. And, at the end of the day, the duo really are heroes who manage to help their friends and save Toyland. They’re not afraid to tackle the malevolent Silas Barnaby when he threatens Mother Peep and conspires against Tom-Tom Piper and, when everybody else flees and hides in terror, Stan and Ollie make the conscious decision to stand and fight the dreaded Bogeymen.
Maybe the prospect of appearing in a film full of characters that every viewer would instantly recognise and fondly remember from their childhood subconsciously prompted Laurel and Hardy to work extra hard in order to quickly establish a prominent and legitimate place for their own loveable personas within the magical populace of Toyland. Or maybe the duo were just having as much fun as they appear to be. Either way, they both give superlative performances and it’s no wonder that this particular production is rumoured to be Oliver Hardy’s personal favourite.
In spite of Hardy’s favourable view of the show, March of the Wooden Soldiers spent the final decades of the twentieth century as something of a lost film. Best known to the public under its original Babes in Toyland title, at some point in the 1950s the film began appearing under the new title of March of the Wooden Soldiers and, a few years later, Disney appropriated the Babes in Toyland moniker for their own 1961 adaptation (which was directed by Jack Donohue). Laurel and Hardy’s popularity was an ongoing phenomenon thanks to their ability to appeal to successive generations of new fans via television screenings of their films. However, television screenings of Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers became few and far between in a number of regions during the 1980s and 1990s.
It seems that amidst the confusion prompted by the change of name and countless changes of distributor, prints of the uncut version of the film became hard to locate. As such, early home video releases of March of the Wooden Soldiers tended to feature the shortened edited versions of the film. When a full-length version did finally appear it was a newly colourized variant of the show which alienated purists. This unsatisfactory state of affairs led to Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers being left to sit in semi-isolation outside of Laurel and Hardy’s main body of Hal Roach produced works. However, uncut black and white versions of Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers are now relatively easy to find and this charming show, with its engaging storyline, strong supporting cast and generally good direction and pacing remains as good a film as any to remind us of the unique and enduring comic talents of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Psychotronic Cinemas rating: Excellent
© Copyright 2001, 2015 Lee Broughton.